Whither Europe? Illiberalism in Georgia and the dilemma of Eastern Enlargement10 min read

 In Analysis, Caucasus, Politics
Once the poster child for progress towards European integration, Georgia has fallen deeper into crisis as the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party lurches further towards illiberalism. Already host to a deeply polarised political scene, Tbilisi’s embrace of ‘Orbánism’ has seen the rule of law deteriorate more each year. Can Brussels navigate the geopolitical imperatives at the heart of its enlargement process while still upholding the EU’s principles?

The atmosphere on Tbilisi’s Rustaveli Avenue was once jubilant. The street, which some thirty years before had been the epicentre of a violent civil war which threatened to tear Georgia apart, was beset by joyful citizens having come to celebrate the European Union’s granting of candidate status to Georgia on 23 December 2023. 

It seemed to many of those gathered that their homeland’s decades-long journey towards a more prosperous and just democracy was bearing fruit, and a deeper embrace of Western institutions was finally at hand. Even the ruling GD party, who nine months prior had nearly derailed the country’s candidacy in their abortive attempt at passing a so-called “Law on Foreign Agents,” seemed to revel in the success. 

The elation felt throughout Georgia in December would not last. Just a week later, Georgia’s premier oligarch and éminence grise Bidzina Ivanishvili made his official return to politics. The reemergence of Ivanishvili, a figure noted by Transparency International to have substantial financial interests in Russia and already under consideration for EU sanctions, was merely the first in a series of broadsides against the country’s Westward orientation. On 25 March, GD proposed a new law targeting the country’s LGBTQ+ community, prohibiting sex-changes and same-sex adoption, among other restrictions. On 3 April, the party announced the reintroduction of the previously disavowed Foreign Agents Law, spurring strong rebukes from the domestic civil society and international partners, including the European Union and United States, in addition to mass protests.

By late April, ruling party officials had given a dizzying marathon of statements denouncing Western funding for civil society as “opaque,” attacking Western leaders and ambassadors as members of a so-called “Global Party of War,” and dismissing the possibility that the country could face any serious repercussions from Brussels in response. Most alarmingly, Ivanishvili himself warned he would “punish” the political opposition in a chilling speech on 29 April , threatening to jail political dissenters for their perceived crimes against the nation.

Rustaveli today alternates between a stage for Ivanishvili’s increasingly dark pronouncements for Georgia’s political future, and a battlefield between black-clad police and a growing movement of protestors bent on salvaging the country’s European integration.

And still, just a few months ago it had seemed that Georgia could not have been more united. Giorgi Sirbiladze, one of the protest organisers, described the emotional rollercoaster:“Georgia in Europe, and Georgia in the Euros. Everybody had this vibe, that we’d written this whole story together.” Now, all anyone can ask is, “How did we get here?”

Giorgi Sirbiladze rallies fellow protestors at Tbilisi’s Chancellery building during demonstrations against the foreign agent law. Photo courtesy of Kacper Sienicki.

These steps from the ruling party, and the confidence with which they have been taken, unveil deep contradictions at the heart of Georgian society and politics. Georgia’s own constitution requires its government to “take all measures within the scope of their competencies to ensure the full integration of Georgia into the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.” Surveys have consistently demonstrated that more than 80 percent of the country supports membership in the EU.

Even the ruling party’s salvos against the political opposition are qualified with assurances that Georgia must “attain full membership in the European family.” However, compliance with the EU’s expectation in regard to election transparency and de-oligarchisation directly threaten the interests of a ruling party with close ties to figures such as Ivanishvili.

EU membership also demands a more serious reckoning with human rights and the rule of law in a state that remains unwilling or unable to protect them, a fact made alarmingly clear in the seemingly annual beatings which are perpetrated at Tbilisi’s Pride events and parades by far-right agitators. While social attitudes in Georgia have grown more liberal in the years since independence, the persistence of this fissure within society has provided politicians with a useful foil through which they may shore up support against their primary rival, the United National Movement (UNM).

Indeed, UNM – and particularly their founder Mikheil Saakashvili – themselves embody some of the paradoxes at the root of Georgia’s troubles. While once the standard-bearer for European integration and liberalism in Georgia, the latter years of Saakashvili’s presidency were beset by human rights abuses and corruption scandals, leading to UNM’s loss of power in 2012.

Attempts by the EU to support rule of law and policing reforms became weaponised under their rule, as the state increasingly restricted the space for political dissent with violent police repression. Even a decade later, the spectre of Saakashvili’s return haunts the country’s leading opposition party and provides GD with ample fodder to label political opponents as “liberal fascists” and dismiss European demands which include Saakashvili’s release from prison on humanitarian grounds.

“This is partly why the foreign agent law is so dangerous,” Sirbiladze pointed out, “civil society maintains a credibility with the public that the political parties often lack.” The resources poured by Washington and Brussels into developing this reliable partner towards the country’s European integration over the last thirty years may yet be in vain if the law ultimately passes. 

