COMMENT: Georgia’s uneasy path towards EU membership

COMMENT: Georgia’s uneasy path towards EU membership
After days of mass protests, and waves of police violence, on March 9 the Georgian Parliament rejected the draft law on "foreign agents" at its second reading. / bne IntelliNews
By Gia Tarkhan-Mouravi in Tbilisi March 15, 2023

Recently Georgia has attracted a lot of attention from international media – and not for positive reasons. The Georgian parliament approved at the first reading a bill that was very similar to Russia’s Law on Foreign Agents, which is actively used by Vladimir Putin’s repressive regime against any dissenting voices that dare to criticise its increasingly authoritarian and aggressive policies. The bill was initiated by a small group of MPs who are actually a spin-off of the ruling Georgian Dream party, and it was supported by the latter.

After days of mass protests, and waves of police violence, and especially after the growing participation of youth and students, on March 9 the Georgian Parliament rejected the draft law at its second reading, although the Georgian Dream party has not excluded supporting some similar proposal later.

Georgia appears to be following a new path taken by some other authoritarian political forces in Eastern Europe, such as for instance the latest attempt by Milorad Dodik, president of the Republica Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina, to introduce similar legislation.

The whole drama that unravelled in Tbilisi, unnecessary and unwelcome as it was for all sides, left a rather unpleasant aftertaste. It also raised the question: Was this one more demonstration of the lack of foresight and strategic vision among the Georgian Dream leadership, or did they have some inscrutable, devious Byzantine plan?

This was by far not the first attempt to move the country away from democratic norms and practices,  which had eventually resulted in Georgia being denied by Brussels in June 2022 the status of an EU membership candidate country, unlike the other two applicants – Ukraine and Moldova.

Since communism collapsed and Georgia achieved independence, we have only too often witnessed an ambivalence about the country's future direction among its ruling elites: on the one hand, a struggle to maintain a pro-Western drive, a democratic façade and credentials; while on the other, a barely hidden contempt for modern democratic and individual freedoms, as well as for any authentic political opposition.

The Georgian Dream party itself had risen to power on the wave of public discontent caused by the authoritarian practices of the preceding government of Mikheil Saakashvili, and it followed the same model, as its leadership soon revealed in due time the same anti-democratic tendencies, however this time with a more anti-Western tint.

Currently, the opacity of its leadership’s strategic is multiplied by the ambiguity of the role, goals and motivations of the party’s informal leader – billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili. Indeed, the failed attempt to introduce the ’foreign agent’ legislation once again demonstrated the difficulty in understanding the motivations behind such acts. Specifically, it is possible that Georgian Dream may sometimes engage in self-defeating or seemingly illogical behaviour in the short-term in the hope that it will serve some more important long-term purpose.

Some critics said that the bill was more evidence of the hidden pro-Russian and anti-Western agenda of the party’s leadership, corroborated by their frequent anti-Western rhetoric and criticisms of the EU representatives, Europarties and MEPs, as well as the US ambassador to Georgia.

However, the inconsistency and incoherence of the party’s actions demonstrates not so much pro-Russian attitudes or any clear-cut political orientation or ideology, but rather its self-serving, opportunistic focus on staying in power and strengthening its political control, the influence of patriarchal, authoritarian, and anti-democratic values, as well as personal grievances and desires for revenge, which are all in a way closer to practices observed in Russia.

Outstayed its welcome

At the same time, the Georgian population is strongly pro-Western, pro-EU and pro-Nato, as consistently demonstrated by  regular polls, and the government cannot ignore the fact that any unjustified and drastic limitation of fundamental rights and freedoms is contrary to the aspirations of Georgia to progress on the European and Euro-Atlantic path, and would cause a public uproar and a strong international reaction.

The more so that the current leadership has already somewhat overstayed its welcome – which during the last decades has run on an approximately 8-9-year cycle – mostly due to the current lack of new and widely acceptable political alternatives. Still, it increasingly seems that Georgian Dream’s time in power is getting close to its grand finale, especially if the mistakes and failures as described above continue to multiply.

If we look at the damaging actions by the ruling elite both before and after Georgia’s application for candidate status was provisionally rejected, the picture is not very encouraging. The current situation looks hardly good for a country that still hopes to become an EU membership candidate by the end of this year.

To put Georgia into context, similar anti-democratic trends are observable in some other Eastern European countries that are moving towards authoritarianism. These primarily comprise attempts to take under government control independent and opposition media; to use excessive police violence to suppress mass protests; to subdue independent and vocal civil society; and, to restrict the independence and quality of the judiciary. It is not by accident that these tendencies can be seen in countries such as Hungary under Viktor Orban, or the latest attempt by Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Israel to introduce a controversial judiciary reform.

It should also be noted that while Georgian Dream is rightfully criticised for its failed judiciary reform, it was the previous government of Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) that constitutionally restricted judicial independence once it came to power in early 2004, with little protest from a West enamoured of Saakashvili’s political charm and pro-Western rhetoric. I remember my shock at how then EU Special Representative to the Caucasus Heikki Talvitie told civil society representatives that it was only natural that the UNM government’s constitutional changes reflected the country’s young and ambitious president.

Last summer, after the decision on Georgia’s bid for EU candidacy status was conditionally postponed, 12 priority conditions were put forward for Georgia to meet in order to be granted this status by the end of this year. These conditions included such important issues as reducing political polarisation; strengthening anti-corruption institutions and the fight against organised crime; implementation of “de-oligarchisation” by eliminating the excessive influence of vested interests; and, the most important in my view, the need to “adopt and implement a transparent and effective judicial reform strategy and action plan post-2021 based on a broad, inclusive and cross-party consultation process”.

Unfortunately, not enough has been done to date to satisfy these conditions, or alternatively what was done was rather an imitation of real action. So, for instance, the draft ‘de-oligarchisation law’ has been developed, but its quality gave rise to a number of questions from the Venice Commission, in particular due to the peculiar way it was interpreted as affecting certain individuals, including Ivanishvili.

A proper judiciary reform should certainly be prioritised by Georgia’s Western supporters and partners. If the court system is effective and functions properly, there is a much reduced risk of abuse of democratic rights, as an independent and incorruptible judiciary is the strongest obstacle to authoritarianism and injustice.

I believe that the Western supporters of Georgia should use all their influence to push Georgia towards implementing a successful judiciary reform along with all the other 11 priority conditions put forward by the EU. This pressure may include both sticks and carrots, which are still abundantly available.

To be more concrete, I would highly recommend applying personal sanctions, and especially restricting the possibility to travel freely, as these work most effectively when the political elite is motivated mainly by personal interests rather than ideological or value-based factors. I would also stress that it is not only Georgian Dream that is to be blamed for the country’s unsatisfactory progress, but also some parts of the opposition as well, including pro-Russian or ultra-conservative groups and individuals.

Gia Tarkhan-Mouravi is co-director of the Tbilisi Institute for Policy Studies.