At least 60,000 people took to the streets of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, on Monday night to protest the decision by the European Commission to defer Georgia's EU member candidacy status while giving the go-ahead for Ukraine and Moldova.
The rally was organized by a pro-democracy activist group known as the Shame Movement and backed by opposition parties. The organizers said Georgia's decision to apply for EU membership, enshrined in the country's constitution, was "historic" and represented the hopes of generations of Georgians.
Protesters waving Georgian, European and Ukrainian flags — including children, the elderly and people with disabilities — gathered at the parliament chanting: "I am Georgian, and therefore I am European." They marched to the sound of the EU anthem, Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."
'We don't want to be part of Russia'
The rally, dubbed "Going Home — to Europe," coincided with the third anniversary of Gavrilov's Night, known as one of the most violent crackdowns of an anti-government demonstration in Georgia's recent history.
Before the start of Monday's demonstration, ruling party Georgian Dream warned protesters of the severe consequences in case of any "illegal actions." Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said the rally was intended to destabilize and polarize Georgian society, since it was organized by opposition leaders.
The 2019 protests were sparked when visiting Russian lawmaker Sergei Gavrilov delivered a speech, in Russian, from the Georgian parliamentary speaker's seat — a move which set off immediate protest from opposition politicians.
Georgia's European ambitions have long been a thorn in Russia's side, with tensions complicated by a brief war in 2008 over the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Moscow has recognized them as independent states, while Tbilisi and the international community sees them as Russia-occupied territories.
"I came here to let our government know that we don't want to be part of Russia. We want to live in a normal, European country," said David, a 35-year-old demonstrator.
"I am here because I think Georgia deserves to be a member of the European Union," said 27-year-old lawyer Nino, another demonstrator. "It's an irreversible will of the Georgian people, it's our 30-year struggle. In Georgia we have an oligarchic rule, an oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili informally rules our country. The main recommendation of the European Council was the 'de-oligarchization' of the Georgian political system. To fulfill this criterion, we have to change this regime."
Ivanishvili, a businessman who made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s and was founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party, is still regarded as a power broker in Georgian politics. He has officially left the political scene, but is still considered to be managing the country's affairs behind the scenes.
Reforms needed in judicial system, political culture, media freedom
Irakli Kobakhidze, party chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party, said in a statement that Tbilisi "regretted" that the country had not been recommended as a candidate. He said that "by all the measurable parameters [of compliance with EU standards] Georgia is ahead of both Ukraine and Moldova."
"The ruling team will do everything to further strengthen democratic institutions, protect peace and ensure economic progress," he added.
Georgia, along with Ukraine and Moldova, officially applied for EU membership in early March, soon after Russia invaded Ukraine. The European Commission has now recommended that the European Council grant candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova, a decision that is expected this week.
Georgia, however, has until the end of the year to deal with the lingering issues which stand in the way of its candidate status, when the EU will review its efforts. Among the EU's criteria are stipulations that Tbilisi address the influence of oligarchs like Ivanishvili and political polarization, which has caused societal clashes and created an aggressive political culture. The EU has also called for reforms to media freedoms and the judicial system, a blind spot in Georgia's political system that lacks transparency and efficiency.
President Salome Zurabishvili, an independent candidate supported by Georgian Dream during the last presidential election in 2018, has said the current government has made "it hard to defend EU candidacy," regardless of her political efforts. The Georgian Dream government has faced mounting international criticism over perceived backsliding on democracy in recent years.
However, the European Commission still recommended that Georgia be given "the perspective to become a member of the European Union" — once it has addressed these priorities. On Friday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called it a "huge step forward" on Georgia's path toward membership.
"The door is wide open," she said. "The sooner you deliver, the sooner there will be progress."
Edited by: Martin Kuebler