Georgia protests: Why the country’s EU membership ambitions are at risk

Demonstrations have erupted in Tbilisi over Moscow-inspired legislation targeting alleged foreign influence. If Georgia's parliament were to pass the proposed law, the country’s EU aspirations could face a major setback, according to Tinatin Akhvlediani of the Centre for European Policy Studies.
Demonstrators wave Georgian and EU flags as they gather outside the parliament building in Tbilisi, Georgia, on Wednesday, April 17, to protest against "the Russian law" similar to a law that Russia uses to stigmatize independent news media and organizations seen as being at odds with the Kremlin.

By Julia Kaiser

Julia is a reporter at The Parliament Magazine

25 Apr 2024

A crowd of people last week gathered in front of the parliament building in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, waiving Georgian and EU flags. The Ode to Joy sounded across the square. But Georgians were not gathering to celebrate progress on the country's path towards EU membership. 

Instead, they were protesting the government’s proposed law targeting 'foreign influence.' And the ongoing demonstrations have led to violent clashses with the police. 

The ruling Georgian Dream party proposed the controversial legislation, which the EU has consistently opposed. Critics contend it has been inspired by a similar Russian law. If enacted, it would require non-governmental organizations and media receiving more than 20 per cent of their funding from abroad to register as so-called agents of foreign influence. The government tried to pass the law last year but retracted it following mass protests.  

The legislationwhich has passed an initial round of voting in parliament but has yet to be adopted as law – would “protect society from pseudo-liberal ideology and its inevitable harmful consequences,” according to Georgian Dream.  

Yet, the developments in Georgia – a candidate country for EU membership since last December have alarmed EU officials. I urge the political leaders of Georgia to withdraw the draft law. As it was the case last year, it is clear that this legislation is incompatible with the EU norms and values,” Janez Lenarčič, the EU’s commissioner for crisis management, said Tuesday. 

 “If adopted, it would jeopardise Georgia’s progress on the EU path,” he added.  

Tinatin Akhvlediani, a research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) who focuses on EU enlargement and trade, talked with The Parliament about why Georgia’s path towards EU membership is now on shaky ground.  

Can you provide a brief overview of the political situation in Georgia?  

The current ruling party, Georgian Dream, has been in power since the parliamentary elections in 2012. And during this time, Georgia has built its track record on informal governance, backsliding on democratic reforms and rule of law reforms. We had a lot of cases where the elections have shown clear vote-buying precedents. And then, when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, Georgia's prime minister [Irakli Garibashvili] initially said Georgia would only apply for EU membership in 2024. And after we had demonstrations within 24 hours, the prime minister changed his announcement. In that week, Georgia applied for candidacy along with Moldova.  

People have a lot of power by coming out and organising themselves into large-scale demonstrations, just to show that we chose Europe and nobody questions that. The ruling party cannot go against this will, because they would lose the voters. So, [the government] applied for the candidacy. But they also sabotage [it] by, for instance, adopting laws which breach the conditions. 

Can you explain how the government sabotaging Georgia’s aspirations to join the EU? 

It [the ‘foreign influence’ legislation] is one of the main steps. But also, we should have the full picture here. The ruling party has also passed other laws, one abolishing gender quotas, which is definitely in breach of the conditions Georgia received for its candidacy. And then another law against anti-LGBTIQ rights. This is again in breach of European values. That this is again active non-compliance. And these initiations come from the Georgian Dream. The opposition parties, of course, oppose all this, but they are extremely fragmented. So, they are not strongly united to win over and the ruling party that has the majority in parliament. 

How does the law put in jeopardy Georgia’s EU membership aspirations 

It challenges Georgia's alignment with the conditions put forward by the European Commission and its alignment with the political criteria of the Copenhagen criteria. So, it's a direct breach. Also, it shows that there is a lack of political will within the ruling party to bring the country closer to the EU and to fulfil the conditions. This is why it really endangers Georgia's European integration.   

More broadly, how well does Georgia fare compared to other EU candidate countries? 

Candidate countries should fulfil political, economic and administrative criteria, to become members of the EU. Georgia has the potential to come in line with the economic and administrative criteria but lacks political will for alignment with the political criteria. The EU wants to see Georgia building, not backtracking. With economic and administrative criteria, Georgia has implemented the DCFTA [Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area] and Association Agreement quite well. So, this gives the underpinning that the country has all the institutional capacity and economic policies to come in line with the EU acquis. 

According to Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze Georgia will be an EU member by 2030 at the latest. Is this realistic? 

Well, this is realistic if Georgia pursues the reforms. If Georgia passes laws like that, I don't think this is realistic at all. He also introduced the bill and he supports the bill. And we should also ask Brussels. This is not a unilateral process. EU officials and MEPs clearly say if the law is passed, the EU will freeze the progress on Georgia’s EU integration. If laws like that are introduced, I don't see Georgia becoming a member of the European Union at all.