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Battle for democracy continues in Georgia: why the EU cannot afford to overlook it

As Western elections unfold in a politically fragmented environment in 2024, there is a looming risk of the EU overlooking significant political shifts leading up to Georgia’s crucial parliamentary elections on October 26th. Ignoring these developments and omitting the provision of necessary support beyond the soft-power toolbox to the Georgian people could jeopardize Georgia’s hard-fought EU integration process.

April 25, 2024 - Ia Khodeli Irakli Jgharkava Kristina Pitalskaya  - Articles and Commentary

Georgian women protest on Rustaveli Avenue in Tbilisi against the "foreign agent law" adopted in parliament in April 2024. Photo: Shutterstock

The tumultuous year of 2023 concluded on a rather positive note for Georgians as the country was granted candidate status for membership in the European Union in December. As 2024 marked an election year, electoral concerns took center stage in the political discourse. Political opposition, civil society, and the public alike seemed deeply focused on ensuring the electoral rights of all voters, including those from the diaspora, a recurring topic ahead of elections.

However, with a fourth consecutive term in power at stake, the ruling party adopted a “disrupt to win” strategy as they entered the election year. On March 1st 2024, the party introduced a draft law targeting “pseudo-liberal ideology” introducing homophobia as a campaign pillar. Subsequently, the ruling party unequivocally supported repealing of gender quotas in parliamentary election lists, undoing reforms implemented in 2020 and undermining progress towards gender-balanced politics in Georgia.

A dangerous game

​​As if this was not enough to infuriate the Georgians (and let’s be honest, it certainly did), the Georgian Dream (GD) further intensified their efforts to polarize and divide by launching the electoral campaign with a sharp escalation of conflict. On April 3rd, the ruling party reintroduced a highly contested “law on transparency of foreign influence” widely known as a Russian-style law on foreign agents, despite having previously promised not to revive it. Most recently, on April 19th, the Georgian parliament approved the “offshore law” in its third reading, fuelling fears that the country will become a black money hub to benefit the party’s billionaire leader, among others, possibly as a pre-emptive measure against impending sanctions.

Arguably, the rushed and non-transparent passage of this law presents a strategic diversion of public attention towards debates on the transparency of foreign influence, allowing the offshore law to pass unnoticed, potentially putting Georgia at risk as it may become a centre of gravity for sanctioned Russian money amidst ongoing Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“Georgia is not ready to join the EU,” declared Irakli Gharibashvili, former prime minister of Georgia on April 20th, amidst renewed tensions between Brussels and Tbilisi. Rather than shocking Georgians, the majority of whom aspires to join the EU, such statements from the Georgian Dream representatives seem to infuriate them. These remarks risk eroding any remaining trust that the ruling Georgian Dream party genuinely desires EU membership. While the ruling party pledges not to withdraw the bill again, even if pressured by protesters, they risk facing a more significant humiliation than in 2023. The ruling party’s strategy risks alienating parts of its voter base and damaging Georgia’s reputation internationally. Whether these factors will translate into the results of the upcoming parliamentary elections remains to be seen.

The ruling party has consistently employed deceptive and manipulative tactics to sow confusion and maintain control over the masses, a trend that has intensified in recent days. Despite facing significant criticism from civil society, the opposition, and western partners concerning democratic backsliding and its implications for Georgia’s EU integration efforts, government representatives and controlled media outlets (such as Imedi TV, PostTV,) have increasingly adopted a pro-European “fake stance” in their rhetoric, claiming alignment with European values. This shift is evident in their repeated communication messaging, encapsulated in the slogan “towards Europe with dignity,” while concurrently advancing laws that blatantly contradict EU standards and are criticised by the EU and strategic international partners. This strategy constitutes a form of misdirection, where the government frames its actions to obscure the reality of its divergence from European values and integration agenda. By doing so, they aim to deceive the public and deflect criticism, presenting a false facade of alignment with European ideals while pursuing policies that undermine them.

Why are the 2024 parliamentary elections important?

