While Brussels praised the excellent state of bilateral relations following the conclusion of the EU-Georgia Council meeting on March 5, the EU sharply rebuffed Tbilisi’s call for further actions to deepen its integration into EU.
Brussels’ top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, instead suggested that Georgia’s government do more to turn its ambitious proclamations into actual deeds and accomplishments while continuing to work on reforms that still need to be implemented within the framework of several bilateral agreements between the small South Caucasus nation of 3 million people and the EU.
“Implementation of the Associated Agreement, on which good steps have been taken but where the work still continues on 20 key deliverables within the Eastern Partnership, will be an objective of our common work in the remaining term of the Commission’s mandate. My concern would is not so much about keeping high levels ambitions for the future, but rather the respective focus on the implementation of the substantial agenda that we have in front of us,” Mogherini said.
Speaking about the EU’s readiness to speed up the process of Georgia’s deeper integration with the EU, Brussels’ Commissioner for Enlargement negotiations and Neighbourhood Policy Johannes Hahn, who just one day earlier had called on Bosnia to be ‘realistic’ about its potential future membership, left little doubt about his assessment of Georgia’s progress by saying that it is ‘not time’ to think about further integration steps.
“The Associated Agreement and Deep and the Comprehensive Free Trade Area allow us to work on the economic development and better living conditions for Georgia’s citizens. For the short and medium term, this is the most important thing to focus on. If this gap can be narrowed, then maybe we can look into certain particular next steps. For the time being, let us focus on achievable and concrete deliverables, which are ultimately in the interests of Georgia’s citizens,” said Hahn.
During the press-conference, Mogherini did not shy away from responding to comments made recently by Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin, who said that Georgia’s ‘enhanced’ Euro-Atlantic aspirations impede the process of normalisation of bilateral relations between Moscow and Tbilisi.
The EU’s top diplomat categorically rejected Karasin’s notion of an attempt by Europe to create its own ‘sphere of influence’ and confirmed the EU’s readiness to cooperate with any country despite its political aspirations.
“The approach of the EU is never one of a ‘sphere of influence’ and no country in the world should put conditions on choosing one side or another. Being the EU’s friends or partners is fully compatible with being friends with any other country in the world. The point is whether those countries are attractive as friends and partners, but this is not a problem for the EU,” Mogherini said.
Georgia and the EU signed a landmark Association Agreement in 2014 after years of negotiations. The pact entered into force two years later and specifically underlines the two parties’ commitment to strengthen their political and economic ties.
The EU’s unambiguous lack of enthusiasm for further integration with Georgia was a major warning shot for Tbilisi and comes at a time when the Georgian government is struggling to find support in the West amid an increasing numbers of accusations that the ruling Georgian Dream party is actively pursuing a reactionary political agenda that is backsliding on core democratic values that the EU regards as the foundations for being associated with the bloc.
In 2017, a visa-free travel regime was granted to Georgia, along with Ukraine and Moldova – two other former Soviet republics with Western integration ambitions.
Since the agreement came into effect, however, Georgia has seen its once well-regarded business and rule-of-law reputation from earlier in the decade has become deeply tarnished as Georgia’s pro-Russian government and the country’s un-elected national leader, the mercurial billionaire/oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, have allowed widespread corruption and nepotism to creep back into the once-radically reformed police force and judicial system.
Ivanishvili and the ruling Georgian Dream have also been accused of gross mismanagement of the economy and kowtowing to radical ultra-nationalist elements as well as the supremely powerful and stridently anti-Western Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate in order to curry favour with the overall majority of the country’s impoverished and deeply conservative population whose education remains poor and largely obsolete as it remains firmly rooted in the Soviet past.
These policies have resulted in a major brain drain since the Georgian Dream swept to power in 2012, which has robbed Georgia of most of its most ambitious and capable potential leaders. This has left the country subject to Ivanishvili’s dictates and the actions of the Georgian Dream, which often acts merely as a legislative tool for Ivanishvili in order to give the current fig-leaf government a level of legitimacy to partners like the European Union.
The net effect on Georgia, however, is that the country has seen most of the government’s key positions filled by largely incompetent Ivanishvili loyalists or outright pro-government sycophants who are personally nominated by the eccentric oligarch.