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Georgia’s political crisis has garnered the attention of politicians, diplomats, and foreign policy analysts. Many observers believe that the crisis began in October 2020, after parliamentary elections were marred by voter fraud and violations. However, this perspective oversimplifies the situation and proves that Georgia has yet to receive substantial focus from many observers in the West. The crisis has been building for some time, with numerous problems arising after Mikheil Saakashvili’s presidency (2004-2013). Some of these issues are rooted in Georgia’s political culture, including the political rivalry between former and current politicians, trials against former politicians, and the influence of oligarchs on politics. Generally, two parties dominate Georgian politics – the Georgian Dream, the current leading party, and the United National Movement (UNM), a pro-Western and opposition party.
The crisis has significant foreign policy implications, especially in the debates on Georgia’s position between the West and Moscow. These discussions highlight a particular aspect of the crisis: the mismatch between public demand and the actions taken by the Georgian government. It appears that the aftermath of the 2020 elections was merely a crystallization point for the pre-existing problems. Furthermore, it has become a regular practice of the government to use harsh rhetoric toward the West besides criticizing the opposition. Amid the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Georgian politicians have been blaming the West without substantial pretext.
The actions of Tbilisi’s leading politicians are inconsistent with the declared foreign policy course, particularly concerning Georgia’s pro-Western path. Since gaining independence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Georgia has sought to follow a Western trajectory to implement vital reforms and move beyond its Soviet past. This has proven challenging due to pressure from Russia, which still aims to preserve de facto control over former Soviet republics. One of the reasons why the Kremlin waged war against Georgia in 2008 was due to Georgia’s aspirations to join the EU and NATO. The fear of NATO’s eastward enlargement, Georgia’s partnership with the EU, and democracy approaching Russia’s border cause anxiety for Putin, as it threatens the regime’s security. Regarding exporting democratic values in the region, former US President George Bush rightly called Georgia “a beacon of liberty”.
Labeling Georgia in such a way reflects its importance to the West. The country’s location at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, with borders to Russia, Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, and access to the Black Sea, make it a strategically vital transit state with significant geopolitical weight. Moreover, Georgia’s contribution to international peacekeeping operations and its role in maintaining security in the South Caucasus region makes it a crucial partner in countering terrorism and stabilizing the area. Additionally, Georgia’s importance as an energy hub and transit partner for oil and gas, coupled with the potential for new infrastructural projects, adds to its strategic significance. Finally, Georgia is an essential country that acts as a bridgehead for spreading democracy in the region, making it a key player in advancing democratic values.
The US Department of State’s Integrated Country Strategy of April 2022 recognizes Georgia’s critical role in the United States’ global network of alliances and partnerships based on internationally agreed rights and mutual values. Similarly, the EU has found Georgia to be a prominent partner, particularly after the signing of the EU-Georgia Association Agreement in 2014, which significantly boosted bilateral relations. It established a free trade area between the EU and Georgia and helped to reduce tariffs on a wide range of goods and services. The agreement also gave impetus to cooperation in energy, transport, justice, and security areas, and launched more opportunities for Georgian businesses.
The Role of Oligarchy in Georgia’s Political Crisis
To better understand the reasons behind Georgia’s political crisis and increasing anti-Western rhetoric, examining the role of oligarchy in Georgian political life is vital. Since the full-scale Russian invasion, Georgian politicians have often repeated that the West wants Georgia to engage in the war against Moscow. Another point they raise is that the West pushes Tbilisi to join international sanctions against Russia. Hence, they also use it to oppress pro-Western opposition forces and label them “supporters of war.” Moreover, they refuse to take responsibility for not receiving the EU candidate status and blame the EU for the pressure to be involved in the war. These false claims can easily be dismissed by the example of Moldova, which did not follow the sanction regime but still obtained that status.
Consequently, anti-Western speeches and a mix of other factors contributed to Georgia not being granted EU candidate status. Georgia did achieve crucial decisions such as the Association Agreement, Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area, and visa-free regime, and implemented necessary regulations under Georgian Dream’s leadership. Nevertheless, these achievements were only possible due to the reforms initiated during Saakashvili’s presidency, even though it is being recognized that he indeed used some authoritarian methods to fight corruption. Thus, the new Georgian leadership was fortunate to have a strong starting position in relations with Brussels, with Georgia emerging as a European integration leader ahead of Ukraine and Moldova. However, since the current government came to power, progress has slowed, partially because of its perception that the EU accession will take at least 15 years and, therefore, there is no need to rush.
