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The European Dream: Georgia’s growing anti-European rhetoric undermines its pro-western aspirations

The ruling Georgian Dream government has continued to frustrate wishes of Georgian society for integration with western bodies such as the EU and NATO, supporting a law that could directly challenge western integration. The Georgian public did not react to this subtly.

March 10, 2023 - Giorgi Beroshvili - Articles and Commentary

A rally against the law on foreign agents in Batumi on March 8th 2023. Photo: Murr Photo / Shutterstock

With Russia’s unprovoked war in Ukraine raging for more than a year, there is a crisis brewing in Georgia, having dramatic effects on this country’s European future. In 2008, Georgia was subjected to a war by Russia, resulting in the occupation of 20 per cent of its territory by Russian military forces that continue to support the occupation regimes of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Despite the severity of the issue, there was a general belief it had lost its sense of urgency among the Georgian public, as recent public polls have revealed the population shows greater focus on matters such as poverty and unemployment, as well as migration (support for joining both the European Union and NATO remains strong, with approval ratings standing at 75 and 69 per cent respectively.) For example, the recent visit of so-called Abkhazian President Aslan Bzhania to Belarus was met with a relatively moderate public outburst. It is worth noting that Alyaksandr Lukashenka also made a trip to Abkhazia in late September 2022, after which the Georgian foreign ministry summoned the Belarusian ambassador but did not proceed with more drastic measures. Not pursuing the non-recognition policy, which was put into place after the 2008 war, could result in more states being pushed by Russia to establish diplomatic relations with the Georgian breakaway regions (currently only Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru and Syria recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia). However, these developments are part of a broader problem unfolding in Georgia – the ruling party Georgian Dream is openly drifting away from European aspirations.

Georgia, shortly after restoring its independence in 1991, opted to become openly pro-western, deepened its cooperation with western partners, and gained membership in international organisations over the next few years. In 2003 the country saw a peaceful colour revolution, which brought a new agenda focusing on becoming a member of the EU and NATO. Over the years, there were many reforms passed which were reflected in the acquis alignment report published by the EU in February 2023 (Overall, Georgia has made the most progress in terms of reforms among the three countries, namely Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova). The growing prominence of anti-European rhetoric in Georgian politics is a worrisome development. The risk is that all the progress that Georgia has made in recent years could potentially be reversed in a short period of time, if the ruling party continues to crack down on media and civil society. Despite this, the responsibility for tangible change falls to Georgian civil society.

A two-faced foreign policy

After coming to power in 2012, the Georgian Dream party followed what we could call an appeasement path in forming its foreign policy towards Russia. This was the opposite policy to the one pursued by the United National Movement party when it was in power from 2003 to 2012. Also, since 2012, the issue of the frozen conflict on Georgia’s territory slowly faded into the background. Although there have been several minor-scale escalations, such as the continuous kidnappings of Georgian citizens from the so-called border in South Ossetia, to setting up checkpoints on Georgian-controlled territory in 2019, the overall situation is still indeed very much frozen.

Naturally, the Russian war in Ukraine resulted in the re-emergence of the issue of occupation. However, instead of openly supporting Ukraine and condemning Russia’s unlawful actions, the Georgian government has been releasing considerably dubious statements, emphasising the importance of “peace talks” and “negotiations”. Georgian Dream’s anti-European rhetoric became even more pervasive after the domestic criticism they received for not joining the sanctions against Russia. Following these developments, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili, as well as the chair of the ruling party Irakli Kobakhidze, openly accused the West of pushing Georgia into the war and “opening a second front”. The government went so far that even the motto displayed in Tbilisi city centre during the Christmas/New Year’s celebrations read “a city full of peace”.

Although the Georgian government kept accusing western partners of meddling in the country’s internal affairs, it still applied for EU membership in 2022 alongside Moldova and Ukraine. Initially, the Georgian authorities had announced plans to apply for membership in 2024, a timeline that would have coincided with the next parliamentary elections, thereby potentially facilitating the ruling party’s campaign efforts. However, the Russian war in Ukraine actually made Georgia opt for seizing a “historic chance” and joined Ukraine and Moldova in the pursuit of EU membership. Unfortunately, Georgia fell short of candidacy status and instead received the “European Perspective”, which requires the fulfilment of the 12 recommendations put forward by the European Commission. Among the recommendations are judiciary reforms and the depolarisation of domestic politics. However, the biggest (and most pressing) recommendation is labelled as “commitment to de-oligarchisation” (which refers to the process of reducing the influence of individuals, often referred to as oligarchs, on the country’s political and economic systems). This was met with great criticism from the ruling party, as it was founded (and is still informally ruled) by the wealthiest Georgian citizen, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who has amassed his fortune in Russia.

Lurching to authoritarianism?

