TBILISI — Anger is surging among a growing number of Georgians, who fear that their country’s government is deliberately undermining Tbilisi’s EU aspirations.
To tens of thousands of protesters, who gather at weekly protests, it came as a bitter blow that their Caucasian nation of 3.7 million failed to win EU candidate status alongside Ukraine and Moldova at a meeting of European leaders on June 23.
At demonstrations calling for the government to resign, Georgian, Ukrainian and EU anthems blast from loudspeakers as crowds pack Tbilisi’s central Rustaveli Avenue, where Georgian and EU flags flutter side by side.
The idea of joining the EU enjoys overwhelming public support in Georgia, where the pivotal geopolitical choice is largely between Moscow and the West. According to polls, some 88 percent and 75 percent of Georgians support EU and NATO membership respectively.
“We are dealing with a national issue — maintaining long-term independence, which is possible only through the EU. There is no other solution for our country’s existential problem,” said civil activist Shota Dighmelashvili as he addressed crowds on July 3.
The problem is that the ruling Georgian Dream party, in power since 2012, has failed to show its commitment to these European aspirations, pushing many to wonder whether Georgian Dream is appeasing Russia to the detriment of Georgia’s European future.
The protesters worry that former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is widely believed to be the puppeteer behind the ruling party he founded, doesn’t want intrusive EU reforms to rock the boat with the Kremlin.
Ivanishvili, whose assets represent more than 20 percent of Georgia’s entire economic output, made billions in Russia before becoming Georgian prime minister. Under his leadership, Georgian Dream defeated the United National Movement party in 2012 and, since then, it has maintained power by doubling down on accusations that the opposition is the public enemy — forcing the nation into a feverish political polarization.
Solidarity — and the lack of it — with Ukraine
Fears that the Georgian government wanted to appease Russia intensified in the immediate aftermath of President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, when Tbilisi diverged from the West’s path of sanctions and instead seized the opportunity to export goods to Russia.
As Georgia itself has experienced a Russian invasion, with the onslaught against South Ossetia in 2008, people took to the streets in massive demonstrations of their solidarity with Ukrainians.
“There are times when citizens are not the government, but better [than] the government,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tweeted in response. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Georgian officials then gave Ukrainian leadership a retaliatory tongue-lashing.
Later, when Georgia was denied candidate status, the government suggested that it was because the country was not involved in the war, even insinuating that the West, with the help of the Georgian opposition, wanted to drag Georgia into the war.
“Theoretically speaking, if a war starts in Georgia by December, the candidate status is guaranteed for us. You will probably agree that reception of the candidate status this way is not worth it,” Irakli Kobakhidze, chairman of the Georgian Dream party, said on July 5.
Tinatin Akhvlediani, a research fellow at the Brussels-based think tank CEPS, noted Georgia had an impressive track record of fulfilling its association agreement to foster deeper political and economic engagement with the EU, even surpassing Ukraine and Moldova in this regard. The fact that this didn’t ultimately help it win candidate status meant that there would appear to be a political obstacle in the form of the government, she suggested.
“Given its progress on association agreement, Georgia should have received as much as Ukraine and Moldova have received if obviously, the government wouldn’t sabotage its current application,” Akhvlediani said.
Insults and an arrest
In a maverick move for a country aspiring to membership, the Georgian government took to insulting European officials and institutions as the country waited for the European Commission to announce its decision.
For several years, MEPs and other EU officials have been warning Georgia about its democratic backsliding and the political leadership lashed back.
In one of the more caustic exchanges, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili accused former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt and his wife, a former member of the European Parliament, of channeling millions out of the country under the United National Movement administration. Bildt tweeted back that Garibashvili was “beyond repair.”
“He’s gone off the rails. He’s a tragedy for what is a very fine country,” Bildt said.
German MEP Viola von Cramon also found herself under fire for criticizing the ruling party over the sentencing of prominent government critic Nika Gvaramia. Georgian Dream party chair Kobakhidze lambasted her as “the guardian of criminals.”
“To put it mildly, it is unwise to be personally attacking your main allies who daily defend Georgia’s European aspirations in Brussels and elsewhere. This makes me wonder whether the Georgian government truly shares the aspirations of its people to become members of the EU,” von Cramon told POLITICO.
Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili also wondered about the logic behind such attacks.
“I have many questions, but I don’t think that you expect the president of a country to say that the government is sabotaging the country … I must say that I have opposed this rhetoric, I have many questions as to what was the political logic behind such rhetoric and clearly, it has not helped, to say the least, the issue of our candidature,” Zurabishvili told POLITICO.
Suspicions that Georgia is undermining its own bid were only compounded by the timing of the sentencing of Gvaramia, head of Georgia’s main opposition-leaning TV channel. As it is widely believed that the Georgian court acts in step with the government, the sentencing of Gvaramia, while Georgia was still waiting for the European Commission’s decision, was perceived as a calculated move.
In response to criticism, party chair Kobakhidze said that MEPs who criticize the government over Gvaramia’s arrest were themselves detached from European values. “Exactly such people, who are constantly pushing the system towards injustice, are in essence anti-EU, because European values are many things, but among them, one of the most important is the rule of law,” he said.
The path ahead
Although Georgia didn’t receive candidate status this time around, the European Council provided an opportunity for Tbilisi to catch up, imposing a series of conditions. Among other things, the list includes addressing political polarization, implementing a commitment to “deoligarchization” and ensuring judicial independence.
The government recently presented a plan detailing how it aims to meet these goals, but it failed to impress the opposition. The government’s plan relies on creating parliamentary working groups to monitor the delivery of each priority, which some of the opposition groups believe won’t make the cut.
One of the most vexed points on the list is “deoligarchization,” which seems hard for Georgia to achieve. The ruling party has pledged to adopt a law but it would not affect its founding oligarch, Ivanishvili.
When the European Parliament adopted a resolution critical of Georgia on June 9, suggesting personal sanctions on Ivanishvili “for his role in the deterioration of the political process in Georgia,” the ruling party rushed to his defense. Prime Minister Garibashvili slammed the resolution as “irresponsible and offensive to Georgian people.”
When the stakes are so high for Georgia, such devotion to Ivanishvili means that “deoligarchization” will probably remain in limbo. The ruling party refuses to acknowledge Ivanishvili’s influence on Georgian politics, instead suggesting that the imprisoned former President Mikheil Saakashvili is the true oligarch.
Speaking with POLITICO, President Zurabishvili stressed that while she thought Ivanishvili probably exerts some power, she doubted he makes actual political decisions.
“For a long time, I’ve been saying to the authorities that they should have taken some steps to clarify the appellation of Russian oligarch about Ivanishvili … Is he exerting some power? I would probably say yes. Is he exerting the power? I would probably say no. Since he has distanced himself [from politics] for two years now, I don’t think that he’s the one to make the actual political decisions,” she said.
The question is whether the Georgian leadership will ever manage to overcome internal confrontation for the greater good.
Kornely Kakachia, the director of the Tbilisi-based think tank Georgian Institute of Politics, thinks that, so far, political parties are playing a zero-sum game.
“The ruling party’s basic instinct is to cling to power at all costs,” he said. “Fulfilment of the European Commission’s recommendations would deprive them of the leverage to maintain their power. Equalizing the power balance could potentially result in them losing elections. Such a scenario is unacceptable for them.”