Ending political polarisation in Georgia could boost reform

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The EU wants Georgia’s political parties to work together. The mixed reaction to its latest report on the implementation of the EU-Georgia Association Agreement suggests that may not be possible anytime soon.

Georgia remains committed to the implementation of the EU-Georgia Association Agreement, despite the Covid-19 related challenges, but further efforts are however needed, notably in the field of judicial reform and tackling political polarisation.

These are key findings of the European Union’s annual Association Implementation Report on Georgia, published this week ahead of the next EU-Georgia Association Council on March 16. The report outlines Georgia’s implementation of reforms under the EU-Georgia Association Agreement over the past year.

“We appreciate Georgia’s continued reform progress and commitment to our bilateral relationship, as well as to the Eastern Partnership,” says the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who was heavily criticised last week for visiting Russia, which continues to occupy one fifth of Georgian territory.

“Following the 2020 parliamentary elections, it is of vital importance that all Georgian political parties act within the institutional framework to find common ground and a way forward from the current political situation. This would enable the Georgian parliament to take resolute action for a sustainable recovery from Covid-19 and for advancing the wider reform agenda. We are also working well with our Georgian partners towards agreeing an updated association agenda to equip us for the coming years.”

Standing by Georgia

Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi, adds: “The EU has stood by the Georgian people since the start of the pandemic. We mobilised 183 million euros of grants for Covid-19 related assistance to Georgia last year, in addition to 150 million euros in macro-financial assistance. We will continue to assist Georgia in its economic recovery and in taking forward the reform agenda to fully implement and reap the benefits of the Association Agreement. Improving connectivity and the business environment remain crucial in this context and are key for boosting investments.”

The EU’s report, prepared by the European External Action Service and the European Commission services, shows that Georgia remains committed to the obligations and undertakings of the association agreement, which entered into force in 2016. Alignment to the EU acquis, as well as to European standards has continued effectively. However, challenges remain in the areas of electoral reform and reform of the judiciary.

The prevailing situation following the 2020 elections – which has seen the country’s opposition boycott sessions of parliament – demonstrates the need for further democratic consolidation, including by addressing the final recommendations of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, through an inclusive dialogue and in good time for the October 2021 local elections.

In the short-term, an inclusive political agreement between the majority and opposition parties is needed to enable work in parliament to advance the important reform agenda. More broadly, tackling the polarisation in Georgian politics and media remains a priority, says the report.

Ensuring the independence and accountability of the judiciary also remains a key challenge. The EU wants the selection procedure for supreme court judges brought fully in line with the recommendations of the Council of Europe Venice Commission and carried out in a transparent manner ensuring a genuinely merit-based process, before further appointments are made.

With the EU as Georgia’s largest trading partner, the country has further aligned its legislation with EU standards and norms to facilitate trade flows. Looking ahead, it will be crucial to ensure an inclusive, green and sustainable recovery from the Covid-19 crisis and to make further progress on digitalisation and digital literacy. Structural reforms remain important as they enhance Georgia’s investment climate and trade potential and make its economy less vulnerable to external factors.

Georgian reaction

The ruling Georgian Dream party, which won last year’s elections, has broadly welcomed the report.

Reiterating that Georgia plans to apply for EU membership in 2024, Georgian Dream MP Giorgi Khelashvili said the report recognises that “we are on the right track”.

“The report was good, as it contains recommendations on what the country should do, and among them, on what the parliament should do,” he said.

However, opposition United National Movement MP Salome Samadashvili said the report “is another reminder that the responsibility for the ongoing political crisis lies entirely with Georgian Dream”.

“Our demands, regarding the politicised justice system in the country, are confirmed by the EU. There is no independent judiciary in this country,” she said.

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