Upcoming parliamentary elections in Georgia are assessed across the expert circles as “the most important”, “crucial”, or even “decisive”. This seems to be true especially in the context of the ongoing widespread and permanent protests. However, sadly, the topic of elections seems to have quite literally disappeared from the discourse. With less than six months before the elections, which Georgia conducts for the first time with an EU candidate status, the expectations are set high both from the Georgian people and the opposition, and the EU. In a complex triangle, the stakes are equally high for the current Georgian government.

The decision of the EU to grant Georgia the new status on its membership path marked a temporary decrease in the Georgian government’s year-long anti-western rhetoric, but contrary to expectations, did not manage to calm political tensions in the country, as perhaps, expected in the West. Navigating Georgia’s journey towards EU membership still presents the bloc with a strategic dilemma: whether to incentivise the nation amidst democratic backsliding or risk leaving it vulnerable to Russian influence. Striking a balance is imperative to prevent disillusionment among pro-EU Georgians.

Once a front-runner of the EU’s Eastern Partnership policy, Georgia, under its current leadership, is now reservedly perceived as a mischievous “troublemaker”. This perception has been reinforced by the government’s reinvigorated anti-western rhetoric, statements of “disappointment with the EU”, as well as announcements of the highly contentious Russian-style laws in Georgia inciting societal conflict and polarization.

As the parliamentary elections on October 26th approach, sensitive topics are being highlighted and escalated within the domestic agenda. The ruling party is expected to strategically leverage these topics to appeal to conservative voters and bolster their chances of securing a parliamentary majority, even under the newly introduced fully proportional electoral system. Rather than prioritizing the implementation of EU recommendations to better align with the pro-European sentiments of the majority, the Georgian government appears once again focused on employing manipulative pre-election tactics – strategies that have proven successful in previous terms – to secure a fourth consecutive term. This approach could lead the country towards the setbacks which cannot be afforded.

Why the elections should matter to the EU

Despite a feeble political will, the Georgian people exhibit one of the strongest levels of support for EU integration among the candidate countries. A recent public opinion poll commissioned by the International Republican Institute (IRI) and released on November 15th last year has revealed that 86 per cent of Georgian citizens support EU membership. For comparison, in Ukraine, the most recent IRI poll, conducted in September 2023, indicates that 81 per cent of the population prefers EU membership, while in Moldova, support stands at 63 per cent.

The Georgian people’s embrace of its European aspirations fills the daily lives of the country, evident in every occasion possible – from demonstrating in the streets filled with EU flags to intimate family gatherings; from formal discussions to casual conversations about the European friends of Georgia; and last but not least, through the social media engagement. The EU’s recent decision to grant Georgia candidacy status sparked an outpouring of joy, magnified across popular platforms like Facebook. The victory in a historic qualifying match to the UEFA European Football Championship saw even non-football fans joining in the celebrations, underscoring the shared enthusiasm for getting closer to the EU.

In recent years, Georgian society, particularly the younger generation, has emerged as a responsible and critical force, rejecting political agendas that deviate from their envisioned EU path. Georgian youth, including Generation Z, have been at the forefront of recent pro-EU street protests in Tbilisi and across the regions. This marks a significant shift in political engagement, a new form of civic activism is born in Georgia as Georgian youngsters, who previously considered themselves non-political, avoiding involvement in political life, take to the streets. This evolving engagement amplifies the authentic and overwhelming voice of the people, which is crucial for all forthcoming processes in Georgia. Ignoring this sentiment could undermine the EU’s efforts to reinforce its influence in the region and foster stability by aligning with its core principles. Only by actively supporting and amplifying these voices, the EU can rejuvenate its commitment to European ideals, as demonstrated by the passionate belief in European values exhibited by the people of Georgia. Whether proudly waving EU flags during demonstrations or displaying them on social media profiles, Georgians serve as a powerful reminder to EU member states and their citizens of the transformative power and privileges of European citizenship.

The ramifications of the Georgian Dream securing power for a fourth consecutive term will leave Georgia increasingly under Russia’s influence, posing a threat to both the region’s and European security.

Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine has demonstrated how closely the domestic political developments in the EU’s neighbourhoods are linked with foreign policy ultimately affecting the EU’s internal political dynamics. It has equally shown the (in)ability of the EU to deal with such crises as well as the need to reform. In light of rapidly changing regional dynamics, shifting priorities by the ruling party in Georgia ahead of elections is an attempt to apply similar tactics of diverting attention from real problems, such as economic hurdles faced by the majority of people as shown in the recent IRI polls. This, coupled with a disregard for the will of the people, unmistakably signals impending danger to practice democratic processes in the country, including elections. These developments harshly reveal that the aspirations of the Georgian Dream party diverge from the chosen European trajectory of the people.

The draft law on the Transparency of Foreign Influence law sparked serious concerns within the EU, emphasizing its negative impact on Georgia’s EU accession process and falling under Russian influence. The fact that the law is labelled as “Russian” is not accidental. It is supported by the Russian ruling elite and holds long-term strategic significance for Russia, serving as a means not only to progressively suppress opposing voices within its own borders but also as a propaganda tool to exert Russian hegemonic influence over the region, facilitating a shift towards governance resembling that of Russia. This makes it easier for Russia to exert its influence across the region. The recent adoption of a similar law in Kyrgyzstan in March 2024 serves as a clear example of this trend.

Much like its counterpart in Russia, this law seeks to stifle dissenting voices, contributing to an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear among the citizens, thereby pushing the country toward full authoritarianism. Much like in Russia in 2012, the introduction of this law in Georgia will limit the voice of civil society and the media which will monitor upcoming elections in the country. The government does not require widespread monitoring and assessment of the electoral processes.

Finally, a weakened Georgian democracy in the vicinity poses an immediate threat to the security of the European Union. It is crucial for EU officials not only to monitor ongoing developments in Georgia but also to explore ways for exerting influence on the government. This is necessary to prevent the escalation of Russian influence and to begin implementing the recommendations provided for initiating negotiations on EU membership.

Intensive support to Georgia in fighting against an imposed authoritarian regime would ensure the efficient use of already invested resources.

The upcoming elections represent a pivotal moment for the Georgian people, as they invest their beliefs and hopes in the prospect of democratic change. As one of the major donors to Georgia since 1992, the EU has been instrumental in fostering economic growth, improving infrastructure, promoting democratic reforms and improving the overall quality of life of the Georgian citizens. However, due to its strategic location and historical ties, Georgia has continuously been a target for competing regional powers, particularly Russia. The EU has a vested interest in promoting democracy, human rights and stability in its neighbourhood, making it crucial to closely monitor Georgian politics and navigate through the strategic challenges to ensure the protection of its investments and prevent any undue influence that may hinder progress towards European integration and regional stability.

Ongoing developments in Georgia, including laws that threaten democracy, freedom of speech, and human rights, as well as the ultra-conservative rhetoric from government representatives, along with events orchestrated by Kremlin-affiliated entities, are endangering the progress made towards establishing a European, democratic state. If left unchecked, the authoritarian regime to which the Georgian government steers its people has the potential to undermine the fresh ideas, enthusiasm, and energy currently demonstrated by the youth as it happened in Russia or Belarus. Despite people placing considerable hope in the elections, they find themselves compelled to defend their will in the streets.

The EU must act beyond its soft power toolbox

The EU’s soft power approach is no longer sufficient. While soft power has been a cornerstone in EU-Georgia relations, recent evidence suggests its diminishing efficacy. The dialogic approach associated with the soft power policies assumes genuine goodwill from all parties involved. However, the recurrent endangering of EU values and its fundamental principles in Georgia requires a more differentiated strategy leveraging available restrictive measures under the EU’s CFSP. It is time for the EU to recognise that the Georgian Dream party in Georgia does not align in actions with its proclaimed commitment to European values and Georgia’s European integration. This argument gains credence from the ongoing war in Ukraine, showcasing that the EU’s neighbours not only seek economic support (soft power) but also crucially depend on the political backing of the EU (hard power). As neighbouring countries aspire for EU membership, the EU should shift beyond its soft power toolbox and adopt a more assertive stance, utilising the sanctions regime in order to significantly affect the regime’s behaviour. Amid its own internal challenges, the EU should muster the political will to articulate potential consequences, beyond mere political rhetoric.

