March 4. 2024. 9:58

The Daily

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Georgia can show positive trajectory and get EU candidate status

To a certain degree, Georgia has made progress to fulfil the European Commission’s 12 priorities to move towards candidate status, but fundamental issues remain unaddressed, writes Paata Gaprindashvili.

Georgia is a newbie to the EU enlargement process after it was granted a potential candidacy by the EU last year.

Unlike Ukraine and Moldova, Georgia failed to achieve candidate status but was given a list of 12 priorities to implement to catch up.

The ruling Georgian Dream (GD) has pledged to fulfil them, but the process has been marred with difficulties. Previously, Georgia excelled among the Eastern Partnership and even the Balkan countries in implementing the Association Agreement provisions, but the 12 priorities put more emphasis on the fundamental political issues and therefore pose a unique challenge for the country.

Polarisation is one of the main hindrances to the fulfilment of the 12 conditions. Despite the first priority being de-polarisation, it has increased even more. The recent court decision not to release ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili or defer his sentence due to his dire health conditions didn’t help the environment to de-radicalise.

The ruling party and the main opposition parties have been vocal in their assessments that Georgia has done everything or nothing to fulfil the EU criteria, leaving no room for a healthy debate. Paradoxically, though on a positive note, some of the laws were still passed with multi-party support. Georgia’s Reforms Associates studied the state of implementation of 12 priorities, concluding that the truth is somewhere in between.

Out of 12, one priority regarding Georgian courts proactively considering European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) judgments in their deliberations – the 11th priority – has been fulfilled, and the other two regarding gender equality and violence against women (ninth priority) and the fight against organised crime (sixth priority) have been mostly fulfilled.

Three more have been partially fulfilled. Namely, institutional reforms to strengthen democratic oversight and electoral reforms (second priority) have been adopted, with certain shortcomings remaining, however, according to the civil society organisations.

To fulfil the fourth priority, anti-corruption measures, the ruling party has created Anti-corruption Bureau and made certain changes to Special Investigation Service and Personal Data Protection Service. However, the Bureau lacks investigative functions, and independence as well as efficiency of these bodies are yet to be seen. The 10th condition to involve the CSOs in the decision-making process is also partially fulfilled.

NGOs were invited to the parliamentary working groups, however, GD rejected participation for one of the most prominent watchdogs. This had a negative effect on others’ participation and put the overall democratic nature of the process under question. Participating organisations complained about their important recommendations not being duly considered.

Improving the media environment (seventh priority) remains one of the problematic issues. Parliament adopted a law on Broadcasting to harmonise the legislation with the EU acquis, but civil society sees risks that certain articles might be used to put more pressure on critical media.

Additionally, this priority remains unfulfilled as the organisers of the violence against journalists on July 5, 2021, remain unpunished, the director of the main critical TV channel is jailed on trumped-up charges, and several court cases against critical media are pending.

The ruling party has initiated a strategy and action plan and a subsequent draft law to reform the judiciary (third priority), but opposition and civil society have widely criticised the proposed changes, arguing that GD addresses technical issues rather than the core problems, such as impartiality and independence of the judiciary. GD has sent the draft law to the Venice Commission and awaits its assessment.

Surely, a complex reform of the judiciary would not be feasible in such a short timeframe, however, what the EU might expect most is the positive trajectory of the reform.

If the ruling and opposition manage to reach a consensus on the appointment of the non-judge members of the High Council of Justice, it would be a positive signal.

After much hesitation, the ruling party sent the law on de-oligarchisation (a near copy of the Ukrainian law) for evaluation to the Venice Commission.

Initially, the supported position by GD and most of the opposition and civil society was that there was no need to adopt specific legislation.

Going back to this idea would mean that de-oligarchisation (fifth priority) is being addressed if other priorities are implemented in good faith.

As for the fulfilment of the eighth priority, GD has only recently initiated human rights protection strategy, however, organizers and perpetrators of the July 5 violence remain unpunished.

The success of fulfilling the 12th priority, which bring an independent public defender appointed with political consensus, would also be a significant step in fulfilling the conditions of de-polarisation and involvement of civil society.

However, GD disregarded its own introduced evaluation system, aimed at facilitating the appointment process of the Public Defender, and the ruling and opposition parties could not reach a consensus.

The selection process will continue in the spring parliamentary session and will be a litmus test for whether the GD is ready to compromise. If GD shows political will and consensus is reached, this would be a breakthrough not only for 12th priority but also a significant contribution to fulfilling some others.

To a certain degree, progress has been made in multiple directions to fulfil the 12 priorities.

However, fundamental issues remain unaddressed. Though some of the priorities are not yet fulfilled, there is enough time to show progress, provided that relevant steps are taken.

The fulfilment of the EU’s 12 priorities, first and foremost, should be Tbilisi’s priority, and for that, political will is key. In parallel, there is a need for the EU’s increased engagement in the process, something I have argued on EURACTIV before.

To this end, DG NEAR’s permanent deployment in Georgia would have a significant role in supporting Georgia to achieve candidate status and beyond throughout the accession process.

Formalising the EU’s cooperation with Georgian civil society as an official part of the accession process would be another step forward. It’s sufficient to say that this would ensure the involvement of civil society in the decision-making process as requested by the EU.