Georgia’s European future: an attainable outcome or wishful thinking?
Flora McIntyre is an undergraduate student at the University of Cambridge.
Photo: Giorgi Abdaladze
‘Europe is a defence shield for us, a shield preserving our identity.’ These are the words of Nana Malashkhia, a Georgian citizen, who quickly became a symbol of the March demonstrations in Tbilisi after a video of her waving a European flag while being blasted by a water cannon went viral.[i] She was just one of thousands of Georgians who had gathered to protest the newly proposed ‘Foreign Agents’ bill, a significant step away from European integration. Yet, while Georgian civil society is clamouring for EU-style democratic reform, the state has become stuck between the ruling regime’s survival tactics and the fragmented opposition parties. Having regained independence in 1991, Georgian democracy did not hit the ground running - its first decade of independence was troubled by civil war, uprisings, and ethnic violence. While other post-Soviet Central and Eastern European countries moved towards the EU (the Baltics joined in 2004), Georgia, preoccupied with the consequences of the 2002 Rose Revolution, missed its chance. Due to its location on Europe’s mountainous Caucasian boundary, Georgia needs to become a member of the EU to cement itself as part of Central and Eastern Europe. Despite this being the country’s aim, if Georgian politicians continue to maintain ties with the Kremlin and act according to their own understanding of Western integration, its European future will remain uncertain.
Georgia’s potential European future has become a victim of the country’s domestic power struggle.
In 1999, to mark Georgia’s accession to the Council of Europe, Zurab Zhvania (then a member of Parliament, later to become Prime Minister) declared: ‘I am Georgian, and therefore, I am European’.[ii] This has continued to represent the stance of many Georgians who identify as Europeans and hope for Georgia to become a member of the European Union.[iii] But Georgia’s potential European future has become a victim of the country’s domestic power struggle. While both the ruling Georgian Dream Party and the opposition United National Movement have stated that they support Georgia’s integration into the EU, it appears that Georgian Dream would prefer to assimilate into the EU on their own terms – crucially without endangering their position of domestic power.[iv] The EU and Georgia have maintained relations since 1996 when a partnership agreement was signed, but true progress was demonstrated only in 2021 when the chairman of the Georgian Dream Party, Irakli Kobakhidze, made the long-awaited announcement that Georgia would officially apply for EU membership in 2024. After Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, these plans were apparently expedited in fear that the invasion would threaten their chances of success. However, considering that both Ukraine and Moldova received candidate status (unlike Georgia), it is evident that the Georgian application was not hindered by the war but rather its own lacklustre efforts to implement democratic reforms. Tbilisi’s rejection of a €75 million loan from the EU in 2021, which was conditional upon judicial reform, indicated exactly where the government’s priorities lay.[v] The EU announced that Georgia would have to complete a set of economic and political reforms aimed at furthering democracy before candidate status could be given. The criteria include reduced political polarisation, electoral reforms, implementation of ‘de-oligarchization’ policies, the protection of journalists, and the establishment of anti-corruption institutions.
Political polarization and confrontation between the two main parties, the Georgian Dream Party and the United National Movement have characterised Georgian politics since the 2000s. Opposition parties are weak and divided, and the imbalanced political landscape inhibits democratic progress.[vi] For many voters who do not align with either the ruling or the opposition party there is no viable alternative, and in December 2019 national polls revealed that the undecided electorate stood at 56 per cent.[vii] The situation sparked criticism amongst civil society and, in an attempt to remedy the issue, the government promised to introduce a fully proportional electoral system for the 2020 parliamentary elections that would aim to depolarise Georgia’s political landscape.[viii] However, while the new system reduces the vote threshold, enabling smaller parties to enter parliament, the consequential fragmentation curtailed any coalition-forming potential to achieve real power.[ix] Despite apparent improvements in the voting protocol, the reality of the electoral process remains flawed as the democratic processes continue to be hindered by vote buying and intimidation tactics at polling stations which only heightens Georgia’s polarised political landscape.[x]
The ruling party’s desperation to remain in power is prompting undemocratic initiatives which are straining its relationship with both Europe and Georgian civil society.
