The geopolitical tightrope: Balancing Georgia’s EU candidacy

Georgia’s path to EU membership is a strategic dilemma for the bloc: reward a country for democratic backsliding or leave it vulnerable to further Russian influence. To avoid shattering the hopes of a pro-EU population, a middle ground is needed

epa10050053 People attend a rally to support Georgia’s membership in the European Union, in Tbilisi, Georgia, 03 July 2022. Georgians took to the streets in support of the country’s European Union (EU) membership bid, after the European Commission on 17 June recommended to defer Georgia’s candidacy. Photo: picture alliance/EPA/ZURAB KURTSIKIDZE
People attend a rally to support Georgia’s membership in the European Union, in Tbilisi, Georgia, 03 July 2022
Image by picture alliance / EPA | ZURAB KURTSIKIDZE

The stakes for Georgia’s future are high. By the end of this year, the European Commission is due to issue its recommendation on granting Georgia candidate status for EU membership. Whether the country catches up with Ukraine and Moldova on their path to EU membership will have far reaching consequences: a ‘no’ could destabilise Georgia from within by shattering the dream of a deeply pro-European population, and it could entice Russia to seize greater influence of a country left in geopolitical limbo. A ‘yes’ would reward the ruling party, Georgian Dream, for its democratic backsliding and courting of Russia and China, and ultimately undermine the credibility of the European Union’s enlargement policy. Faced with these possibilities, the EU should consider an imperfect solution such as a ‘yes with strings attached’ or use strategic patience to allow more time for domestic changes that would better justify granting the status.

The geopolitical ambiguity facing Georgia can be felt on the streets of Tbilisi. The blue and yellow of the European flag seems to be a feature of public life, reflecting the strong desire of around 80 per cent of Georgians to join the EU, as well as NATO. At the same time, Russian can be heard everywhere: In 2022, more than one million Russians visited Georgia and while there are no official numbers, it is estimated that around 100,000 Russians have settled in the country. Since the invasion of Ukraine, large numbers of Russian businesses have opened up across the capital, and some hotels have turned into small Russian enclaves, deterring some Western guests.[1]

For locals, this influx of often better-off newcomers has driven up living costs, while their perceived sense of entitlement and ignorance towards Georgian politics has touched upon cultural and historical sensitivities. Given the baggage of the Russian-Georgian war in 2008, Moscow’s subsequent propping up of the Georgian breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Georgia’s history as both a Soviet republic and part of the Russian empire, many Georgians consider these new Russian arrivals as representatives of a colonial power. In the shadow of this history, the growing Russian population has only stirred Georgians’ anti-Russian resentment and bolstered their will to join the EU.

Despite this, the Georgian Dream government has continued to justify their open-door policy towards Russians – which grants them visa-free entry, generous residency rights, and working permits – by arguing that it brings in much needed investment. This policy aligns with the government’s broader shifts towards Russia since the invasion of Ukraine: in May, direct flights to and from Russia resumed, and at a security conference in Bratislava, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili named NATO enlargement and Ukraine’s desire to join the alliance as major reasons for the war. This and similar statements have enraged many Georgians advocating for stronger support of Ukraine. Opposition parties accuse the government of kowtowing to the Kremlin and Georgian Dream founder Bidzina Ivanishvili, the country’s most powerful oligarch who made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s, of being beholden to Moscow.

Beyond Russia, the Georgian government has also sought closer ties with another authoritarian power via embracing Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative by granting Chinese companies an ambitious construction project, signing a strategic partnership in July, and issuing visa-free travel for Chinese nationals in September.

Garibashvili and Georgian Dream insist that they remain committed to Georgia’s EU and NATO membership bids, as enshrined in the constitution. They claim that while Georgia, like Moldova, has not imposed any sanctions due to economic dependencies, they are enforcing international sanctions against Russia. They point to voting with the West on UN resolutions and striving to fulfil the 12 points on which Georgia’s status as an EU candidate country depends. But their actions tell a different story. In September, Georgian Dream initiated unsuccessful impeachment proceedings against President Salome Zurabishvili for visiting EU capitals to promote Georgian membership without government approval.

Despite the deeply pro-European leanings of a population that has been fighting back fiercely against the government’s attempts to introduce a ‘foreign agent’ law in spring 2023, as well as infringements upon other democratic freedoms, Georgian Dream still stands a good chance at winning re-election in October 2024. The opposition is deeply divided and so far, lacks strong leaders who could challenge the incumbents. Leaders of the Georgian Dream are capitalising on Georgians’ deep-seated fears of being dragged into the war, portraying themselves as the ‘peace party’ while the opposition with their strong pro-Western leanings is depicted as the ‘war party’.[2]

While Georgian Dream is unlikely to willingly turn the country into a Russian vassal, the major goal is to consolidate their grip on power and move further towards illiberal democracy as their Orban- and Putin-style legislative attempts have shown. Sending opportunistic signals in an aim to please both Russia and the EU, and increasingly China, serves this purpose. Positioning themselves as the guardians of a ‘balanced approach’ resonates with a people bruised by the experience of deteriorating relations with Moscow every time Georgia has leaned too far West. Russia has proven before that it knows how to punish former Soviet republics for moving too far out of Moscow’s orbit by either fanning the flames of separatism like in Abkhazia and Ossetia, or launching a military attack. And every time Georgia was left to deal with Russia alone, the West failed to provide sufficient support.

For the EU, the Georgian case poses a dilemma. Geopolitically, it is in the EU’s interest to bring Georgia into the Western sphere. Leaving Georgia in geopolitical limbo would make it vulnerable to Russian exploitation and lead to further destabilisation in the region. On the other hand, giving the Georgian government a green light for candidate status while sliding away from democracy is also deeply problematic as it would endorse the Georgian Dream’s current course. Equally, ignoring the European dream of Georgia’s population could destabilise the country, create deep frustrations, and make it even more vulnerable to Russian influence.

Ignoring the European dream of Georgia’s population could destabilise the country, create deep frustrations, and make it even more vulnerable to Russian influence

As a way out, the EU needs to find a middle ground. It should either grant candidate status with a set of conditionalities to implement the ‘priorities’ that have not been properly met, for example by holding free and fair legislative elections in 2024. Or it should apply strategic patience and look for ways to help Georgia make progress on its candidacy requirements before granting candidacy.

However, a real gamechanger would be an ending of the war for Ukraine that leaves Russia significantly weakened. The decay of Russian power would likely have repercussions across the entire former Soviet space. In Georgia, it would significantly weaken Russian influence and make it more difficult for Russia to control and subsidise the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. For the Georgian Dream government, a defeated Russia serves fewer interests, making an EU-friendly posture much more competitive. European governments’ strong support of Ukraine is therefore not only key for European security, but the best investment into a pro-European future for Georgia.

[1] Author’s discussions with Georgian politicians in Tbilisi, 5-8 September 2023.

[2] Author’s discussions with Georgian politicians in Tbilisi, 5-8 September 2023.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Director, Strategic Partnerships

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