The country has tilted towards favoring and courting Russia.
Originally published on Global Voices
Image by Arzu Geybullayeva
Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, Georgia filed an application to become a member of the European Union. Since then, the ruling Georgian Dream party has found itself in the hot water over a slew of decisions, statements, and criticisms leveled against the West. The ruling government has also taken a U-turn on freedoms and human rights. As recent as May 2023, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili attended the Conservative Political Action Coalition (CPAC) meeting in Budapest, where the politician lashed out against LGBTQ+ people claiming they were spreading propaganda that was against the country’s “traditional family values.” But it isn’t just the ruling government’s anti-LGBTQ+ stance or its deteriorating track record on freedoms and democracy that is drawing international attention. Georgian Dream has also made significant shifts in its relationship with Russia ever since the latter invaded Ukraine.
Away from the EU, closer to Russia
In May 2023, Georgia resumed flights to and from Russia. One of those flights carried Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s relatives, including his internationally sanctioned daughter Ekaterina Vinokurova and her husband Alexander Vinokurov, who is also under sanctions. Lavrov’s family was visiting Georgia for the wedding of Mika (Moshe) Vinokurov, the brother-in-law of Lavrov’s daughter.
Also in May, while attending a security conference in Bratislava, Georgian Prime Minister Gharibashvili overtly accused Ukraine of being the main reason why the war started in the first place. “I don’t want to quote the statements of the Russian government, but one of the reasons was Ukraine’s will and determination to become a member of NATO. Therefore we see the consequence,” said Gharibashvili. During the same conference, he lashed out at the EU as well, criticizing the institution for granting Ukraine and Moldova the candidate status while denying the same status to Georgia. The Prime Minister claimed that Georgia was ahead of the other two nations in terms of “reforms, performance, and this and that.”
In response to the prime minister’s statements during the conference in Bratislava, MEP Rasa Juknevičienė wrote, “Govorit Moskva!” (Moscow speaks!), on Twitter. Former US Ambassador to Georgia Ian Kelly described the statements as “bad analysis” and “offensive,” blaming “Ukraine for its sovereign will to join the West.”
Unlike the Georgian Dream party, the EU sees Georgia as lagging behind Ukraine and Moldova. During the 12th meeting of the EU–Georgia Parliamentary Association Committee, Marina Kaljurand who was chairing the meeting, said, “Georgia was lagging behind Ukraine and Moldova and that its fulfillment of the 12 recommendations laid out by the EU for its candidate status to be reexamined was ‘incomplete, patchy, and often superficial’ while warning the country risked missing a ‘historic chance’ to join the EU,” reported OC Media. To which, Georgian Dream’s General Secretary and Mayor of Tbilisi Kakha Kaladze said Kaljurand was “talking about another country and is completely out of touch with reality.”
The ruling government announced its plan to apply for EU membership in March 2022, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — one day after Ukraine made its formal application. At the time, the move was described as a U-turn for the ruling Georgian Dream Party, which up until recently, insisted it would not accelerate its initial timeline of applying for membership in 2024.
In June 2022, the President of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said, “We recommend to Council to grant the European perspective [to Georgia] and to come back and assess how Georgia meets a number of conditions, before granting it candidate status.” To be granted candidate status, the country must meet certain conditions, including reducing political polarization, reforming the judiciary, ensuring functioning state institutions, strengthening anti-corruption measures, including de-oligarchisation, and others. While the de-oligarchisation clause does not mention any specific names, it is widely understood to refer to the Georgian Dream founder and billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Ivanishvili is a key figure in Georgian politics. He made his fortune in the pre-Putin era in Russia and founded the Georgian Dream party in 2012. While Ivanishvili publicly announced his decision to leave politics in 2021, some believe he is still calling the shots behind the scenes. In June 2022, the European Parliament adopted a resolution “on violations of media freedom and the safety of journalists in Georgia.” The document called on Georgian officials to impose personal sanctions on Ivanishvili “for his role in the deterioration of the political process in Georgia.”
It took the government in Georgia a year to put together a bill on de-oligarchisation, which was adopted by the Georgian parliament on June 13, 2023, despite the objections raised by the Venice Commission, which argued that for de-oligarchisation to become effective, it is not enough to adopt or amend laws but take “concrete measures” aiming to “reduce oligarchic influence.”
The European Commission will share its interim opinion in October and will vote on Georgia’s candidacy status again in December 2023.
Deterioration on all domestic fronts
Shortly after the prime minister’s speech in Budapest, the ruling party said it was withdrawing its observer membership from the Party of European Socialists (PES), the second-largest party in the European Parliament. PES criticized Gharibashvili for taking part in the conference in Budapest. In an interview with OC Media, a PES representative said, “for several months [they] discussed, expressed concern at, and condemned activities by Georgian Dream which place the party outside the values of the PES.”
Back in Tbilisi, the state was quick to go after the critics of Gharibashvili’s statements about Ukraine and its NATO aspirations, as well as calling on the authorities to respect the right to freedom of expression and assembly. In June, when a group of activists gathered outside of the parliament with banners and posters, police were swift to intervene, ripping some of the posters and confiscating the activists’ signs. At least three of the detained activists are now on trial on charges of hooliganism and disobeying police.
A few days later, Georgian police once again were seen using force against the protesters who gathered outside the parliament building in the capital holding signs that police confiscated or tore apart on the grounds they were “offensive,” reported OC Media. Some banners had Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili’s name written in the Georgian alphabet, swapping the letter “k” (‘კ’) for the letter “ყ” resembling the Georgian word for “dick.” Police also detained at least six people at the protest to “defend freedom of expression” in Batumi.
In the following weeks, media reported on a series of violent incidents that took place in the capital Tbilisi against critics of the ruling government, including one journalist Misha Mshvildadze, co-founder of the opposition-aligned TV station Formula, and two opposition politicians, Zurab Girchi Japaridze, chair of the libertarian opposition party Girchi – More Freedom, and Davit Osikmishvili, a member of the opposition United National Movement (UNM) party.
Also in June, the parliament struck down a model suggested as part of an EU-brokered deal on the Electoral Code. As such, rather than having the President appoint and decide on the makeup of the Central Election Commission (CEC), it will be the parliament and the speaker of the parliament making that decision, according to the new amendments passed on June 14. The EU deal, which dates back to April 2021, was between Georgia’s ruling party and the opposition and included a judicial and electoral reforms package. The deal came at a time when Georgia was engulfed in a political crisis, as opposition groups were contesting the results of parliamentary elections won by the ruling Georgian Dream Party in October 2020. The contesting parties reached an agreement on April 19, 2021, with mediation from the United States and the European Union. Months later, the Georgia Dream announced its decision to withdraw from the agreement in a press briefing.
But there is a visible divide between what the Georgian Dream wants and what the people of Georgia envision. About 90 percent of Georgian people view Russia as a threat, according to International Republican Institute’s survey released in March 2022. According to the same survey, over 50 percent of Georgians view the EU and US as Georgia’s main partners. And over 70 percent of Georgia’s population wants to see the country join the EU. Although Georgian Dream only recently told the public the country was on the path to joining the EU during the country’s independence day, pro-EU and democratic supporters believe that these are just empty promises.
Written by Arzu Geybullayeva
LGBTQ+ – Global Voices