Georgia speeds up EU application in policy U-turn

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In a surprise U-turn, the government of Georgia has applied for EU membership just days after declaring it would not accelerate its application, as fears grow among the Georgian public that the Russian invasion might not stop with Ukraine.

a day after Ukraine made its formal application for EU membership on Wednesday, Georgia responded to the pressure of overwhelming public protests and made its own request, along with Moldova.

In 2008 Vladimir Putin ordered a Russian invasion of Georgia in a campaign that killed hundreds of Georgians, displaced more than 190,000 and resulted in the Russian occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which continues to this day.

By signing the formal application for EU membership on Thursday, the Georgian prime minister, Irakli Garibashvili, moved up the original timetable, under which Georgia’s application for EU membership would start in 2024.

Only on Tuesday, the chair of the ruling Georgian Dream party, Irakli Kobakhidze, had told journalists that speeding up Georgia’s application to the EU “could be counterproductive because we have to satisfy certain terms over the [next] two years”.

The Georgian government had also previously announced that it would not join international voices calling for sanctions against Russia. “I want to state clearly and unambiguously, considering our national interests and interests of the people, Georgia does not plan to participate in the financial and economic sanctions, as this would only damage our country and population more,” Garibashvili said last week.

Since then, the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, has been seen nightly protests, with tens of thousands of people taking to the streets in a show of solidarity with Ukraine and to call for Garibashvili’s resignation over what they consider a weak response to Russian aggression.

The Ukrainian leader, Volodymyr Zelensky, has accused Georgia of “holding an immoral position regarding sanctions” and recalled the Ukrainian ambassador to Georgia.

Founded by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, the Georgian Dream party is widely criticized for presiding over corruption, democratic backsliding and harboring sympathy for Russian policies. Its reluctance to impose sanctions against Russia has been seen as evidence of the party’s alignment with Putin’s regime. “In this battle between Russia and the free world, today Georgia has a government that stands on the side of Russia,” MP Salome Samadashvili has said.

On Saturday, Mikhail Fishman, a prominent journalist at Russia’s independent TV Rain, which was taken off air by the Kremlin last week, was denied entry to Georgia even though his family and other Russians on his flight were reportedly allowed in.

Thursday’s announcement marks a volte-face, with Kobakhidze calling for EU bodies to review Georgia’s EU application “in an emergency manner and to make the decision to grant Georgia the status of an EU membership candidate”.

While the EU petition will appease some of the protesters, many observers are wary of interpreting the government’s U-turn as a sign of fully abandoning Russia and turning toward the west. Applying for EU membership is a lengthy process with no guarantee of success, and could fly under Putin’s radar while the Ukraine invasion continues, allowing Georgia effectively to hedge its bets.

“There was public pressure and petitions signed by thousands. They also knew moldova would apply. The Georgian government saw this as a window of opportunity: if they missed it, the Georgian people wouldn’t tolerate it,” said Kornely Kakachia, head of the thinktank Georgian Institute of Politics.

“The Georgian government is playing realpolitik. They don’t know what the outcome of this war will be. And anyway, the Kremlin is busy now.”

Last week hundreds of Georgian volunteers were prevented from boarding a Ukrainian charter flight headed for Kyiv after the Georgian government blocked the plane from landing in Tbilisi. The plane was intended to deliver Georgian volunteers to Ukraine to join an international brigade fighting against Russian forces in the country.

Recent events have accelerated a growing divide between the Georgian government and its presidency under Salome Zourabichvili, who is publicly moving away from Russia. On Tuesday, after Georgian Dream said it would not expedite its EU application, Zourabichvili met in Brussels with the presidents of the European Commission and European Council, Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, to call for the speedier reception of aspiring EU nations.

“You can try to frighten countries,” Zourabichvili said on CNN on Thursday. “But that doesn’t mean you change their orientation, that you change their determination to keep their independence.”



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