Ignoring the policy recommendations for candidate status, Georgian Dream (GD) doubled down and supported the proposal for the law on “foreign agents of influence”, similar to that introduced in Russia in 2012. The proposal was put forward by a group of parliamentarians called People’s Power, which is linked with the ruling party. According to the proposal, all the civil society organisations and media that receive at least 20 per cent of their funding from foreign sources would be labelled “agents of foreign influence”. This could further contribute to the growing gap between the state and civil society, and influence or fully control the work of these organisations. Following GD chair Irakli Kobakhidze’s recent interview on pro-government TV, it is clear that the Georgian government aims to exert greater control over civil society organisations, potentially leading to increased constraints sugarcoated by supposed efforts for transparency.

Apart from civil society organisations and media, there are numerous state projects financed by foreign money, mainly from the US and EU. It is ironic that if you share the draft proposal of the foreign agents law from the parliament website on social media, you will see the USAID logo as a thumbnail. This is because the website was created using USAID funding. Over 350 NGOs in Georgia denounced the proposed law. Looking at the list we can see institutions which actually do not have much to do with actual foreign influence, as many focus on environmental protection, human rights, minorities, women’s support groups, etc. The law would label these organisations as foreign agents, a classification that does not accurately reflect their activities. Furthermore, local communities in Georgia that benefit from the work of these organisations would be impacted the most, given that the state provides little support for local projects focused on community development, human rights, civic education, or environmental protection.

Turning point for Georgian civil society

As expected, the proposal has been slammed by western partners. Many of them have been calling on the Georgian parliament to drop it altogether. Georgian civil society, as well as several politicians (including two ex-PMs) criticised the actions of the ruling party, and the president Salome Zourabichvili vowed to veto it (the parliament can overcome the president’s veto, though). However, the proposal has advanced and, as aforementioned, there has been a rather fierce debate within the foreign affairs committee. Discussions turned into a brawl in the committee on legal issues on March 6th as well. In light of the significant structural changes that the Georgian Dream party has undergone since taking power in 2012, including a rapid turnover of prime ministers, it appears that the majority of the remaining members of the party are supporters of the anti-democratic rhetoric. Currently, GD officially holds 74 seats out of 150 in the Georgian parliament, supported by nine MPs from People’s Power. Considering other smaller pro-government offshoot factions, receiving majority support for the laws that fall into the interest of the ruling party will not be an issue. Discussion of the proposal in the committee has already damaged Georgia’s credibility as a pro-western and democratic state, and further distanced the country from EU candidate status. With this in mind, Georgia’s former prime minister Giorgi Gakharia (who has been the leading figure in cracking down the 2019 protests in Tbilisi), argued that the government is sabotaging the candidacy status procedure “to officially get rejected from the EU institutions”, an unpopular but yet plausible opinion. However, the real goal could be a simple power grab and control of the largely critical civil society sector, a step towards open authoritarianism. Amid the discussions in the parliamentary committees, there were calls for protests. Although there was a prevailing sense of pessimism among the Georgian public, prominent figures from academia, youth organisations, the arts, culture and business, as well as former politicians, vocally opposed the proposed law. Initially, the first plenary hearing was scheduled to take place on Thursday, March 9th (and a parallel protest was organised by civil society). Unplanned discussions on Tuesday, March 7th caused a quick mobilisation among the Georgian public to take to the streets. Ultimately, the Georgian parliament passed the law with 76 votes in favour and 13 against, leading to mass protests, which are still going on at the moment.

As the proposal was approved on the first hearing, it came to Georgian society and those prominent figures to make a decisive move. There was an unprecedented instance of Georgian public showing resistance towards the riot police on March 8th, as the protestors refused to disperse even though tear gas and water cannons were deployed. The protests, mostly attended by the youngsters, continued throughout the night, resulting in a couple of police cars burned , a unique sight on the capital’s main Rustaveli avenue. Ultimately, it was Georgian society which chose European aspirations as the country’s foreign policy goal after all. This proved to be a turning point, a message showing that Georgian society is prepared for lengthy and strenuous protest, which will be the only means of getting the ruling party to follow the wishes of the public.

As a result, the ruling party alongside the People’s Power announced that it would withdraw the proposal, which has been passed during the first reading. Due to technicalities, the parliament has to hold the second hearing and vote against the proposal, with plenary scheduled on March 10th in the morning. However, due to growing and justified mistrust, the protests are planned to continue until the parliament ultimately drops the law on foreign agents.

Georgian society is no longer indifferent and is willing to take to the streets to achieve their aspirations, indicating a new era of civic engagement. However, these developments are just the beginning of the path towards full Europeanisation.

The law on “foreign agents of influence” was discarded during the second reading in the parliament after two nights of protest.

Giorgi Beroshvili is a final year MA student within the Central and Eastern European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (CEERES) programme jointly run by the University of Tartu, the University of Glasgow, and the Jagiellonian University. He is currently an editorial intern with New Eastern Europe.

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