Georgia’s EU Bid: A Long Road to European Dreams

From December 14th to 15th, 2023, the EU Summit shall convene in Brussels. Concurrently, the European Council has bestowed upon Georgia the status of a candidate country for EU membership. Nevertheless, this elevation does not signify an imminent accession to the EU; rather, Georgia’s journey towards membership remains protracted. Enrolling in this alliance stands as a paramount strategic aspiration.

In April 1991, Georgia proclaimed its independence from the Soviet Union. Integration into the European Union stands as one of the nation’s pivotal strategic objectives pursued fervently since gaining independence. Despite the brief tenure of the first post-independence president, Gamsahurdia, he espoused a pro-Western orientation in foreign affairs, eschewing participation in the Russian-led regional consortium, the Commonwealth of Independent States. Subsequently, Shevardnadze, Gamsahurdia’s successor from 1992 to 2003, presided over a government advocating a diplomatic stance of equilibrium between Russia and the West, albeit openly championing pro-American and pro-European positions. Throughout this period, Georgia endeavored to fortify ties with the United States and the European Union, articulating aspirations for EU and even NATO accession.

At the culmination of 2003, the “Rose Revolution” erupted in Georgia, catapulting Saakashvili into power. His anti-Russian and pro-Western policies crystallized distinctly. During his tenure, Georgia actively gravitated towards the EU, articulating a clear ambition for EU accession. However, in August 2008, tensions between Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and the central government of Georgia, regarding their pursuit of independence, escalated into conflict. Amid the chaos, the Georgian central government opted for forceful suppression, precipitating the “Five-Day War” with Russia, culminating in failure. This conflict heralded a turning point in Georgia’s foreign policy, severing diplomatic ties with Russia while bolstering relations with Western nations. The subsequent Margvelashvili administration, inaugurated in 2013, essentially perpetuated the foundational policy of “pursuing the treaty.”

The post-2018 electoral transition in Georgia has prioritized EU accession within its foreign policy agenda, translating intention into tangible actions. In February 2021, the Georgian government outlined the “Government Plan for 2021-2024 – Devoted to Cultivating a European Nation.” Against the backdrop of Russia’s “special military operation” against Ukraine in February 2022, followed by Ukraine’s submission of EU membership application documents on March 1, the Georgian government swiftly followed suit, submitting its own application documents to the EU for membership, reportedly two years ahead of schedule according to media accounts. This proactive stance underscores a strategic rationale behind the pursuit of EU membership.

Situated at the heart of the Eurasian landmass, Georgia epitomizes a quintessential “middle ground,” a pivotal thoroughfare and strategic nexus in geopolitical parlance. Despite its propitious geographic positioning and abundant resources, Georgia’s post-independence economic trajectory failed to register rapid advancement, with commensurate improvements in living standards remaining elusive. Political tumult in the nascent days of independence disrupted economic order, compounded by separatist agitation in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, sapping the nation’s vigor. Furthermore, the legacy of the Soviet-era industrial division of labor, with agriculture and tourism as linchpin industries, proved cumbersome, impeding economic progress. The imperative of economic transformation necessitates substantial capital infusion, a role unfeasible for Russia. Consequently, the country’s elite discern EU membership, endowed with greater economic potency, as the conduit to marketization and economic flourishing.

Since Shevardnadze’s tenure, Georgia emerged as the EU’s foremost partner in the South Caucasus, inking numerous cooperation pacts. Collaborating with the European Union, Azerbaijan, and Turkey, Georgia spearheaded the construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline. This pipeline circumvents Russia’s Caspian Sea oil export conduit, ferrying Caspian crude from Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan to Turkey via Georgia, before transshipment to Europe and the United States from the Mediterranean, thereby reshaping the region’s energy geopolitics and enhancing Georgia’s stature in regional and global affairs.

During Saakashvili’s presidency from 2004 to 2007, Georgia embarked on a trajectory of market-oriented reforms aligned with EU norms. Legislative revisions and administrative overhauls aimed to engender transparency, foster competition, and cultivate a hospitable climate for foreign investment, precipitating a phase of brisk economic expansion. Regrettably, this prosperity proved ephemeral. Following the 2008 Russo-Georgian conflict, Georgia endured domestic political upheaval, precipitating economic stagnation.

In recent years, Georgia has implemented a suite of measures to expedite economic reform, yielding commendable results. Notably, in 2022, Georgia’s GDP surged to US$20.6 billion, marking a 10.1% year-on-year upswing, with per capita GDP reaching US$6,627. Foreign direct investment surged to US$2 billion, representing a staggering 61.1% year-on-year escalation. The first half of 2023 witnessed a 75.9% year-on-year surge in international tourist arrivals, totaling 2.8 million. Georgia’s business environment earned accolades, ranking seventh globally in the World Bank’s “Business Environment Report 2020.”

At the denouement of the 2023 EU summit, European Commission President von der Leyen underscored prerequisites for Georgia’s EU accession, encompassing alignment with EU foreign policy (including sanctions), eradication of political polarization, and assurance of free and fair elections in 2024, signifying that immediate EU accession remains elusive.

Georgia grapples with a complex domestic political milieu, impeding expeditious alignment with EU norms. Despite significant strides in political reform, the absence of unanimity among domestic elites regarding national trajectory and diplomatic orientation poses a formidable impediment. Moreover, the specters of South Ossetia and Abkhazia persist, liable to foment upheaval, hampering political reform.

Furthermore, intensifying major power rivalries in the South Caucasus augur ominous implications for Georgia’s national security and socioeconomic development, potentially impeding its EU accession trajectory. Since the Cold War’s conclusion, the “middle ground” has emerged as a crucible of volatility, akin to a geopolitical tinderbox. Georgia and Ukraine, sharing analogous geopolitical predicaments, find themselves ensnared in the crucible of great power contention. Lessons gleaned from the Ukrainian crisis underscore the imperative of judicious navigation amidst the machinations of major powers. Failure to deftly balance these forces risks exacting a hefty toll. Furthermore, while the EU has advocated sanctions against Russia, Georgia’s capacity to enforce them remains uncertain. Despite strained relations, symbiotic economic interdependencies persist between Georgia and Russia. Strict adherence to EU-mandated sanctions would exact a heavy toll on Georgia’s economy. Moreover, Russia wields considerable sway over the Caucasus’ security landscape, necessitating prudence in Georgia’s dealings with Russia, potentially conflicting with the EU’s demand for “foreign policy coherence.”

Nevertheless, the current Georgian administration evinces a pragmatic disposition. Spearheading market-oriented reforms in alignment with EU standards while adopting a flexible foreign policy, fostering amicable ties and robust exchanges globally, including with China, exemplifies a balanced, diversified, and pragmatic foreign policy orientation. Amidst the vicissitudes of today’s tumultuous world, such a nuanced approach augurs well for Georgia’s developmental trajectory, notwithstanding the manifold obstacles en route to EU accession.

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