TBILISI — When the European Union cracked open its door to Georgia last year, it made its invitation to formal candidate status conditional on the country reducing the polarization that has long vexed its domestic politics.
But before Brussels makes its critical decision on Georgia’s candidacy in October, the country is embroiled in yet another bitter internal power struggle.
President Salome Zurabishvili is on a tour of Europe that so far has taken her to Berlin, Brussels, and Paris to promote Georgia’s EU candidacy. But the Georgian Constitution requires the president — whose position is largely symbolic — to get permission from the government before conducting any foreign policy activities. According to the government, Zurabishvili asked for permission for the trip but was refused.
On the same day that she was warmly greeted in Brussels by European Council President Charles Michel, who praised her “personal commitment to advancing the European perspective of Georgia,” back at home she was in trouble. The ruling Georgian Dream party announced on September 1 that it intended to launch impeachment proceedings against Zurabishvili.
Zurabishvili and European Council President Charles Michel in Brussels on May 30
Party officials have accused her of not promoting the country’s EU candidacy but herself. Party Chairman Irakli Kobakhidze said that the nominally independent Zurabishvili was acting in concert with Georgia’s political opposition to undermine the government: “They are doing everything so that Georgia is not given candidate status; this is their main interest. [While] at the same time, if the country is given candidate status, Salome Zurabishvili will try her best to attribute this decision to herself.”
Georgian Dream officials have acknowledged that they don’t have the votes in parliament to carry out the impeachment. But the demonstrative effort is a sign of the political jockeying that is intensifying as the EU decision looms: As Georgians gain confidence from recent signals that their bid may be successful, attention in Tbilisi is turning to who does and does not deserve credit for the potentially landmark decision.
Georgia applied for EU candidate status shortly after Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, along with Ukraine and Moldova. While those two latter countries were awarded candidate status in June 2022, Georgia was instead given an EU “perspective” and a list of reforms it should implement. In addition to tackling political polarization and other issues, the European Commission has recommended Georgia address judicial reform, increase the fight against corruption and organized crime, and commit to “de-oligarchization.” In October, the EU will decide — based on its perception of the progress Georgia has made on those reforms — whether to award it candidate status.
Many in Georgia’s political opposition and anti-government civil society groups argue that the government’s efforts leave much to be desired. They point to the government’s spotty implementation of the EU-demanded reforms, as well as a series of foreign policy moves that have called into question the country’s once ironclad devotion to a Euro-Atlantic orientation. The critics argue that a positive decision from the EU would thus allow Georgian Dream to claim credit it doesn’t deserve and could boost the party ahead of parliamentary elections in 2024. They say the EU should advance Tbilisi’s membership prospects but in a way that frames the gesture as an acknowledgment of Georgians’ national will to become part of Europe rather than anything their government did.
“We are asking the European structures to give us the status, but make it very clear that the status was given to the Georgian people and Georgian society, and it was not deserved by the government,” said Keti Khutsishvili, the executive director of the Open Society Foundation of Georgia, part of the network of civil society groups founded by financier and philanthropist George Soros.
The country’s largest opposition party, the United National Movement, is going to launch a campaign in Europe for a decision from Brussels “to keep Georgia on the path to EU membership, but, at the same time, to allow the Georgian people to elect a pro-European, rule-of-law government,” said the party’s secretary for international relations, Zurab Chiaberashvili.
Zurabishvili speaks during the plenary session at European Parliament in Brussels on May 31.
Georgian Dream, meanwhile, accuses the opposition and Zurabishvili of trying to sabotage the EU bid for their own gain and argues that a positive decision from Brussels should be credited only to them. In comments criticizing the president’s tour, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili said the party deserves “exclusive” credit for advancing Georgia’s European aspirations.
Zurabishvili has become a particular target for Georgian Dream’s ire, given her increasingly outspoken role. While she has few formal powers, her popularity has risen as she has voiced strongly pro-Western and pro-Ukrainian views even as the ruling party has adopted an increasingly transactional stance with its Western partners and even dabbled in anti-Western conspiracy theories. Most controversially, the government mooted a “foreign agent” law — which Zurabishvili said would bring Georgia “closer to the flawed Russian model and not to the European model” — before huge street protests forced the party to back down.
