TBILISI -- As Georgia embraces Russia more tightly, its ambitions for integration with Europe look more imperilled than ever.
Georgia did not send an official greeting to Belgium and its people on July 21, Belgium's national day, nor did the Tbilisi television tower display the black, yellow and red of its flag, as is customary on such occasions.
Observers noted the omission, with some suggesting it was payback by Tbilisi for a Belgian reproach: two days earlier, Belgium published a decree stripping Georgia of its status as a "safe country".
A document accompanying the decree, signed by the Belgian home and foreign ministers and the state secretary for asylum and migration on behalf of King Philippe, detailed the reasons for the change in Georgia's status.
"These criteria concern not only aspects of general policy (for example, the existence of democratic institutions, political stability), but also the legal situation and respect for human rights, both in terms of the formal commitments entered into by a country (ratification of the European Court of Human Rights) and their respect in practice," read the document.
"We were taken off the list because the situation with human rights and the rule of law has gotten worse," said Georgian opposition MP Salome Samadashvili, a former ambassador to Belgium, Luxembourg and the European Union (EU).
The loss of so much credibility could be consequential for Tbilisi, which expects to hear a decision on its candidacy for EU membership this autumn, following on the heels of Ukraine and Moldova.
Ukraine and Moldova -- which in June outlawed the opposition party of fugitive pro-Russian oligarch Ilan Shor -- earned candidacy status several months ago.
Georgia, on the other hand, has been ruled by a pro-Russian party, Georgian Dream, since 2012, and is falling farther behind the two other candidates.
It has antagonised the EU repeatedly by trying to enact repressive legislation based on the Russian model; refusing in 2023 to participate in a NATO exercise after many years of participation; and reinstating nonstop flights in May to and from Moscow despite the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Visa-free travel at risk
This new development could have far-reaching impact, Tengiz Pkhaladze, former adviser on foreign relations to the Georgian president, told Caravanserai.
"This is directly connected to visa-free travel, which we were granted after the majority of the partners added Georgia to the list of safe countries," he said, noting that the new move "could raise questions about visa-free travel".
The EU granted Georgians visa-free travel to the bloc in 2017.
On July 19, the same day the decree took effect, Georgian Foreign Minister Ilia Darchiashvili was in Brussels. But he conferred only with EU leaders, not Belgian government officials, and he did not hold any briefings during or after the visit.
The Georgian Foreign Ministry website makes no mention of Belgium's decision. The only government response was an interview that Ambassador to Belgium Vakhtang Makharoblishvili gave to pro-government media outlets.
"We will continue consultations. . . . We humbly expect that after the statistics or data are re-examined, the decision on Georgia will be changed," the ambassador says in an audio recording aired by First Channel, Imedi and Prime-News.
In the best-case scenario, Belgium will re-examine the "statistics" in a year. But before that, other EU countries may begin thinking that perhaps the South Caucasus country does not deserve such trust, and follow the example of Brussels.
"The list of safe countries is put out every year," Pkhaladze said.
"If we remember what has happened this past year in Georgia, how the anti-Europe campaign ramped up and EU flags were ripped up -- in front of parliament, twice -- not to mention violence and the persecution of minorities, the situation is obviously not improving," he said.
"They see that these matters aren't being investigated the way they should be," he added, noting that all things considered, "it's no surprise that we're seen as a high-risk country".
'Safe country' status
Of the 27 EU member states, 20 publish lists of unsafe countries. Georgia remains in good standing on 16 of them. But things are constantly in flux, considering the speed with which Tbilisi is distancing itself from the West.
"Which European values do you share? Rule of law? Respect for human rights?" former Estonian president Toomas Ilves tweeted July 24 at Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili.
"No one in Europe takes Georgia seriously anymore," Ilves said -- though he is a longtime friend of Georgia, if not of Georgian Dream, and advocates for the country's Euro-Atlantic integration.
"The EU countries always take each other's positions into account," the Georgian opposition MP, Samadashvili, told Caravanserai. "If such decisions become a trend, other countries might remove Georgia from the list of safe countries."
"This also will affect the decision on its candidacy," Samadashvili added, noting that "the most important factor for being granted candidacy is upholding human rights and the rule of law".
"The situation in Georgia is only deteriorating," she said.
Brussels named Georgia a safe country in 2016, one year before the EU granted Georgia the much-prized visa waiver.
"The reason to rescind the [visa waiver] could be the worsening political and economic system and the persecution of people," former Georgian ambassador to Denmark Gigi Gigiadze told Caravanserai.
The ruling Georgian Dream party was quick to blame the pro-Western opposition for Belgium's decision to strip Georgia of "safe country" status.
“The opposition is actively working to put out more negative information in Europe. And yet . . . Georgia is still a tourist hub and a safe country," said Gia Volski, first deputy speaker of parliament and a Georgian Dream leader.
Asylum applications rise
Now, as Georgian Dream works on making Georgia indistinguishable from Russia, its citizens are trying to leave.
Last year, 1,026 Georgians were awaiting asylum in Belgium. In 2022, the number of Georgian citizens seeking asylum in EU countries doubled from the previous year.
"Belgium is always actively defending minorities' rights, including those of our community," said an LGBTQ activist who is awaiting a foreign government's decision on his asylum application.
"It's dangerous for us to live in Georgia. People understand that here," the activist told Caravanserai, asking that his name not be used for security reasons.
It is indeed challenging for minority groups to live in Georgia.
A few days before the publication of the Belgian decree, a crowd assembled by clergy from the Georgian Orthodox Church ransacked an outdoor club in Tbilisi that had been scheduled to host a concert for LGBTQ Pride Week.
Tbilisi Pride accused the Georgian government of co-ordinating with Russian-affiliated, far-right group Alt Info to disrupt the event, according to CNN.
In July 2021, thousands rallied in Tbilisi to demand that the government resign following the death of a TV cameraman whom far-right assailants beat up during a protest against an LGBTQ Pride march.
"If the number of people applying for asylum in Europe rises again, Belgium and other countries may indeed revisit this issue," said Gigiadze, the former ambassador to Denmark.
"There's a mechanism for suspending the visa waiver programme, but there's no mechanism for reinstating it," he said. "That has never happened in the EU."
One-sixth of the Georgian population is thinking about leaving, the US-based National Democratic Institute confirmed in a survey conducted in March.