Such obstacles to democratic development are tarnishing Georgia’s image as an example of democracy in the post-Soviet space. Georgia is often recognised as a frontrunner among Eastern Partnership countries[xi] and, according to StrategEast (an American strategic research centre), in 2018 Georgia was the fourth most westernised country among the 14 post-Soviet states.[xii] Nevertheless, its recent slide towards authoritarianism does not provide citizens with much hope of cementing their place in Europe. According to The Economist’s 2022 democracy index, Georgia’s democracy remains in a ‘hybrid’ state, meaning that its government displays both democratic and authoritarian characteristics.[xiii] The jailing and harassing of opposition candidates, the politicising of the judiciary, and attempts to silence independent media are only a few of the systematic problems in its democracy. In July 2019, the main United National Movement-aligned TV channel, Rustavi 2, was transferred back to its former owner who was more sympathetic to the incumbent Georgian Dream, and many critical journalists were dismissed.[xiv] Many staff then left to join a new station, Mtavari Arkhi, but its founder was subsequently arrested on charges considered to be politically motivated.[xv] Even after receiving a list of required democratic reforms from the EU, attempts to control the media have not been curbed. Earlier this year the government proposed a ‘Foreign Agents’ bill, imitating the 2012 Russian Foreign Agents Law. The bill, which was withdrawn after mass protests, would have classified organisations and media groups receiving more than 20 per cent of their funding from abroad as ‘foreign agents’. Georgian Dream’s attempt to marginalise civil society and independent media is a symptom of their anxiety concerning the 2024 elections, fearing that the loss of power may lead to a political and personal vendetta by a new government against them – a fear that is not totally unfounded considering ex-President Saakashvili currently withers away in a cell.[xvi] This failed ‘Foreign Agents’ bill has only antagonised the pro-European electorate by accentuating Georgian Dream’s authoritarian tendencies. The High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs highlighted that it was ‘incompatible with EU values and standards’ and would frustrate their chances of achieving EU candidacy status.[xvii] The ruling party’s desperation to remain in power is prompting undemocratic initiatives which are straining its relationship with both Europe and Georgian civil society. If it continues down this path, the government’s promise of EU candidacy status will not be realised.
The responsibility for this authoritarian shift resides mainly in the hands of oligarch and former PM Bidzina Ivanishvili – the founder and informal leader of the Georgian Dream Party.[xviii] Ivanishvili made his money in Moscow along with many other oligarchs and is also the country’s richest citizen. His wealth has financed the Georgian Dream Party and despite his resignation from politics in 2021, he has continued to exert disproportionate influence over the government and Parliament, frustrating the ability of elected officials to shape policy.[xix] While it is unlikely that Ivanishvili’s entry into Georgian politics in 2012 was as a puppet of the Kremlin,[xx] his policies nonetheless have a Russian tilt - whether that be trying to normalise relations with Russia, the fact that he has almost never received criticism in media networks linked to the Russian state, or that throughout his incumbent period he has slowly but surely side-lined pro-Western elements in society. The EU’s demand for ‘de-oligarchization’ is directly aimed at minimising Ivanishvili’s role in Georgian politics, but his deep pockets and even deeper connections will make this very difficult to implement.
This narrative of Russian aggression is being used to justify the shift towards pro-Russian rhetoric, giving Moscow new forms of leverage and potentially destabilising Georgia.
