BRUSSELS -- The European Union has fired a warning shot across Georgia's bow, with the president of the European Commission telling Georgia's visiting prime minister that further democratic reforms are essential if Tbilisi's ties with Brussels are to grow closer.
The EU has hinted in the past at frustration with Georgia's democratic progress under President Mikheil Saakashvili. But Jose Manuel Barroso adopted a new, sterner tone on March 17 while highlighting the shortfall between goals and reality in the volatile South Caucasus country.
His comments, which come on the heels of a scandal over a fake news broadcast in Georgia
, mark the first time an EU official of Barroso's stature has publicly expressed doubts about Tbilisi's commitment to democracy.
Following a meeting with Nika Gilauri in Brussels, Barroso said the EU is "hopeful that intensive work will continue to consolidate democratic institutions, create an inclusive political culture, and ensure full media freedom."
Barroso said progress in attaining these goals is crucial if Georgia wants to move closer to the EU. "It is important also to conclude all the democratic reforms, including, of course, respect for media freedom. That's why I also referred to the importance of the next local elections," he said. "I believe this is critically important for a closer relationship between the European Union and Georgia."
Barroso said the upcoming local elections in May in particular represent an "opportunity" for the Georgian leadership to demonstrate its commitment to political pluralism and the international standards of free and fair elections. "I am confident Georgia will seize it," he said, with more than a hint of suggestion. Quietly Frustrated
EU officials have long been quietly frustrated with the increasingly authoritarian and erratic leadership of President Mikheil Saakashvili since the Rose Revolution of 2003. The bloc was shaken by the violent suppression of opposition demonstrations in late 2007 and was caught off-guard by the country's conflict with Russia in August 2008. An EU-sponsored inquiry into the causes of war all but laid the blame at Saakashvili's door, accusing him of overreacting to Russian provocations.
Most recently, Brussels was baffled by a fictitious news report broadcast on March 13 by Georgia's pro-government Imedi TV station. The report, which created widespread panic within the country, suggested that Russian forces had once again invaded Georgia, Saakashvili had been killed, and opposition leader Nino Burjanadze had assumed power with Russian support.
Barroso said he was "concerned" by the hoax.
Imedi, once owned by the late opposition tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili, now has an opaque ownership structure. It is run by former Saakashvili chief of staff Giorgi Arveladze and is said by independent experts to offer coverage nearly identical to that of Rustavi-2, the main pro-government TV channel.
The established ties between Saakashvili and Arveladze had prompted questions about whether the Imedi report had been prepared at the behest of the government. Saakashvili and other top officials have sought to distance themselves from the report. Speaking in Brussels, Gilauri rejected suggestions Imedi is under the sway of the government.
"It's not government-owned or government-controlled. It's a privately held TV station," Gilauri said. "[The fictitious program] wasn't good, definitely. I completely agree with you. But it's free media, privately held. There is an independent Telecommunications Commission that we have in Georgia which will hold hearings on this issue independently in the nearest future."Chopping Block
But Barroso underscored the seriousness with which the EU views the incident by warning the Georgian government to refrain from exacerbating tensions in the region. The EU, which operates the only international monitoring mission along Georgia's administrative borders with the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, has some leverage on the issue.
The continued presence of the mission is a major Georgian policy objective. It is, however, not uniformly popular among the bloc's member states. France and Germany, in particular, fear it may complicate the EU's relationship with Russia should tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi resurface. If Georgia's democratic record continues to suffer, the mission could end up on the chopping block this autumn, when its extension is next up for debate.
Gilauri's visit scored only one small triumph -- securing a promise from the EU that a visa-facilitation agreement could be signed in early summer. This would make EU visas cheaper and easier to obtain for Georgian citizens -- and would finally put the country on an equal footing with Russia, Ukraine, and Moldova.