Europe Confirms Georgia’s Democratic Path
In the long run, the illiberal ruling party can’t stand between the Georgian people and their future with the West.
NOE JORDANIA, THE FIRST PRESIDENT of an independent Georgia, said in 1919 that Georgia’s future is “indissolubly tied to the West, and no force can break this bond.” Slightly more than a century later, that vision has come closer to fruition. On December 14, the European Council approved Georgia’s status as a candidate to join the EU. (On the same day, the Council moved a step further with Ukraine and Moldova, opening accession negotiations.)
In Tbilisi, the news of candidate status was greeted with joy. Polls routinely show up that some 80 percent of the Georgian people, yearning to break free of centuries of Moscow’s malign influence, want to link their future to the West by joining the EU.
Standing athwart their wishes, the ruling Georgian Dream Party, with its steady drumbeat of anti-Western rhetoric and actions, hasn’t shown any enthusiasm for the pluralistic and inclusive political process EU accession requires. Like Hungary’s Fidesz and other illiberal actors, its priority is the accumulation of executive power, rather than the establishment of a Western-style system of checks and balances. And it has preferred to position its foreign policy away from the West and toward expansionist powers like Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China.
In fact, debate in Brussels centered on concerns that offering Georgia candidacy status would reward the government for its anti-democratic actions and anti-Western rhetoric. Trying to confirm the aspirations of the Georgian people without supporting the illiberalism of the Georgian government, the European Commission in November laid down nine steps the government should take to ensure Georgia stays on a Western path. They include fighting foreign (read: Russian) attempts to discourage Western integration; ensuring a more inclusive legislative process, notably on laws related to EU integration; and improving the protection of human rights, starting with the freedoms of assembly and expression.
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The Georgian government’s lackluster response to Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has been especially concerning and caused serious strains between the governments in Kyiv and Tbilisi. Rather than joining Western efforts to isolate Putin’s regime, Georgia has actually increased economic cooperation with it. Georgian imports from Russia increased by 31 percent ($344 million) in the first six months of this year, with the flow of oil alone increasing by 75 percent. The number of registered Russian companies has skyrocketed, tripling since the war started last year.
Most Western states severed such connections last year; Georgia agreed to resume direct flights with Russia in May. When Russian officials announced that they would create a new naval base in Russian-occupied Abkhazia, which is widely recognized as part of Georgia, Georgian Dream officials’ response was muted.
Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, the power behind Georgian Dream who briefly served as prime minister after his party won elections in 2012, made his fortune in Russia. Given such economic dependence on Russia, perhaps it’s not surprising that the government has sought to accommodate Moscow. When the United States sanctioned Georgian Dream’s former Prosecutor General Otar Partskaladze for his ties with Putin’s FSB, Georgian officials suggested the reasons for the sanctions were baseless and prevented the National Bank from joining them.
In a clear example of promoting disinformation, senior officials have also falsely accused the United States of trying to drag Georgia into opening a “second front” with Russia. (Apparently they haven’t noticed that the United States has enough trouble committing to the front that’s already open.) Georgian Dream representatives regularly castigated the recently departed U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Kelly Degnan. They have made clear that they believe responsibility for improving U.S.-Georgian ties lies with the new ambassador, Robin Dunnigan, not with them.
The ruling party has borrowed a few pages from Vladimir Putin’s playbook. Putin has accused USAID of supporting “colored revolutions,” while the State Security Service of Georgia has claimed USAID was funding training for a violent overthrow of the government (which the U.S. government has denied).
Georgian Dream also attempted, unsuccessfully, to pass a “Foreign Agents” law (modeled on the law Putin’s regime uses to harass and jail political opponents), introduced amendments to the law on demonstrations that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has said don’t conform with international law, and endangered the independence of the media by legalizing government regulation of hate and other extremist speech. All three pieces of Putinesque legislation were offered without broad public discussion.
In a similar vein, the Georgian authorities have taken aim at civil society, especially those supported by Western governments, in a manner reminiscent of other illiberal regimes. In a recent visit, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor expressed her fear that the “veneer of openness presented by the Georgian government masks systematic efforts to undermine human rights defenders.” She claimed that “human rights defenders (in Georgia) fear for their physical integrity and feel that the state is actively . . . putting them at risk.”
When not looking to Moscow, Georgian government officials have been cozying up to other authoritarian regimes. Over the past six months, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili has been to Budapest twice and hosted Viktor Orbán once in Tbilisi. In the summer, Garibashvili also visited Beijing, where he pledged Georgia’s commitment to “deepening trade and economic relations with China in many directions.”
The United States has a strong strategic interest in ensuring that Georgia stays on a Western trajectory and out of the Russia-led authoritarian camp. The Georgian people have clearly expressed their view that they belong in the West, while the government’s retrograde actions have not proven that it is committed to doing all it can to meet the democratic community.
We owe it to the Georgian people—and ourselves—to support them as they progress toward the West. The most crucial aspect of that support is to minimize the obstacles Georgian Dream can place between the Georgian people and their chosen political course. Granting Georgia EU candidate status, with a clear roadmap of legislative and other benchmarks to reach membership, will hold the government’s feet to the fire.