Georgia’s ambiguous stance towards its authoritarian neighbour and reluctance to break ties with the Kremlin remains an obstacle to European orientation and democratic progress. Since independence, relations between Russia and Georgia have been strained, especially after the war in Abkhazia (1992-1993) and Russia’s invasion in 2008. After the accession of the Georgian Dream to power in 2012, efforts were made to normalise relations with Russia. Yet, these political ties have not been met with enthusiasm from Georgian civil society. Georgia’s accommodating approach towards Russia was highlighted in June 2019 when a member of the Russian Duma, Sergei Gavrilov, sat in the chair of Georgia’s parliamentary speaker during a visit, causing an explosion of anti-Russian sentiment within Georgian society.[xxi] So when Russia attacked Ukraine in February 2022, Georgians’ attention turned to how their government would respond to such illegitimate authoritarian greed – which they had only recently been subject to themselves. Georgian authorities have officially condemned the invasion of Ukraine as ‘unacceptable’, yet since the war began, Georgian Dream leaders have made few comments critical of Russia – especially in comparison with the number of comments made criticising Ukraine or Ukrainian officials.[xxii] Despite overwhelming public pressure to implement sanctions on the Kremlin, the Georgian government has voiced concerns about a Russian backlash.[xxiii] While increased European influence has been a catalyst for Russian aggression in the past (Russia’s invasion in 2008), a repeat of 2008 is unlikely given Russia’s position in Ukraine. This narrative of Russian aggression is being used to justify the shift towards pro-Russian rhetoric, giving Moscow new forms of leverage and potentially destabilising Georgia. The state’s ties with the Kremlin are making EU officials uneasy, and the government needs to clarify its stance if it actually wants to expedite the EU candidacy process.[xxiv]
Unlike the state, the people have made their opinions clear. The reaction to relations with Russia has been far from supportive. A stroll through Old Town Tbilisi where the walls are decorated with anti-Russian expletives is enough to make that more than obvious. Many youth groups have expressed that they will not stand for the emerging authoritarian trends akin to those in Russia, and since 2019 the number of protests has risen. In response to Sergei Gavrilov’s visit, huge anti-government protests were organised by members of the Facebook group, ‘Society for Spreading Freedom’.[xxv] The defiance of protestors in the face of tear gas and police barricades (and those in response to the ‘Foreign Agents’ bill) show that Georgian society is ready to go the extra mile to defend the country’s democracy and its European future. However, until recently, these voices have remained unrepresented in government. In late 2022, Tamar Jakeli launched a new Georgian Greens Party vowing to promote queer and women’s rights, as well as environmental protection.[xxvi] Their goal is to create a representative space for the younger liberal strata of society inside the government as it ‘is necessary to fight from the inside’.[xxvii] Nevertheless, it remains unclear to what extent this new party will gather support and whether the voices of those in favour of Western integration will be heard in the 2024 elections.
The EU needs to give appropriate signalling, clarify the criteria which remain ambiguous, and communicate directly with Georgian civil society.
Georgian Dream is currently paying lip service to society’s cries for pro-European reforms. The increasingly apparent authoritarian trends combined with the government’s unnerving amiability with Russia do not suggest support of their objectives of EU membership. Georgia’s democratic development is being frustrated by political polarisation, flaws in the electoral process, the curtailing of independent media, and corruption – all of which need to be improved upon if Georgia is to gain European Union candidacy status and consolidate its position in Central and Eastern Europe. While EU candidate status does not mean that Georgia will necessarily become an EU member, it will give the country sufficient impetus to commit to democracy, stem Russia’s growing influence, and resolve tensions between the state and society. Georgian politicians are playing a dangerous game in search of power and personal wealth at the cost of the country’s democratic development. They need to make an urgent U-turn in their priorities if the country is to gain EU candidate status in the near future. However, Brussels has a role to play here too. The EU needs to give appropriate signalling, clarify the criteria which remain ambiguous, and communicate directly with Georgian civil society. If not, pro-reform actors might quieten, the pull of Russia could be strengthened, and democratic development will continue to lie dormant. The prompt implementation of appropriate democratic reforms encouraged by increased EU guidance will reassure EU members that the Georgian government’s stated aim of EU membership is not a pretence to appease the electorate. Georgian politicians need to act fast if they are going to make any significant changes before the EU’s review this Autumn because, at least at this point in time, the state of Georgian democracy continues to regress.