The EU should capitalize on enlargement. Another evidence that Russia’s war in Ukraine has brought to light is that the enlargement largely remains the most effective foreign policy toolbox in EU’s possession. The EU should capitalize on this and use the historic window of opportunity to retain its geostrategic relevance and credibility by reforming and preparing itself for the enlargement. Georgia has historically presented its goal to become an EU member, thus, remaining an inseparable part of the revived EU enlargement process, and should be seen as such in the bloc’s reform process.

The EU should rethink the cooperation format and adapt it to the crisis mode currently increasing in Georgia. An increased engagement in innovative, flexible formats on the policy level with all actors, especially with the civil society and grassroots organisations is needed. These critical actors should be included in the discussions and supported not only during the ongoing protests but ahead of the elections. These groups have a strong capacity to tackle disinformation and mobilise widespread election monitoring missions and campaigns, something that would be limited if the ‘foreign agent law’ is introduced in Georgia.

The EU must remain vigilant in its commitment to upholding democratic values at all costs – both internally and externally. The European Commission’s Defence of Democracy package aiming to “strengthen resilience against covert foreign interference (…)” is referred to by Georgia’s ruling party as one of the exemplary justifications for introducing the “foreign agent” law in Georgia. It is best visible in times of crises that internal EU debates, procedures and fact-checked information discussed in expert circles do not always reach the wider public, hence, manipulation efforts by certain governments. With all attention towards the upcoming European Parliament elections, the EU not only neglects to address civil society’s repeated criticisms of the draft directive but also risks tarnishing its image and role, not only within its member states but also abroad. This includes countries like Georgia, where the EU has long been regarded as a champion of democratic values. Ultimately, the EU’s ability to influence positive democratic change in its neighbouring countries may be affected. The EU cannot ignore the spillover effects, not after it has been extensively warned both from within the EU and from non-EU countries alike. It should take its fair share of responsibility already now.

The EU should communicate better. For the second year in a row, tens of thousands of Georgians are defending their European future in the streets. In 2024, it is their biggest achievement so far – the EU candidate status – which is at stake. The EU has always been expected to help “fix” things and clear the gathering clouds – an expectation that received criticism from the side of the EU, perhaps, rightfully so. What is undisputed however is that the EU is expected to communicate clearly what the consequences of not defending Georgia’s democracy will be. Those protesting for weeks in a row need support in communicating this clearly and plainly with the wider public – currently, not supporting the protests. The EU plays a strategic role in better informing the public narratives in Georgia. Successes and failures of communication efforts are best visible during crises. Meaningful citizen participation necessitates the creation of effective communication and the provision of an inclusive public sphere where diverse viewpoints can thrive, facilitating independent electoral decision-making. By proactively fortifying internal democratic resilience and countering external interference, the EU can effectively support Georgia’s aspirations for democratic progress.

If the above-mentioned issues are not addressed, a potential fourth term for the Georgian Dream could undoubtedly push the country towards authoritarianism. The ruling party appears well-equipped for this shift, with politicians adept at crafting distracting narratives to divert attention from their true intentions, neutralising potential oversight or watchdogs. They also maintain full control over state resources and access to state institutions, and the ability to rewrite rules to their advantage. Against these persistent threats, whether we continue hoping for reasonably fair parliamentary elections, remains to be seen.

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the institutional position of their employers, or that of the NEE.

Ia Khodeli specializes in the European Union’s foreign policy, with a particular focus on the Eastern Neighbourhood. Based in Brussels, she serves as a project officer dedicated to enhancing trade relations between the EU and Eastern Partnership countries. Prior to this role, Ia contributed to various EU initiatives that fostered social, economic, and educational transformations in the EaP region.

Kristina Pitalskaya is a civic activist based in Brussels, concentrating on EU democracy support policies and projects. She has collaborated with civil society organisations across the Eastern Partnership, Central Asia, Russia, and the EU in various capacities. Kristina also regularly writes blogs on European and Georgian politics for an international audience.

Irakli Jgharkava is a specialist in International Relations and Security, with research interests spanning national security, cybersecurity, disinformation, information warfare, and Georgia-EU relations. Over the past five years, he has been actively involved in promoting democracy by strengthening civil society in the Eastern Partnership region. Additionally, Irakli specializes in European Union Public Policy.

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