Tens of thousands of Georgians took to the streets Monday in support of the country’s EU membership bid, days after the European Commission recommended deferring Tbilisi’s candidacy.
EU leaders are expected to decide by Friday on granting candidate status to Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, which all applied for EU membership shortly after Moscow invaded Ukraine on February 24.
Waving Georgian, Ukrainian, and EU flags, an estimated 60,000 demonstrators gathered outside the Georgian parliament on Monday evening for the “March for Europe.”
Many held placards that read “We are Europe” as the EU anthem, the Ode to Joy, was performed at the demonstration.
The rally was initiated by the Black Sea nation’s leading pro-democracy groups and supported by all of the opposition parties to “demonstrate the commitment of the Georgian people to its European choice and Western values”.
“Europe is a historical choice and an aspiration of Georgians, for which all generations have given sacrifices,” the rally organisers said on Facebook.
Ahead of the rally, Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili, said in a televised address: “We must mobilise on this historical day for our country. Our message is that we want a European Georgia.”
– ‘European perspective’ –
One of the demonstrators, 47-year-old writer Malkhaz Kharbedia, said “every Georgian must assume personal responsibility so that our European hope comes true.”
“We’ve taken to the streets today as time has come to only rely on ourselves, not anyone else, the time for our personal responsibility, effort, unshaken will, perseverance,” he told AFP.
Another demonstrator, biologist Lili Nemsadze, 68, said: “Denying Georgia the status of an EU (membership) candidate will mean we are left in Russia’s sphere of influence.”
Russian President Vladimir “Putin will interpret this as a green light to invade Georgia again.”
Georgia’s bid for membership of both the EU and NATO — enshrined in the country’s constitution — has long angered the Kremlin and tensions culminated in Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008.
On Friday, the European Commission recommended that the European Council grant candidate status to Kyiv and Chisinau, but said it will “come back (by the end of 2022) and assess how Georgia meets the number of conditions before granting its candidate status”.
The Commission also recommended granting Georgia “the European perspective,” something its chief Ursula von der Leyen called a “huge step forward” on Georgia’s path toward membership.
“The door is wide open,” she said, adding: “The sooner you deliver, the sooner there will be progress.”
– ‘De-oligarchisation’ –
Georgia’s ruling Georgian Dream party said at the time it “regretted” that the country was not recommended as a candidate together with Ukraine and Moldova, saying that “by all the measurable parameters (of compliance with EU standards) Georgia is ahead of both Ukraine and Moldova.”
Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili on Friday, hailed “the historic decision to grant Georgia European perspective.”
“We will be working with Brussels to implement all the requirements and will get a candidate’s status.”
The Georgian Dream government has faced mounting international criticism over perceived backsliding on democracy, seriously damaging Tbilisi’s relations with Brussels.
The European Commission said the conditions, which Tbilisi has to fulfil to be put on a formal membership path, include ending political polarisation, progress on media freedom, judiciary and electoral reforms as well as “de-oligarchisation.”
Georgian Dream is controlled by its the powerful oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili who is widely believed to be calling the shots in Georgia despite having no official political role.
Earlier this month, the European Parliament passed a non-binding resolution, calling on the EU to impose personal sanctions against Ivanishvili.
Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova have signed association agreements with the EU designed to bring them closer together economically and politically.
The agreements also include free trade deals between the countries and the EU as well as visa-free travel for its nationals for a short stay in the Schengen area.
But they give no guarantee of eventual membership.