Ukraine invasion spurs Georgia to apply for EU membership

The Georgian government submitted its application for European Union membership last week — two years ahead of schedule, as domestic support for Ukraine galvanized calls to look West.

Why it matters: Leaders in the Republic of Georgia hope that the shockwaves caused by Russia’s invasion will spur reluctant EU members to admit longtime aspirants like Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova.

  • “In making this historic decision, Georgia stands firmly beside Ukraine and its Euro-Atlantic aspirations amid the unprovoked Russian military invasion of the country,” the Georgian Embassy in Washington, D.C., said in a statement.

Flashback: Russia invaded Georgia in August 2008 in a five-day war that saw Russian-backed separatists in two Georgian regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, break off and form self-governed regions.

  • In a strange twist, that invasion — like the current war in Ukraine — began just as the Olympics concluded in Beijing.
  • Russia faced few repercussions after the Russo-Georgian War, which some analysts say empowered Moscow to annex Crimea in 2014.

Background: As a former Soviet republic that sits geographically on the divide between Europe and Asia, Georgia has come to view its identity through its Christian heritage and ties to ancient Greek civilization, which in the widely held view of many Georgians makes the country a part of Europe.

  • “We are not only old Europeans, we are the very first Europeans, and therefore Georgia holds [a] special place in European civilization,” former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, known for his strong pro-West and pro-NATO stance, said during his 2004 inauguration.
  • Georgia signed an association agreement with the EU in 2014, and it planned to submit its EU membership application in 2024.

Yes, but: Some EU member states doubt that Georgia can meet the bloc’s standards on issues like anti-corruption and clean elections, and they worry that pressure would grow to admit other prospective members.

  • While the Baltic states have supported Georgia’s bid for EU membership, Germany and France have been more skeptical.

State of play: Allegations of democratic backsliding under the ruling Georgian Dream party have also jeopardized the country’s relationship with the EU.

  • Last year, Georgian Dream drew criticism from EU and U.S. officials when it withdrew from an EU-brokered agreement aimed at resolving a political crisis after opposition parties challenged the results of the October 2020 election.
  • Georgia then declined a loan offered by the EU, signaling a shift away from the bloc.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “obviously influenced” Georgia’s decision to submit its application for EU membership two years earlier than expected, former Georgian Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli told Axios.

  • Tens of thousands of people were out demonstrating in Georgia’s major cities to support Ukraine, said Khidasheli, and many Georgians also signed online petitions urging the government to submit the EU application.

What to watch: Georgia’s path to EU membership is far from secured, but Khidasheli said that EU members might support Georgia as a way to stand up to Russia.

  • “I think that European countries understand that they need to do something at this very moment, they need to do something to prove that Russia does not have veto power.”

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