Georgia is still a long way off showing it adheres to EU values | View

Hungary and Poland have been slammed by the European Commission for their defiance of the so-called rule of law.

A report released this week examines the justice system, media freedom and institutional checks and balances in all 27 EU member states.

The Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban has been particularly scrutinised for his bill to ban the depiction of LGBTI+ people in schools and the media.

Poland, meanwhile, has been criticised over its reforms that critics say reduce the independence of its judiciary.

But the EU would be well-advised to include Georgia, an aspiring EU member bidding for membership in 2024, in its current deliberations on the rule of law.

Georgia has long sought a close relationship with Europe. It is currently in an association agreement with the EU and seeks to join NATO.

But the recent violence in Tbilisi against a planned gay pride parade and some journalists reporting the event, one of whom has now died, show just how far Georgia still needs to go to adopt EU and UK values.

Last Thursday, the embassies of EU member countries in Tiblisi issued a joint statement decrying the violence against LGBT activists and other negative developments.

In September, the European Parliament called on the authorities to “refrain from pursuing politically-motivated cases” against the opposition [in Georgia] and to implement long-overdue reforms to its judiciary.

This has been generally ignored by the Georgian government, which has continued to influence judicial cases and recently rushed through the appointment of supreme court justices, contrary to an EU-mediated deal between the government and opposition.

Only 2% of Georgians fully trust the courts, a perception borne out by its 80th place in the World Economic Forum judicial independence ranking. Amnesty International, likewise, highlights that “concerns remained over politically motivated prosecutions”.

Though Georgia has doubtless made significant progress in the past fifteen years, and stands out amongst other countries in the region, it is clear that some old habits have been harder to kick than others.

During last November’s election, international observers highlighted “widespread allegations of voter pressure” and a “blurring of the border between the ruling party and the state”. The opposition leader Nika Melia was later arrested, and the opposition was only persuaded to take up its seats after months of mediation by the EU, who ended up paying Melia’s bail. There is now increasing concern that similar abuses will occur during the national elections due to be held this October.

Repression extends to the media and to businesses that don’t maintain sufficiently close relations with the government. Journalists and opposition outlets are regularly under direct and indirect political pressure. The violence against journalists covering the gay pride parade is just the latest example, coming after severe infringements of the editorial independence of outlets like Mtavari Arkhi and Adjara TV, threatened by politically motivated investigations and firings of senior staff.

In a further censure that was roundly ignored, the Council of Europe, of which the UK remains a member, recently issued a report through the Venice Commission decrying new laws in Georgia allowing the government to take over electronic communications companies that don’t adhere to its wishes. Despite widespread protests about the infringement of media and business freedoms, this power has already been applied in the case of the network provider Caucasus Online.

The vast majority of Georgians support EU membership and are generally outward-looking. But the population is also very much under the spell of the Orthodox Church, which holds retrenched, reactionary views, and is opposed to Georgia’s western trajectory. The church is closely linked with its Russian counterpart, a country where being gay is effectively illegal. In general, Russian influence remains an ongoing problem for Georgia. Though he later denounced the attacks on journalists, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili also underlined that a gay pride parade was “unacceptable for a large segment of the Georgian society”.

Public trust in Georgia’s democracy and political institutions remains extremely low. Religious institutions conversely enjoy the greatest public support, at 84%. This represents the two historic hangovers that Georgia has to overcome if it still wants to find a closer relationship with Europe. The political class has to show that it can adhere to European values of judicial independence and democracy, while also detaching itself from the oftentimes reactionary attitudes of the church. While the UK is no longer a member of the EU, it does remain a member of NATO and the Council of Europe, and as such has a role to play in encouraging urgent reforms.

Mary Honeyball was a Labour MEP from 2000 to 2019, where she was vice-chair of the women’s rights and gender equality committee. She regularly writes and campaigns on human rights in the context of women’s rights, religion, and politics.

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