Despite the EU demands that the country reduce it, Georgian Dream sees polarization as one of its most useful political tools, said Vano Abramishvili, an analyst and head of the Peace Program at the Tbilisi-based NGO Caucasian House. And Zurabishvili’s rising stature has made her a threat to the party, especially with elections coming up next year. “Zurabishvili is very popular and she might do something on her own, like form a political party or something, and they want to destroy her,” Abramishvili told RFE/RL.
Thousands of demonstrators marched through the Tbilisi on March 8 to protest against government plans to introduce a “foreign agent” law reminiscent of Russian legislation used to silence critics.
Zurabishvili’s disobedience of the government orders to stay home — epitomized by a viral Instagram post of her grinning widely on a speeding German train — cemented her popularity among pro-Western Georgians. It represents a remarkable turnaround from when she was elected in 2018, when that same bloc dismissed her as a Georgian Dream puppet. But not long after she was elected, Georgian Dream began to tack in an antidemocratic direction, and she gradually began to push back against the party. And when the government responded timidly to Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, she spoke forcefully at pro-Ukraine rallies.
During her tenure, her popularity ratings have risen significantly: Early in her time in office, in 2019, 57 percent of respondents in a poll from the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute saw her unfavorably, versus 36 percent who saw her favorably. The same poll, in March of this year, found those numbers had changed to 47 and 48, respectively, making her one of only three Georgian political figures with a net positive favorability rating.
The friendly reception she is receiving in European capitals demonstrates that her star is rising there, as well. And the impeachment proceedings against her will not help Georgia’s case, said Sonja Schiffers, the director of the Tbilisi office of the German-based Heinrich Boell Foundation.
Georgian Dream Chairman Irakli Kobakhidze (second right) has said Zurabishvili was acting in concert with Georgia’s political opposition to undermine the government. (file photo)
“If you would want to trust that the government acts in good faith and genuinely wants to get candidacy, then it’s quite unbelievable to start this process now,” Schiffers told RFE/RL. “So, I think this is another really big dubious incident after the foreign agent law and it puts the status into question.”
The European Commission, the EU’s executive body, is slated to report on Georgia’s progress in its annual enlargement report, which will also assess Moldova’s and Ukraine’s bids to join the bloc. Then in December, the EU’s 27 member states will vote on whether to advance Georgia’s application.
It remains far from a given how the commission will decide, but pro-European Georgians have been cheered by recent signals coming from Brussels, impeachment drama notwithstanding. European Council President Michel has recently advocated speeding up the enlargement process and has pointedly included Georgia in his remarks.
The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, is visiting Tbilisi on September 7-8 in what appears to be a hastily organized bid to shore up Tbilisi’s chances for advancement. He will meet with Zurabishvili, Gharibashvili, and other officials.
“Borrell’s visit is a clear sign that the European Union is trying, it’s grasping at straws with Georgia, trying to take every opportunity to give Georgia status,” political analyst Khatuna Lagazidze told RFE/RL’s Georgian Service. “Borrell would not come to say no,” she said, but added that the case for a positive decision still needed to be strengthened.
Ahead of the visit, Borrell was asked by Georgian news website Civil.ge about Zurabishvili’s impeachment, and he gave her a clear endorsement: “We appreciate the president’s commitment to European values and her European vision for Georgia. Unity is more important than ever,” he said. The implications for Georgia’s politics will likely be on the mind of policymakers in Brussels as they make their decision. “It’s a tough call, because if you give Georgia candidacy, it’s almost rewarding this government, which is backsliding on democracy. And [the government] can say, ‘See, we got us the invitation.’ But if you don’t give it to them, then they’re going to say, ‘The West doesn’t want us, so there is only Russia,'” said Brian Whitmore, a fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank, in an interview with RFE/RL’s Georgian Service. “There is no good option here.”
While the European Commission should not weigh the Georgian domestic political implications of its decision too heavily, it may seek to use language that minimizes the benefit that the government can extract from a positive decision, Schiffers said. For example, it could say that it is advancing Georgia’s application “despite the lack of implementation” of the reforms.
“I expect that they will be explicit about this,” she said.