Georgia’s ruling party still has far to go in living up to its pro-EU claims, Europe has said, with Russian flights and political impeachments among new irritants.
Georgia has passed only three out of 12 grades the European Commission has set out for it to be awarded official “candidate status” this year, the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said in Tbilisi on Friday (8 September).
He mentioned “depolarisation, de-oligarchisation, [and] justice reform” as top priorities.
Borrell complained about Georgia’s decision to resume flights to and from Russia in May, in the teeth of EU aviation sanctions.
“It is part of the alignment of Georgia with our foreign policy, this is a commitment, that Georgia undertook … and what we expect from those countries who aspire to become members of the EU. And right now certainly there’s a lot of room for improvement,” he said.
Borrell also signalled concern on rule of law by mentioning last week’s impeachment proceedings against Georgian Dream’s political nemesis, Georgian president Salome Zourabichvili.
The party wants her impeached on grounds she held constitutionally unauthorised meetings with EU VIPs, such as German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
She responded with a wry-smile picture on Instagram, after leading months of opposition criticism that Georgian Dream was cozying up to Russia and backsliding on democracy.
Borrell met Zourabichvili on his Georgia tour in a show of support.
And amid EU talk of “de-oligarchisation”, Georgian Dream’s founder and chairman, Bidzina Ivanishivili, is himself an eccentric oligarch, who made his fortune in Russia, and who lives in futurist mansions, with miniature railways, Picasso paintings, and menageries of exotic pets.
Georgian Dream could still turn things around by the end of the year, when the EU decision on candidate status is due, Borrell told the party’s prime minister Irakli Garibashvili in a joint press briefing in Tbilisi on Friday.
“There’s still time do it,” he said.
But for all the EU envoy’s smiles and elbow-rubbing of his Georgian host, the press event had a prickly atmosphere.
Frequently addressing him face-to-face as “Mr Borrell”, Garibashvili claimed his party had already delivered “the main part of the  recommendations” and deserved the EU stamp of approval in December.
The EU had been “unjust” and “unfair” to Georgian people, he said, because it gave Moldova and Ukraine candidate status last year even though Georgia was technically more advanced in terms of EU criteria.
“We know very well this is also a political decision not only a merit-based one, because of the bonus for Moldova and Ukraine was on a political basis only,” Garibashvili said.
Opposition accusations of untoward Russia ties were “fake news … classic disinformation”, he added.
And any EU insinuations on the Zourabichvili impeachment were out of order, Garibashvili said. “This is not a political topic. This is a purely legal matter,” he said.
Georgian Dream has been in power since 2012 and faces re-election next year, in a country where 81 percent of people want to join the EU and 73 percent want to join Nato in the shadow of Russia’s war on nearby Ukraine.
People have been waving EU flags there ever since the pro-democratic Rose Revolution in 2003.
Some 20 percent of its land is under Russian occupation following Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008.
But Georgian imports from Russia grew by €594m last year despite Russia’s shock attack on Ukraine and EU calls for international isolation, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a US think-tank.
And exports from Georgia to Russia went up €1.7bn — a massive 79 percent — in the same period on Garibashvili and Ivanishivili’s watch.
“The EU has not abandoned Georgia and will not abandon Georgia,” Borrell said on Friday, before using an academic analogy on the EU-candidate decision.
“But if a student is doing an exam and doesn’t pass, he can’t say the professor has abandoned me. No. A professor is an objective factor,” he told the Georgian PM.