The Georgian parliament approved amendments to the electoral code late on Monday (28 June), a key provision in an EU-brokered political deal meant to resolve the institutional crisis in the South Caucasian country with strong European aspirations.
Two major opposition forces, the centre-right United National Movement (UNM) of Mikheil Saakashvili and Lelo, a smaller centrist force, abstained “because [the amendments] do not fully reflect the EU-mediated agreement”, agenda.ge reported.
The move clears a major hurdle in implementing the provisions of the deal mediated by European Council President Charles Michel on 19 April, after the country got stuck in a political crisis, with opposition parties refusing to enter the parliament following the October 2020 general polls, claiming the elections were rigged.
But in order to implement the EU-brokered deal judicial reform remains an obstacle.
Last week, the most prominent MP of the ruling Georgian Dream, Irakli Kobakhidze, said the legislative will continue the appointment of supreme court judges, despite concerns from civil society and international partners, including the US.
“We cannot just stop the judicial system and judicial sector but at the same time, of course, it is important that we continue with the reforms”, Vakhtang Makharoblishvili, Georgia’s first deputy foreign minister, told a EURACTIV event, emphasising the government’s commitment to implementing the EU-brokered deal.
The crisis was a “reality check for many, in Georgia, but also for many in the EU”, said Marina Kaljurand, a leading MEP on the file in the European Parliament.
“I think for years, we were used to the fact that Georgia is the best in class when we talk about Eastern Partnership,” the former Estonian foreign affairs minister said.
The Eastern Partnership (EaP) was launched in 2009 with a view to increasing the EU’s political weight with its ex-Soviet eastern neighbours – Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia – by offering them improved economic and political ties in return for reforms.
Meanwhile, Georgia has been quick to support Brussels in its row with Belarus and condemned Minsk’s move to suspend Belarus participation in the Eastern Partnership after the latest round of EU sanctions against the regime of strongman Alexander Lukashenko.
Tbilisi backed the EaP format as one with “strong and unified principle, where each country has its ambition”, and said the decision was “regrettable” in a Twitter statement published on Tuesday (29 June).
Regrettable decision of 🇧🇾2 suspend participation in EaP- format based on strong& unified principles, where each country has its ambition. EaP is contributing 2 strong process of reform & development. We hope that 🇧🇾’ll return 2 EaP soon & we’ll proceed 2new stage of development.
— MFA of Georgia (@MFAgovge) June 29, 2021
Georgia’s aspirations go still further. Earlier this year, Tbilisi announced its intention to submit an EU membership bid by 2024, a further step towards fulfilling the constitutional obligation of continued European integration.
Yet, that path is likely to remain closed for now, voices inside the bloc are warning.
Kaljurand called Georgia’s EU accession “not realistic” in the near future because of a lack of consensus within the Union, and emphasised instead the importance of closer sectoral cooperation.
Others are pointing to the need to build stability first.
It will be important for Georgia to build a functioning democracy, said Luc Pierre Devigne, deputy managing director for EaP at the EU’s diplomatic service.
“‘Functioning’ means that yes, there are differences. There are debates, there are oppositions, there are differences, but they should be dealt with through the institutions, not outside institutions,” Devigne explained.
From EaP to Associated Trio
Georgia has in the meantime been looking for ways to deepen cooperation with the bloc.
EU officials are fast to emphasise the “more for more” principle underlying the EaP, promising deeper support for reforms. However, analysts have criticised the approach for not being sufficiently clear and practical.
“‘More for more’ is just an easy, fuzzy slogan that is not good enough in order to be a real incentive”, said Michael Emerson, associate senior research fellow at Brussels-based think tank CEPS, calling for clear benchmarks.
Last month, in a renewed push for further engagement from Brussels, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, the three EaP countries who have stated that their aim is to become EU members, formalised their cooperation towards a more ambitious European integration in the so-called Associated Trio format.
The “Associated Trio” foreign ministers recently made a joint visit to the EU headquarters on the occasion of the seventh anniversary of signing the “deep and comprehensive free trade agreements”, touted as the most ambitious political and economic cooperation the bloc has with its partners.
However, even though there has been some indication that EU member states might be warming up to the idea, top Brussels officials have still avoided using the “associated trio” term during the visit.
“The European Union should be proud that our partners want to move closer to us”, EU top diplomat Josep Borrell said at the joint press conference with the foreign ministers on 24 June.
Welcoming the “closer coordination” between the three countries and their request for enhanced cooperation with the bloc, Borrell said an important objective of the Eastern Partnership was to build links between the partners themselves. He did not use the term “Associated Trio”.
Nevertheless, the EU has also stepped up its diplomatic efforts in the region. In an usual move, Borrell “mandated” foreign ministers of Austria, Lithuania, and Romania to tour the South Caucasus, which also includes arch-foes Armenia and Azerbaijan, a first in EU diplomacy towards its Eastern post-Soviet neighbours.
During the visit Romanian foreign minister Bogdan Aurescu said that the EU “should be ready to reward the efforts of our most ambitious and committed partners, such as Georgia, but also Ukraine and Moldova.”
(Edited by Georgi Gotev)