Many observers, including members of the United National Movement, agree that the key decision-maker in Georgia is an oligarch and former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili. Ivanishvili’s background sheds light on his preference for closer relations with Moscow – he earned most of his wealth in Russia when Putin was gaining control over Russian oligarchs. Surprisingly, Ivanishvili’s businesses did not face major difficulties during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Some Russian oligarchs even described him as a man who played by the Kremlin’s rules. It is difficult to claim that Ivanishvili is now free from Russian influence. Although he served as Prime Minister from 2012-2013, he is still maintaining power over the government through financial and political support for its politicians. Ivanishvili’s substantial control over political life in Georgia is also evident as his party continues to consolidate power in various fields of the nation’s politics, including taking control of the security forces and judicial system and organizing a fight against NGOs, other political parties, and the media. Even though Ivanishvili declared that he stepped back from politics, various analysts agree that he now plays a “grey cardinal” role, influencing the decision-making process from the shadow. Georgian politicians admit the impact of Bidzina Ivanishvili and even Ivanishvili himself mentioned that he “consulted some of them”.
Georgian Democracy in Danger: Political Persecutions and the Case of Mikheil Saakashvili
The rivalry between political groups in Georgia highlights the importance for Georgian politicians of remaining in power as a means of protection from being persecuted and facing charges. Although the transfer of power from Saakashvili to Ivanishvili was peaceful, the government has since prosecuted leading figures of Saakashvili’s party, including Saakashvili himself. He was perceived as a threat to the party and the Kremlin’s interests in Georgia. Various charges, including abuse of power, embezzlement, and exceeding official authority, have been brought against Mikheil Saakashvili and members of the UNM, with some cases being criticized as politically motivated by many opposition figures who feel targeted for their political beliefs. This is a significant concern for the West, as it could jeopardize the country’s previous achievements in democratic transformation. In addition to Saakashvili, other opposition members, including Nika Melia, Giorgi Ugulava, and Giorgi Rurua, have also faced charges.
The case of Saakashvili is crucial for Georgia’s democratic future. Numerous human rights organizations claim the accusations and trial to be politically motivated. Furthermore, there are reports that Saakashvili has been poisoned while in prison, with toxic agents such as mercury and arsenic. The Georgian government and Russia could be the potential beneficiaries of Saakashvili’s death, given that he remains a crucial figure in UNM and has a say in the party. Moreover, the Kremlin would be satisfied by the death of one of the most pro-Western Georgian politicians, and someone who, after all, is the symbol of the Rose Revolution. Moscow has a history of using chemicals to destroy the opposition, so its involvement in Saakashvili’s case cannot be ruled out. Georgian authorities have not provided appropriate medical treatment to Saakashvili, which is arguably unseemly for a democratic country. The case of Mikheil Saakashvili has become a turning point for Georgia, which could either move towards authoritarianism or reaffirm its democratic path by releasing him and providing necessary medical treatment. In the case that Saakashvili is not provided with qualified medical aid and he dies in prison, it will be difficult to imagine how Georgia obtains EU candidate status under such circumstances.
The Challenges of Georgia’s Pro-Western Orientation Amidst Political Polarization and Oligarchy
The above-mentioned political developments significantly impact Georgia’s foreign policy. The recent attempt by the government to pass a law on “foreign agents” has triggered a furious public reaction. The proposed law would require all NGOs, media, and individuals receiving foreign funds to register as “agents of foreign influence.” The public dissatisfaction was reflected in massive protests by Georgian opposition and the people, who saw the law as a replica of a similar Russian law that threatened democracy, fundamental freedoms, and Georgia’s official course to integrate into the EU. This has also led to disappointment among EU and US officials. The US Embassy in Georgia called adopting the “foreign agents law” in the first reading a “dark day” for Georgian democracy. It stated that it does not correspond with the will of Georgian citizens. After an impressive public reaction, the Georgian parliament unconditionally withdrew the approved law. Nonetheless, there is no guarantee that they will not try to adopt a similar bill shortly, especially in case of increased pressure from Russia.
Officially, the Georgian government has not announced any foreign policy shifts and continues to maintain a pro-Western position. However, Ivanishvili, who has been vocal about the problem of oligarchy, has signaled his readiness to build closer relations with Russia. There could be various explanations, such as Ivanishvili’s loyalty to the Kremlin, his fear of Russia due to the country’s occupation of 20% of Georgia’s internationally recognized territory, or a misperception of the West’s intentions towards Georgia. The lack of clarity in relations between Georgia, the EU, and the West has frustrated Georgian politicians. The current path of Georgian leadership threatens the previous achievements of Georgian reforms. Moreover, this puts Georgia in a problematic situation, as authoritarianism, corruption, and division within Georgia make it vulnerable to exploitation by the Kremlin.
