Georgian lawmakers are heartbroken after Brussels dashed the country’s hopes of a speedy entry into the European Union (EU).
European Commission President Ursula von der Layen announced on Friday that Georgia would only gain candidate status for EU membership after addressing certain priorities.
The Commission instead recommended a “European perspective” for the tiny Black Sea nation, unlike Ukraine and Moldova which have been granted candidate status.
“Georgia shares the same aspirations and potential as Ukraine and Moldova,” von der Layen said. “Its application has advantages, in particular the market orientation of its economy, with a strong private sector.
“To succeed, the country must now unite politically to chart a clear path towards structural reform and the European Union,” she added.
The Commission would “come back and check” whether Georgia had met “a number of conditions before granting it candidate status”, von der Layen said, without specifying when that would be.
According to a European Commission document, the country must confront internal political polarization, engage in “de-oligarchization” and carry out judicial reforms before it can join the bloc.
Press freedom as well as the accountability and transparency of state institutions also need to be improved, the EU’s executive body added.
The leader of the “Georgian Dream” party, which holds the majority in the Georgian parliament, Irakli Kobakhidze described the Commission’s decision as “heartbreaking”.
“We realize that Georgia, unlike Ukraine and Moldova, did not make the necessary sacrifices today,” Kobakhidze said.
“The sacrifices and bloodshed of 14 years ago, even 30 years ago and 300,000 internally displaced people, unfortunately, have already lost their relevance for our European partners,” he added.
His comments were made in reference to the 2008 Russo-Georgian war and the separatist Moscow-backed region of Abkhazia in the north of the country.
Georgian opposition figures used the Commission’s verdict to criticize the government.
Giga Bokeria, who leads the opposition “European Georgia” party, said the current “regime” was incompatible with the country’s European aspirations.
Meanwhile, Nika Melia, leader of the United Opposition Movement, accused the government of deliberately obstructing Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic path.
Other politicians were more optimistic.
“I want you to fully understand that Europe has not abandoned us,” said President Salomé Zurabishvili. “Our European perspective has been recognised. This is something that has never happened before.
“Now we have a list of priorities that need to be addressed, and that is the responsibility of the government, as well as the opposition,” she continued.
Frustration over the decision was felt in parts of Georgia’s capital, Tibilisi, with many residents describing it as hard to hear.
“I really didn’t like the decision, everyone was saying yes, and now that’s what we have,” said Lia Partskhaladze, 70, who is a chemist. “We deserved the bid.”
Although it would be “better if they accepted the candidacy”, Lekhso Khalidashvili, 25, said the decision should encourage Georgian lawmakers to do more.
“There is still a long way to go to reach the required level, [but] this is the path we must follow for sure,” the engineer said.
In 2021, the Georgian government announced its intention to apply for EU membership in 2024. This was brought forward “immediately” after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.