Tens of thousands of Georgians took to the streets of Tbilisi this week to show support for their country’s EU aspirations and protest against the government in one of the largest demonstrations in the nation in years.

The atmosphere was warm as friends and families, some carrying children or dogs on their shoulders, marched towards parliament on Monday night. When Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy” blared over the loudspeakers, demonstrators held their phones in the air, their torches illuminating “We Are Europe” placards and the night sky above.

EU concerns over democratic backsliding have consigned the Caucasian country to the slow lane of accession. Last week, the European Commission recommended against giving Georgia EU candidate status and instead proposed a “conditional perspective” of membership that would depend on it passing reforms.

“Our government did everything they could for us to be denied candidate status,” said David Ghavladze, a student, at the protest. “We have to do everything we can to show them that they were wrong.” 

Tatia Modebadze, a 24-year-old production designer, blamed oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party, for the commission’s decision. “We didn’t get candidate status because he didn’t want us to get it,” she said. “He wants us tied to Russia.”

The commission’s decision did not surprise many Georgians, but with over 80 per cent favouring EU integration, according to opinion polls, it left a bitter taste. Georgia now lags behind Ukraine and Moldova, who were both recommended for candidate status. It was once considered the frontrunner. The final decision on all three countries’ membership bids will be taken at a summit of the bloc’s 27 leaders later this week.

Brussels outlined a series of reforms Georgia must enact to be considered eligible for candidate status in the future, including reducing political polarisation, strengthening the independence of the judiciary and protecting free media.

Earlier this month, the European parliament expressed its concern over Ivanishvili’s political influence and called for him to be sanctioned over his connections with the Kremlin and “his role in the deterioration of the political process in Georgia”. Georgian Dream denounced the MEPs’ allegations as “fake news”.

Neither the prime minister’s office nor Georgian Dream responded to requests for comment.

Giga Bokeria, founder of the opposition party European Georgia, said the commission’s recommendation amounted to Georgia’s “Yanukovych moment” — a reference to Ukraine’s then president who scuppered an EU association agreement in favour of closer ties to Moscow.

“Unfortunately, the EU’s decision reflects the decision that Georgian Dream and the oligarchy have made here,” he said. “The message from Europe is clear: once we take care of our business here in Georgia, the door is open. Georgia is a European country and will become a member, but we need to reverse the course of this country.”

Leader of ruling party Georgian Dream Bidzina Ivanishvili celebrates exit poll results during rally after the end of parliamentary elections, in Tbilisi, Georgia, October 31 2020
Bidzina Ivanishvili has no formal political role but is considered to be directing government policy © Zurab Kurtsikidze/EPA

In power since its founding in 2012, the Georgian Dream party has presided over a growing number of scandals that have alarmed the public and strained relations with the EU.

Ultra-conservative thugs last July attacked journalists at Tbilisi Pride, an LGBT+ parade that the government had spoken out against beforehand. EU ambassadors condemned the violence and an incident where the EU flag was desecrated as “direct attacks on Georgia’s democratic and pro-European aspirations”. 

Relations with the EU have been further strained over the appointment of senior judges who are loyal to the governing party, a pre-emptive refusal of a conditional €75mn EU loan and allegations that the security services had carried out illegal phone-tapping on diplomats, including those from the EU.

Ivanishvili has no formal political role, but is considered by analysts to be directing government policy — in line with Moscow’s agenda.

“If Ivanishvili was an ordinary Georgian citizen like he claims, why would the government publicly defend him?” said Kornely Kakachia, director of the Georgian Institute of Politics think-tank. “Worsening relations between Georgia and the EU is like music to Moscow’s ears.” 

Nicholas Cendrowicz, a commission official, told the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association last month that the rule of law and independence of the judiciary would be “absolutely crucial in deciding whether a country is ready to join the EU”. 

“And what has happened in Georgia over the past couple of years has not strengthened that independence, I think on the contrary,” he added.

Along with Ukraine and Moldova, Georgia applied for EU membership soon after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, only days after restating it would not apply until 2024. Since then, the government’s conduct, including the politicised jailing of an opposition journalist and rushed amendments to the criminal code on surveillance enacted against EU recommendations, has called into question the sincerity of its EU bid.

“If you really want to join the EU and are serious about candidacy, this is just not what you should do,” said Sonja Schiffers, the director of the South Caucasus office of the German think-tank Heinrich Boell Stiftung. “I can’t imagine that the government does not understand this.” 

In the nights following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Georgians took to the streets to show support for Kyiv and their dismay at the government’s refusal to join sanctions against Russia. Georgian president Salome Zourabichvili broke ranks with the government and headed to Brussels and Paris to shore up EU support. When it emerged that she had made the trip without consulting the government, Georgian Dream tried to sue her.

“This is state capture, and it’s one of the gravest forms of corruption,” said Batu Kutelia, former deputy defence minister of Georgia. “From a snapshot, it might look like Georgia is doing better, but look at the trajectory. Moldova and Ukraine are going in the right direction. We are not.”

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