Tens of thousands took to the streets of the Georgian capital Tbilisi on Friday, Dec. 15, to celebrate the European Union's decision to put the EU-aspirant country on a formal membership path.

At a summit in Brussels on Thursday, European Union leaders agreed to grant Georgia long-awaited official candidate status and to open accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova.

Waving Georgian and EU flags, cheering crowds flooded Tbilisi's central Freedom Square on Friday evening, an AFP journalist at the scene reported.

"I congratulate you on this historic event. Long live united, strong, European Georgia!" Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili told the crowd.

An orchestra performed Georgia's national anthem and the EU's Ode to Joy.

Highlighting deep polarization that mars Georgia's political landscape, President Salome Zurabishvili -- who is at loggerheads with the ruling Georgian Dream party -- was not invited onto the podium.

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Instead, she stood in the crowd.

"This is a great celebration," she told reporters. "We made a very important step towards (joining) the EU."

Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine applied to join the 27-nation bloc after the Kremlin unleashed its all-out war on Ukraine last year.

The EU granted candidate status to Kyiv and Chisinau at that time, but urged Tbilisi to first reform its judicial and electoral systems, reduce political polarization, improve press freedom and curtail the power of oligarchs.

In November, the European Commission recommended that EU leaders grant Georgia official candidate status -- with the caveat that the Tbilisi government introduces reforms.

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EU membership is enshrined in Georgia's constitution and supported –- according to opinion polls –- by around 80 percent of population.

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