Georgia’s highly polarized everyday politics, along with different interpretations of the country’s foreign policy and backsliding of democratic reforms, centralization of power in the hands of oligarchs, suppression of free media, political persecutions, and clashes between groups, are hindering the country’s foreign policy. Georgia’s anti-Western rhetoric, which is difficult to comprehend, makes relations between Georgia and the West quite toxic. There is an opinion that the government is trying to consolidate public support damaged by the absence of EU integration results and as Georgia was left behind Ukraine and Moldova. That is why the government wants to shift responsibility from itself by blaming the West and, namely, the EU. Another take on Georgian statements suggests that elites are too preoccupied with the domestic situation and political ratings to pay attention to their US and EU relations.
By following the path of balancing, the government is arguably making the country even more vulnerable to the Russian menace it is already exposed to. The dividing line between Georgian society and the government creates a dangerous situation, and Moscow might try to take advantage of it. Under certain circumstances, Georgia could be left face-to-face with Russia and cut off from its Western support. The gamble chosen by the Georgian government is risky, as it tests the resolve and patience of the West, mainly the EU. Nonetheless, not every politician in the West speaks about this issue explicitly. The government’s rhetoric regarding the West has become increasingly rough after the EU refused to grant candidate status to Tbilisi. It might complicate Georgia’s EU path and shape public opinion in the wrong direction. Some indicators already show that the level of support for EU accession has decreased over the last five months. As a result of the anti-Western propaganda, the number of those supporting the path to EU membership has dropped by 13%. However, it concerns only the Georgian Dream voters.
Nevertheless, most Georgians advocate for the country’s path to EU membership. The research of public perceptions conducted by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers (CRRC) revealed that Georgians remain strongly pro-Western: 60% of respondents believe Georgia should continue its West-oriented foreign policy regardless of the threat of war with Russia; 73% acknowledge that Georgia’s membership in the EU will boost its economic development.
Georgia’s response to the Russian invasion also exhibited an unexpected reaction from its elites. Instead of condemning the attack, the government has decided to boost trade relations with Russia and accuse the West of being responsible for the war. It could be the case that elites are afraid of losing the next parliamentary elections and are seeking to use short-term economic benefits and strengthen trade relations with Russia to please its voters. However, this approach is helping Russia to bypass Western sanctions and potentially exposing Georgia and its companies to the effects of US secondary sanctions. There is also a mistake on the collective West’s part in what we observe in Georgia – it has failed to offer a concrete path for Tbilisi to join the EU and NATO. Enlargement fatigue has created the impression within Georgian political circles that it is impossible to join these structures, leading to an attempt to imitate movement toward membership while simultaneously developing relations with Russia to avoid making the Kremlin nervous.
Possibility of Georgia’s Shift Toward Russia
A shift in Georgia’s foreign policy towards Russia is possible if the country experiences further democratic backsliding and authoritarianism or faces renewed Russian aggression or pressure. However, the likelihood of these scenarios is low due to the strong civil society that supports Georgia’s pro-Western path. Recent protests defending democratic values illustrate that any rapid shift toward Russia will face an immediate response from the people of Georgia. Additionally, the EU’s economic and trade relations with Georgia, and international pressure from the US and the EU, make a shift toward Russia less likely. The EU should develop a carrot-and-stick strategy while clarifying that Georgia’s future lies within the EU. This is necessary to counter groundless claims of the politicians of the Georgian Dream that tend to accuse the West of being blamed for all the domestic problems and foreign policy troubles. It is also vital for the West to facilitate people-to-people ties and strengthen relations between societies to counter Russian disinformation campaigns that shift public opinion.
Despite Russia’s declining influence in the region, the conflict between the West and Kremlin regarding Georgia’s foreign policy orientation is expected to escalate. Moscow might seek to gain advantages in countries like Georgia and Moldova to enhance its influence, given the significant setbacks it has faced in the war against Ukraine. Consequently, the West needs to anticipate such scenarios, as a shift towards Russia would have substantial geopolitical and strategic implications due to Georgia’s role in the Caucasus. The West, particularly the EU, should prioritize promoting democratic reforms in Georgia and encourage the will of its citizens to safeguard democratic governance and prevent the ruling party from further aligning with Russia.