Dispatch – March 3/4: Seize the Moment

Georgia Applies for EU Membership: How Did This Happen – Georgians See the Application Opportunity as Well-Deserved – Calls for President to Lead Post-Application Processes – Nationalize Russian-Owned Strategic Assets, Activists Say – Worries about Mass-Immigration from Sanctions-Hit Russia

Georgia has never been a country where you plan your policies long ahead. The impact of the current international environment made the political developments here even more fast-paced and full of surprises. Here is Nini with usual updates from Georgia.

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Georgia Applies for EU Membership

BIG NEWS It happened: on March 3, Georgia has officially applied for EU membership, following in the footsteps of war-ravaged Ukraine in an attempt to take what many think to be a one-time golden opportunity. Only two days earlier, ruling Georgian Dream party chair Irakli Kobakhidze claimed the government would stay by its earlier pledge to apply only in 2024, citing Ukraine’s special, wartime context and communications with EU officials confirming Georgia is not on the table. But the change of heart came on the next day when GD made it clear the country would immediately file the application. The ruling party thus had to leave the comfort zone it created for itself by setting the alarm clock for 2024, which is also a year of the next parliamentary elections.

HOW CAME Many think it was the public pressure that pushed the party to change the course: late on March 1, large crowds again gathered on Tbilisi’s Rustaveli avenue to show dissatisfaction with government actions during the crisis, call for rapid steps towards EU accession, and even demand government resignation. The rally was big enough to scare the leadership – after all, it was Kobakhidze himself who once lost his parliamentary chairmanship to protests of similar scale and motives. But there are also rumors about some green light coming from Europe that did not leave any other choice: think about the warm welcome Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili enjoyed in Paris and Brussels a couple of days ago, or the decision of Moldova to also follow the suit.

WE’VE EARNED IT The immediate application made a rare case when the government and the opposition are on the same page. But while nobody can deny the role Ukrainian courage played to make this happen, some warn not to interpret it as Georgia freeriding the accomplishments of others. „We were the first to fight 14 years ago,” said Zura Japaridze, leader of the opposition Girchi – More Freedom party recalling 2008 Russian aggression on Georgia. Japaridze thinks that back then, the West was less united, did not believe Georgia about the Russian threat, and did not provide even one percent of the support it currently shows Ukraine. “This is why we deserve everything that is offered to Ukraine, be it the European Union or NATO,” he said. Many agree, thinking that despite many shortcomings and mistakes, Georgia worked hard to get to this point.

THE LEADER Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, who loves to be the only one present when good things are happening but usually lacks the will and courage to himself initiate them, was the one to proudly sign the application. But some of the government critics do not fancy the idea of him representing the country if the process starts. In a joint statement, about twenty local civil society outfits – welcoming the government’s initiative – suggested Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili assumes leadership in this direction, arguing that she is the “most acceptable person from Georgian authorities for Europe.”

Do Something

NATIONALIZE Till now, Georgian progressives had trouble defending their ideas about any state interference in the economy with free-market-leaning groups: say things like “nationalization” and you get tons of angry Soviet Union references. The groups also often disagreed about the share of Russia-related issues on their daily agendas, with those on the left criticizing others for over-fixating on occupation while ignoring other issues. But after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there might be a thing that can unite otherwise ideologically incompatible groups: what to do with Russia-owned assets. For the past few days, progressive activist group Khma (translated: voice) has been advocating for the nationalization of strategic assets in Georgia currently owned by “Russian oligarchic businesses.” The influence is particularly strong in the energy and industrial sectors, where Russian-owned or affiliated companies have large shares and have control over significant assets.

While many still are uncomfortable with the idea of state nationalizing such assets, particularly those who firmly believe private companies always do a better job, the problem is more widely acknowledged and discussed now. The activist group also calls on the government to seek alternative markets for importing vital goods that have been largely supplied from Russia.

VISITORS Aside from strategic assets, fears have been mounting amid reports that lots of Russians ponder moving to Georgia to escape sanction-induced hardship. Media also reported spiking interest for real estate in Georgia coming from Russia over the past week. The worries include the potential impact of massive immigration of non-refugees/those with no well-founded fear of persecution on the already soared real estate prices here, as well as distrust towards the citizens of the aggressor-country who, chances are, may have the views about the ongoing development that are radically unacceptable for most Georgians. Kremlin’s dirty records of using Russian nationals for provocations have also added to concerns in a small country. The issue is slowly landing on the political agenda. Opposition MP Salome Samadashvili, for example, suggested Georgia asks the international community for help since the problem “won’t end in two days.”

That’s the full lid for today. Join us every Tuesday and Friday for the incisive coverage of Georgia’s political life.