COMMENT: The EU's policy dilemma in Georgia – choosing between bad and worse

COMMENT: The EU's policy dilemma in Georgia – choosing between bad and worse
Georgian society has a positive record of defeating governments that went too far in their authoritarian tendencies. / bne IntelliNews
By Gia Tarkhan-Mouravi in Tbilisi April 23, 2024

In early April the Georgian government – in what has become an increasingly frequent instance of déjà vu – re-introduced a slightly glossed-over and re-worded version of the Russian-style ‘foreign agents’ bill that was withdrawn a year ago due to mass protests and international condemnation. Named the Law on Transparency of Foreign Influence, it passed in the first parliamentary reading through the support of the ruling populist Georgian Dream party on April 17, against the background of renewed mass protests and police violence.

While the bill received harsh criticism from the majority of Western leaders and international organisations for potentially targeting NGOs and independent media funded from abroad, it was heartily praised by the chairman of the Russian State Duma Vyacheslav Volodin and other Russian officials.

While it is not yet clear whether the bill will eventually be adopted by the parliament, after a likely veto by President Salome Zourabichvili, it is worth considering the potential consequences of both its successful adoption and enforcement, or its repeated failure to survive the pressure.

There are two main directions of political development that the (non-)adoption of the law will influence: the prospects of the ruling party in the parliamentary elections to take place in October this year, and Georgia’s potential progress, or its lack thereof, on its path towards EU integration.

The adoption of the law itself is not so dangerous per se, besides its offensive wording and a few unacceptable provisions, and in a mature democracy a modified version could even be useful. However, in the absence of necessary checks and balances, with the judiciary submissive to the over-powerful executive branch, it could well become the basement on which repressive instruments will be built, as happened in Russia.

However, supporters of the bill hoping to use it in such way should also keep in mind that Georgian society has a positive record of defeating governments that went too far in their authoritarian tendencies, and cool heads may therefore still prevail.

The most important factors influencing the potential impact of the law will be the respective changes in political context within the country, on the one hand, and the possible reaction on the part of the EU to any regrettable developments here, on the other.

The political landscape in Georgia is rather complex and that makes any definitive predictions a fool’s errand. The political parties and their ranks are built more around personalities, careerism, and party prospects than any clear-cut ideologies, strategic visions or value systems. This is in particular true in the case of the ruling party, which has already been in power since 2012 and has only survived due to the lack of a viable alternative or united opposition.

The most popular other party – the right-leaning United National Movement – has already been in power, is despised by many, and although it enjoys a certain share of loyal support, has little chance of coming back to power save as a part of a coalition government. The majority of remaining smaller parties are not even sure to overcome the 5% threshold and enter the proportionally elected parliament, but may well contribute to fragmentation of votes and thus strengthen further the winning party.

The majority of the population distrusts and dislikes all the parties, and, dissatisfied with never-ending economic problems such as poverty, unemployment, and inflation, strongly supports (up to 80%) EU integration. While the urban populations traditionally are more dynamic in their political preferences and are currently quite unhappy with the ruling party, much of the rural population is in general more supportive of incumbent governments, appreciate stability, and are slower in changing their preferences.

It remains to be seen whether the political adventurism, perceptibly pro-Russian policies, and other characteristics of the ruling party will appear sufficiently damaging to their electoral standing unless a significant part of the opposition manages to unite behind the desire to bring down the Georgian Dream. As a result, while the share of vote received by the GD may well fall back, it is not clear whether they will get thoroughly defeated and replaced by some sort of coalition government.

Policy decisions on the part of the EU regarding how to react to the apparently undemocratic actions and tendencies revealed by the Georgian Dream leadership (whatever the result of the current crisis) are equally difficult to predict. While it seems that the Georgian Dream leadership is not much liked in Brussels and many European capitals, there is also a difficult dilemma for the EU to face.

On one hand, the latest developments are seen as fully deserving strong punitive action, and we are to expect the continuation of fierce rhetorical condemnation of all undemocratic moves by the Georgian government, especially within the walls of the European Parliament.

However, on the practical side, it is clear that freezing Georgia’s progress towards EU accession will on one hand undeservedly punish, and possibly alienate, the Georgian population at large that is so eager to move faster along the EU integration path, and at the same time it will bring much joy to the EU’s adversaries, Russia in the first place, pushing the Georgian government towards even more pro-Russian, pro Chinese, and anti-democratic policies. This may not be a very wise move strategically either, especially with so much happening all around Russia, Iran, and the Middle East in general.

It is still possible to react decisively to current developments in Georgia without punishing the Georgian people or making a decision that boomerangs. One possible direction would be – because Georgian politics is so personality-based – to introduce well-targeted and tailored personal sanctions against the worst anti-democracy perpetrators, as, while some of them like to enrich themselves or stay in power via pro-Russian policies, they still like to enjoy spending these riches in the West.

The second direction is to find ways (and resources) to initiate an effective and sustainable information campaign, explaining better the EU positions on various important issues and processes, such as related to foreign influencers. Such actions may serve not just the Georgian situation but appear effective in similar cases of other EU candidates.

Thirdly, there should be more intense pressure for effective judiciary reform, as courts in transitional societies such as Georgia could and should serve as the last resort against authoritarianism and bad governance.

Finally, strategic planners in Brussels may consider accelerating, instead of stalling, Georgia’s European integration process in order to have stronger leverage for supporting the democratic process and the rule of law in the country.

If any of these takes place, the re-tabling of the notorious draft legislation will effectively backfire, while the majority of the Georgian population and voters may understand the dangerous consequences of apparent authoritarian tendencies, and of the same political entity staying in power for too long.

Gia Tarkhan-Mouravi is co-director of the Institute of Political Studies in Tbilisi.