It's official: Georgia has been left on the waiting list of EU accession.
In a crucial summit in Brussels, the 27 leaders of the European Union decided to grant Ukraine and Moldova their sought-after status as candidate countries to join the bloc.
But for Georgia, leaders simply recognised its "European perspective," a sort of prelude to formal candidacy.
"The future of these countries and their citizens lies within the European Union," they wrote in their conclusions.
"The European Council is ready to grant the status of candidate country to Georgia once the priorities specified in the Commission’s opinion on Georgia’s membership application have been addressed."
Georgia, a small country of almost four million citizens, has long identified as European, even if its faraway geographic position, in the South Caucasus region, bounded by Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey, has raised questions about its continental affiliation.
As a parliamentary republic, the country has made great strides to overcome its Soviet legacy and holds regular elections to choose its public representatives. But the system is shaky, with frequent accusations of fraud, intimidation, vote-buying, cronyism and police harassment.
Oligarchs have been accused of exerting excessive influence over Georgia's political life and media environment, while civil liberties are "inconsistently protected," according to Freedom House.
In October 2020, a political crisis erupted when opposition parties claimed the parliamentary election was rigged and refused to concede defeat, sparking polarisation and police arrests. The groups then refused to enter the parliament while the leading party, Georgian Dream, formed a new government.
As the crisis dragged on, European Council President Charles Michel personally intervened to broker an agreement and bring all parties back to the legislative chamber. The deal also proposed a series of electoral and judicial reforms. Georgian Dream later withdrew its signature.
This lingering instability was reflected on the Commission's opinion on Georgia's EU bid, which excluded a recommendation to grant candidate status.
"Georgia has a foundation in place to reach the stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities, even if recent developments have undermined the country's progress," the executive said.
The Commission put forward a list of priorities that Georgia should address, including the political polarisation, the proper functioning of all state institutions and the need for "de-oligarchisation."
The list of reforms proposed to Georgia is notably longer than those given to Ukraine and Moldova, who are expected to implement a series of key measures by the end of this year.
Days after the announcement from Brussels, an estimated 60,000 demonstrators took to the streets in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, to voice their disappointment and demand EU membership.
'One step behind'
But the popular display was not enough to convince EU leaders.
Meeting in Brussels on Thursday, the 27 heads of state decided to endorse the Commission's approach and leave Georgia without the status of candidate country.
"Georgia is one step behind," said Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
Despite the setback, Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili struck a positive note, saying the recognition of the country's European perspective was an "incredibly historic step."
"Now, we’re ready to work with determination over the next months to reach the candidate status," she said.
Zourabichvili then joined EU leaders in a virtual address and thanked them for their decision.
At the end of the summit, Michel expressed his hope that the country will be able to move ahead with the necessary reforms and that the European Council would eventually grant the candidate status, although he avoided giving a specific deadline.
"We’re very close with all the Georgian institutions in order for them to make progress," Michel said.
"I’m confident if there’s a political will in the political landscape within Georgia, then it could be possible for them to make huge progress. They know exactly what’s needed to take steps in the right direction."
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Georgia's "enormous desire" to join the bloc was the "strongest push" toward European integration.
"There has been a lot of political progress, now what is needed is to deliver on a few reforms that are important and to show political unity, to engage political society and to move forward on these reforms and then the next steps are within reach," she added.
Speaking next to them, French President Emmanuel Macron said his fellow leaders have seen "the will of the people who came out in the street, which called for Europe."
The Commission is expected to report back to the European Council about the steps taken by the Georgian government by the end of the year. EU leaders will then use this report to determine if they want to grant candidate status, a step that requires the unanimity of the 27 member states.