Western officials have been hesitant to place direct blame on GD, until recently avoiding a confrontational tone and giving Georgian officials space to adjust the law to address their concerns. Indeed, the US Embassy took great pains previously to highlight the key differences between the proposed Georgian law and its alleged American counterpart, the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

Some activists, including Sirbiladze, are sceptical that this will help: “The European Union should send a clear message that GD is guilty of this. It should send a very clear message. If they address the issue of the oligarch [Ivanishvili], if they levy sanctions, that’s it.” The Georgian Dream party, in the meantime, appears to have grown less willing to communicate, even turning down an invitation in early May to discuss the US-Georgian relationship, according to the American Ambassador. The breakdown in communications has been years in the making.

In Orbán’s orbit

Insofar as Georgia’s contradictions relate to the country’s place in the European Union, GD figures like Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze and his predecessor Irakli Garibashvili have gradually aligned with the bloc’s own illiberal bogeyman, Hungarian PM Viktor Orban. This relationship grew close during the coronavirus pandemic, as Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó became the first foreign official to visit Georgia during the outbreak. High-level visits to Budapest from the Georgian government soon followed, culminating in the signing of a strategic partnership agreement in 2023.

Orbán’s circumscribed approach to liberalism and his self-declared project to build an “illiberal state” were a natural fit for Georgian Dream, who have now made multiple pilgrimages to conservative political conferences in Budapest aimed at selling this vision to whoever will listen, including politicians and New Right activists from the US’ Republican Party and now-ousted members of the previous Polish government under the Law and Justice party. Increasing alignment between these actors, especially within the EU, undermines the bloc’s ability to pursue a unified approach to rule of law in their preference for elite dominance over state institutions, in addition to their at-times tenuous commitment to the bloc’s common foreign policy. For governments in Hungary and Georgia, such is the price for their buy-in to the European project, which itself is increasingly seeing electoral success by far-right parties such as the ascendent Brothers of Italy and Alternative for Germany

Most importantly for Georgia, the “illiberal state” provided an ideological justification for the party’s capture of the judiciary and silencing of critical media platforms. As the relationship between Georgian Dream (still nominally a centre-left party) and its partners in the Party of European Socialists has largely ended through its exit from the parliamentary bloc, GD could still count on Orbán’s Hungary to advocate for the country’s candidacy into the EU. Further, the relationship allowed political leadership in Georgia to reap the political rewards of candidacy status without having to weaken their hold on power and fully adhere to the EU’s expectations. With Hungary’s presidency over the European Council beginning in July, the relationship may grow even more fruitful.

Between a Rock and a hard place

This presents a dilemma for Brussels. On the one hand, increasing aggression from Moscow has intensified pressure to bring aspiring members on Europe’s vulnerable eastern flank into the fold. The European Union’s enlargement policy emphasises its role in stabilising the bloc’s near abroad. However, Russia has grown increasingly destabilising since February 2022 by exacerbating tensions over migrants, undermining regional energy security, and violating the sovereignty of its neighbours. Failure to bring Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia into the fold now could endanger their trajectory over the longer term, even if the current governments are not the most liberal or reliable partners.

On the other hand, Orbán’s schtick has become enough of a nuisance on its own, and the EU may grow only more dysfunctional by absorbing his “strategic partner” without serious reforms being undertaken by Tbilisi. Even if the European Union were to ignore democratic backsliding in Georgia in the interest of bringing the country out of the rain and under its own umbrella, there are no guarantees that GD would not find new reasons to stall the accession process for its own partisan purposes. Such a development could even prove damaging to the enlargement policy as a whole, which stands to lose credibility in its acceptance of behaviour by candidates clearly at odds with the expectations of member states.

Public dissent against growing illiberalism in the Georgian government continues to grow, buoyed by faith in Georgia’s candidacy status in the bloc. Photo courtesy of the author.

As a result, the EU has grown even more insistent on reforms. Chief among these today is the withdrawal of the proposed law on foreign influence, which the European Parliament voted on 24 April to require in order for accession talks to be opened. Other European lawmakers have gone further, calling for sanctions to be enacted against Ivanishvili.

A more robust consensus appears to be taking shape in Brussels that while the bloc’s enlargement should come, it must be accompanied by real commitments to the European political project, and the bloc must work proactively to entice reform as it can. A September 2023 report from the Franco-German working group made a series of recommendations to better prepare EU institutions for the challenges of enlargement, such as strengthening conditionality on commitment to rule of law for future payments from the bloc and switching from unanimity to qualified majority votes in order to circumvent obstructionism.

A larger question remains as to how the EU can entice Georgia’s ruling party to cooperate without rolling over. Small cracks have shown in support for the law within some sections of GD’s electoral base, and October’s looming elections may offer leverage to Brussels as it seeks to press the issue. High-level public statements and narrowly focused technocratic projects may not be enough to win over authorities in Tbilisi, however, and a more gradual approach to integration benefits has not yet fully been offered by the bloc.

Meanwhile, public fear for the future pervades in Georgia – much to GD’s benefit. “I’m often surprised when youngsters ask me: ‘If GD loses the elections, if we grow closer to Europe, will Russia invade again?” Sirbiladze remarked. “In 2008, everybody saw Russian planes in the sky. Georgian Dream reminds them at every opportunity.”

Feature image courtesy of the author.
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