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Georgia has now reached a crucial moment

Georgia’s ongoing protests have only further exposed the political divides between state and society. While the Georgian population overwhelmingly backs a European future, citizens will have to chose their next moves carefully during a particularly tense time in wider international affairs.

May 20, 2024 - Jakub Bornio - Articles and Commentary

Street art made by protesters in Tbilisi. Photo: Eval Miko / Shutterstock

The Georgian Dream government is currently trying to push through the so-called “Foreign Agents Law”, which would require organizations receiving more than 20 per cent of their funding from abroad to register as organizations “pursuing the interests of a foreign power” and submit special annual finance reports. This would give the government the ability to conduct audits on any pretext and accuse anti-government organizations of being anti-Georgian. This is the second attempt to pass this bill, after the government backed down from the idea in 2023 under domestic and EU pressure. The passing of the bill in the second reading sparked protests but the unrest culminated after the third and the last reading As a result dozens thousands of protesters soon appeared on the streets of Tbilisi and other Georgian cities. The ongoing protests in the capital are naturally the largest and are being suppressed by the police using water cannons, tear gas and brute force. The protests are grassroots, with the pro-European sentiment of the population the main driving force. Well over 80 per cent of the Georgian public support close cooperation between their country and the EU. This contrasts with the ambiguous foreign policy of the government, which has officially applied for candidate status but whose domestic policy is guided by standards that are difficult for the EU to accept. These practices include the opacity of political connections, corruption and the aforementioned law on “foreign agents”.

Enforcing the law may serve several purposes. These include the government’s desire to control and weaken opposition organizations; to entrench the political system and maintain power; to mobilize its own electorate; or to divert attention from Georgia’s other problems. The parliamentary elections will be held in Georgia this October. The attempt to maintain the power is the main driving force behind the Georgian Dream policy. And the future success remains uncertain. While it is true that Georgia has managed to improve some macroeconomic indicators since the outbreak of the full-scale war in Ukraine, mainly by restoring economic relations with sanctioned Russia, the country still faces problems. These include an unemployment rate of around 15 per cent, corruption and a huge wave of emigration. This coincides with the simultaneous arrival of Russians, their purchase of property and the influx of Russian capital into Georgia. This is causing justifiable resentment in Georgian society, as around 20 per cent of the country’s territory remains outside Tbilisi’s control as a result of the 2008 war with Russia. At the same time some part of the society benefits from the situation.

The political situation in Georgia is very difficult. The opposition is fragmented and does not enjoy much public confidence. President Salome Zourabichvili’s political position is weak due to the nature of the constitutional arrangements. She has a chance to become a leader resistance movement (if the opposition parties will eventually form a coherent front) but her past political links may cause some distrust in her. Importantly, the government has so far been able to count on the loyalty of the law enforcement structures, thus, the option to overthrow the government by force is difficult to implement, very costly and does not seem to be in the nature of Georgian society.

External factors are also problematic. Russia is a real threat to Georgia’s independence and growing economic ties only deepen dependence on Moscow. The Georgian Dream government is guided in its policy towards Russia by undemocratic standards of governance and the desire for economic gain. However, the main factor determining bilateral relations remains the difference in potential between the two states. Georgia remains virtually defenceless against a military threat from Russia, and the geopolitical situation means that it cannot count on external support. To be fair the Georgian Dream did not make much effort to improve the situation, including the armed forces development.

Most recently, the EU and some its members remained hesitant in their policy toward the situation in Georgia. But the domestic pressure in the West started growing. Francis Fukuyama’s call, in his article for American Purpose, to impose sanctions on the representatives of the Georgian Dream gained some international attention. In fact the West’s strategy requires deeper strategic reflection. Effective policy would require far more than just isolation of the Georgian Dream. This in fact could only push Georgian Dream deeper into the Russian arms. If the West wants to react at the moment it should also be prepared to face the consequences and eventually be willing and able to react in case of further escalation of the domestic unrest and well as international repercussions. The real test of the Western policy is yet to come with the Georgian parliamentary elections in October.

Ukraine remains the main focus of western interest, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain western resolve in its policy towards the country. The Gaza conflict, which is causing wider Arab-Israeli tensions, also remains in an active phase. The potential for instability also remains in the Balkans, particularly around the possible secession of Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The United States is focusing much of its attention on the Pacific. Given these conditions, it is difficult to expect much interest in “peripheral” – from the perspective of western states – Georgia. It is also possible that it was the course of the war in Ukraine and a number of the geopolitical tensions mentioned above that emboldened the Georgian Dream government to take such domestic actions. In this context, the claim that Ukraine remains the key to any deadlock in Europe gains further justification. Even if Georgian Dream survives the current crisis, which seems likely, current events will mobilize and radicalize attitudes in society. This will be particularly important in the context of the parliamentary elections in October. The lack of public confidence in state institutions and Georgian Dream’s desire to remain in power make the scenario of further colour revolution-style events more than likely. The situation in Georgia has great potential for escalation and could turn into another geopolitical crisis that Russia could exploit. It should be remembered that the demarcation line with South Ossetia is unstable and in places runs only a few hundred metres from the main east-west road connecting Georgia. In this scenario, the question is whether the West has the means of pressure and the will to engage politically on the side of Georgian society. Rhetorical support may not be enough from the West, and Georgian society will need to consider this when deciding how to act.

Dr. Jakub Bornio is Assistant Professor at the University of Wrocław and senior analyst in the Institute of Central Europe in Lublin. A graduate in European Studies, he holds a PhD in political science with a specialty in international relations. Bornio was previously a Fellow at Corvinus University in Budapest and has worked in the Regional Representation of the European Commission and at the Jan Nowak-Jeziorański College of Eastern Europe. He actively researches the Eastern dimension of European security. He publishes regularly for the Jamestown Foundation and New Eastern Europe.

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