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Uncertainty lies ahead for Georgia

Georgia’s government is once again moving further away from European norms. While the majority of the population desires closer links with the West, Tbilisi continues to only think of itself. This divide could have consequences for next year’s parliamentary elections.

June 5, 2023 - Mark Temnycky - Articles and Commentary

Parliament of Georgia on Rustaveli Avenue in Tbilisi. Photo: Laurynas Vaičiūnas

Earlier this year, the Georgian Dream party attempted to implement a controversial law in Georgia. This legislation would have required nongovernmental organisations and media outlets to declare themselves as “foreign agents” if they received over 20 per cent of their funding from international donors.

The proposal received stiff opposition from Georgian citizens. The bill was pulled but the damage had been done. Several members of Georgian Dream resigned from parliament, and Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili, as well as the Georgian opposition bloc, condemned Georgian Dream.

Now, Georgia’s ruling party has once again found itself in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. On May 11th, Georgian Dream announced it would leave the “Party of European Socialists (PES), a European Union umbrella group of … social-democratic forces”. This event is yet another example of how the ruling Georgian party is slowly distancing itself from the West.

PES condemned the actions of Georgian Dream. In a recent interview, the European political group stated that “Georgian Dream [was] unable or unwilling to satisfactorily justify” recent actions against the organisation. For example, Georgian Dream has imprisoned political opponents such as Mikheil Saakashvili and Nika Gvaramia. Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia and a prominent member of the Georgian opposition movement, was convicted in 2021 for “committing abuses of power while in office”. Meanwhile, Gvaramia was deemed to have abused his power during activities related to his time as the director of television channel Rustavi-2 in 2019. Both prison sentences are deemed to be politically motivated.

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili, a member of the Georgian Dream party, also made homophobic statements during his speech at the Conservative Political Action Coalition in Budapest on May 4th. Gharibashvili’s speech was “completely outside the values of our political family”, the European body added. “PES has also publicly raised its concerns … during the PES Presidency meetings chaired by PES President Stefan Löfven.”

As time has progressed, Georgian Dream has made decisions not in line with European values. Wrongfully jailing political prisoners undermines democratic processes and institutions. The EU also promotes equality and fairness for all groups. Thus, Georgian Dream’s comments on the LGBT community go against the EU’s values. Should the Georgian political party continue these policies, there could be additional consequences. This was most apparent when Georgia was not awarded EU candidate status last summer.

Georgian Dream and its actions continue to be out of step with the majority of Georgia. Public opinion polls show that most Georgians still “strongly favor closer ties with Western institutions”. According to a recent survey conducted by the International Republican Institute, 89 per cent of Georgians “fully support” or “somewhat support” joining the European Union.

President Zourabichvili also made her opinion known. “Why have you strayed from the people’s will,” she said while speaking to Georgian protestors during a pro-Europe demonstration in March. “Where [does Georgian Dream] stand today?”

It is an important question indeed. When Georgian Dream became the ruling party in the Georgian parliament, the party said it would bring “justice and democracy” to Georgia. But the party did not meet its promises.

There have been consequences for Georgian Dream and its policy decisions. This was most apparent in June 2023, when the European Commission evaluated the EU membership applications of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. The body, and later the 27 EU member countries, concluded the session by awarding EU candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova. Georgia, however, was presented with a list of recommendations on how to reform its government. If completed, the EU would then evaluate Georgia’s potential candidate status.

At the same time, Georgian Dream has pursued closer relations with Russia. For example, the Russian Federation recently lifted bans on direct flights from Georgia to Russia. The Russians also introduced visa-free travel for Georgian nationals visiting Russia. The announcement was welcomed by Georgia’s ruling party, but it was widely condemned by the rest of the country.

Furthermore, while many countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia have provided defence assistance to Ukraine during the ongoing Russian invasion, Georgian Dream This has made Georgia a “hub for sanctioned goods, sneaking their way [into] Russia”.

These developments have raised “concerns about Georgia’s EU path”. The EU is getting impatient with Georgian Dream’s actions, and at a recent session in Brussels, EU representatives stated that they regretted the “decision by Georgia to resume flights to and from Russia”, particularly at a time of heightened Russian aggression.

The majority of Georgian citizens, President Zourabichvili, and the opposition bloc in the Georgian parliament have clearly demonstrated and voiced their desires to move their country toward western integration. But Georgian Dream’s actions suggest that the party is disinterested in its country’s future, and that the party is more interested in itself.

Ultimately, the future of Georgia lies with its citizens. Georgian Dream is pursuing policies that do not align with most of the country. Should Georgian Dream continue down this path, then perhaps Georgian citizens will make their voices heard during the 2024 parliamentary elections.

Mark Temnycky is an accredited freelance journalist covering Eastern Europe and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. He can be found on Twitter @MTemnycky

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