[i] Nino Tarkhnishvili and Neil Bowdler, ‘The Georgian Woman with the EU Flag,’ RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, March 14, 2023, https://www.rferl.org/a/georgia-woman-protests-eu-flag-/32317343.html. [ii] Nino Levaja, ‘Georgia’s unfinished search for its place in Europe’, April 6, 2021, https://carnegieeurope.eu/2021/04/06/georgia-s-unfinished-search-for-its-place-in-europe-pub-84253 [iii] Ibid. [iv] Régis Genté, ‘Broken dream: The oligarch, Russia, and Georgia's Drift from Europe’, December 21, 2022, https://ecfr.eu/publication/broken-dream-the-oligarch-russia-and-georgias-drift-from-europe/ [v] Ibid. [vi] Freedom House, Georgia: Freedom in the world 2021 country report, https://freedomhouse.org/country/georgia/freedom-world/2021 [vii] Freedom House, Georgia: Freedom in the world 2020 country report, https://freedomhouse.org/country/georgia/nations-transit/2020 [viii] Ibid. [ix] Freedom House, Georgia: Freedom in the world 2021 country report, https://freedomhouse.org/country/georgia/freedom-world/2021 [x] Ibid. [xi] Martin Russell, ‘Georgia’s bumpy road to democracy’, European Parliamentary Research Servive, 2021, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2021/690626/EPRS_BRI(2021)690626_EN.pdf [xii] Zurab Batiashvili,Georgia’s Position in the Westernization Index 2018, July 19, 2018, https://gfsis.org.ge/blog/view/853?__cf_chl_tk=BVz6fFHe3LdPHkiMbnI8oXUggqYa.s5SDIEq94fVr.k-1684668548-0-gaNycGzNCxA [xiii] The Economist, ‘The world’s most, and least, democratic countries in 2022’, February 1, 2023, https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2023/02/01/the-worlds-most-and-least-democratic-countries-in-2022 [xiv] Freedom House, Georgia: Freedom in the world 2020 country report, https://freedomhouse.org/country/georgia/nations-transit/2020 [xv] Ibid. [xvi] Kornely Kakachia, Bidzina Lebanidze, ‘Georgia’s slide to authoritarianism’, March 21, 2023, https://carnegieeurope.eu/strategiceurope/89260 [xvii] Teona Lavrelashvili, ‘Power of the People in Georgia: The EU Must Remain Vigilant,’ Rondeli Foundation, March 14, 2023, https://gfsis.org.ge/blog/view/1558 [xviii] Régis Genté, ‘Broken dream: The oligarch, Russia, and Georgia's Drift from Europe,’ December 21, 2022, https://ecfr.eu/publication/broken-dream-the-oligarch-russia-and-georgias-drift-from-europe/ [xix] Freedom House, Georgia: Freedom in the world 2021 country report, https://freedomhouse.org/country/georgia/freedom-world/2021 [xx] Régis Genté, Broken dream: The oligarch, Russia, and Georgia's Drift from Europe, December 21, 2022, https://ecfr.eu/publication/broken-dream-the-oligarch-russia-and-georgias-drift-from-europe/ [xxi] Freedom House, Georgia: Freedom in the world 2020 country report, https://freedomhouse.org/country/georgia/nations-transit/2020 [xxii] Shota Kincha, ‘Irakli Kobakhidze: The Face of Georgia’s Turn from the West,’ OC Media, August 1, 2022, https://oc-media.org/features/irakli-kobakhidze-the-face-of-georgias-turn-from-the-west/. [xxiii] Maximilian Hess, ‘Denying Georgia EU Candidate Status Is a Partisan Mistake,’ Opinions | Al Jazeera, June 21, 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2022/6/21/the-eu-commission-may-regret-denying-georgia-candidate-status. [xxiv] Régis Genté, ‘Broken dream: The oligarch, Russia, and Georgia's Drift from Europe,’ December 21, 2022, https://ecfr.eu/publication/broken-dream-the-oligarch-russia-and-georgias-drift-from-europe/ [xxv] Freedom House, Georgia: Freedom in the world 2020 country report, https://freedomhouse.org/country/georgia/nations-transit/2020 [xxvi] Tata Shoshiashvili, ‘New pro-queer and feminist green party launches in Georgia,’ November 28, 2022, https://oc-media.org/new-pro-queer-and-feminist-green-party-launches-in-georgia/ [xxvii] Ibid.