Georgia, a country that has long been moving toward European integration, has recently witnessed changes in its political course. The Georgian Dream party, which previously promised to lead Georgia to the EU, plays key role in these changes. Now, the party’s recent promises and actions directly contradict the country’s prospects to join the European Union (EU).
The October 2020 parliamentary elections in Georgia caused a political crisis. The ruling Georgian Dream party won with 48.22% of the vote and 90 seats out of 150. After the results were announced, the opposition and civil society organizations accused the election of fraud and lack of transparency. This led to mass protests in Tbilisi and other cities of Georgia.
Protests in 2020, Georgia. Source – European Pravda.
In November, the European Commission sent its representative, Charles Michel, to mediate and manage to resolve the crisis. Under his leadership, a Memorandum was signed to identify ways to overcome the political crisis, in particular: to reform the electoral system and conduct repeat elections in the districts where violations have occurred .
This document provoked a split in the political landscape of Georgia, and at the end of February 2021, the Georgian Dream party decided to terminate the Memorandum and refuse to hold repeat elections, recognizing that the electoral system would not be reformed under the conditions set by the opposition. Subsequently, the office of the main opposition party was stormed, and its leader, Nika Meliy, was detained. These decisions provoked a resonance and outrage from Georgia’s Western partners, who had been observing the crisis resolution process.
Despite these steps, the country tried to imitate the Western course. Thus, in May 2021, Georgia, the Republic of Moldova, and Ukraine signed the Associated Trio Memorandum, and later, in July, the Batumi Summit Declaration was signed. In these documents the three countries expressed their strong support for the European path, emphasizing that European integration remains the only acceptable choice for the countries and no third party can influence this sovereign choice.
Signing of the Associated Trio Memorandum in 2021. Source – Suspilne.
A “POLICY OF PATIENCE” OR A GESTURE TO RUSSIA
Since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the manifestations of anti-Western actions in Georgia have become more visible. Despite criticism, Georgia refused to join the anti-Russian sanctions imposed by most democratic countries and, on the contrary, strengthened economic cooperation and dependence on Russia.
“Anyone who calls on Georgia to impose bilateral sanctions against Russia is calling on Georgia to take the risk of escalation against Russia, that is, to take the risk of a possible war with Russia.” Speaker of the Parliament of Georgia Shalva Papuashvili (Georgian Dream Party)
In May 2023, Georgia resumed direct flights with Russia, which justifiably caused outrage and an official demarche from the European Union. Ukraine responded by imposing sanctions on Georgian Airlines, a move that was described as a “political decision” by Georgia’s Minister of Economy and Sustainable Development, who said that “the context of Georgia is different from that of the EU member states.”
Constant manifestations of the Georgian government’s interest in developing relations with Moscow was not unnoticed. Thus, the refusal to impose sanctions against Russia received a reaction from the Kremlin authorities: decrees on abolition of the visa regime for Georgian citizens and lifting the ban on flights to Georgia.
Meetings between Georgian and Russian politicians. Source – Sputnik Georgia.
Responding to the accusations, Shalva Papuashvili, Chairman of the Georgian Parliament from the Georgian Dream party, emphasized: “Sanctions are an absolute absurdity, the European Union does not demand that Georgia impose sanctions against Russia. If it did, then, in parallel, it would have to give us guarantees of military and economic security.”
This opinion was supported by the Prime Minister of Georgia, Irakli Garibashvili. During the Global Security Forum in Bratislava, he appealed to the well-known Russian myth of a “provoked conflict”: “I don’t want to speculate, I don’t want to quote the statements of the Russian government. But one of the reasons was Ukraine’s desire to become a NATO member. So, we see the consequences.” This statement raises questions about the intentions of the Georgian authorities to abandon the wishes of their people.
The Speaker of the Parliament emphasized: “We do not pursue a policy of concessions to Russia. Our policy is a strategic policy of patience. The main goal is to unite the country and European integration, and peace and economic progress are important for achieving these goals.” Mr. Papuashvili also emphasized that Georgia is trying its best to avoid provocations and threats, including those that may come from Russia, and will not give anything to anyone for anything.
WHAT IS THIS “STRATEGIC POLICY OF PATIENCE”? WHAT DOES IT CONSIST OF?
In addition to the above statements and actions, one example of this policy on the part of the Georgian authorities is the party’s refusal to vote in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe for a resolution recognizing Russia as a dictatorial state, and calling for the non-recognition of Vladimir Putin as a legitimate president after his current term.
The ruling party’s silence continued even after the news of Russia’s plans to establish a naval base in the Ochamchiri region (temporarily occupied Abkhazia). The Georgian Foreign Ministry expressed concern, and the majority of the Parliament refused to consider a draft resolution that would have condemned Russia’s plans to move its ships to Georgian land. Against the backdrop of an internal political split, the Georgian Dream party’s activities are actively opposed by the Georgian president.
Salome Zurabishvili strongly condemned the decision of the “parliament” of the temporarily occupied Abkhazia to transfer the Sukhumi airport (a strategic facility) to Russia and recognized it as “illegal”. The President also called for a adamand reaction from the international community to Russia’s actions that violate international law. Zurabishvili emphasized on the importance of keeping the Black Sea out of Russia’s control.
Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili at the Crimean Platform International Summit in August 2023. Source – 1tv.ge
“This war (between Russia and Ukraine) once again demonstrated the global importance of our region, and confirmed the argument that the Black Sea is clearly an indivisible basis for European stability and security. This sea cannot be left under the control of a government that is ready to change maritime security and free transit, as well as to interfere with global food supplies, for its own military ambitions.”
Considering this political crisis, it becomes obvious why only Georgia of the “Associated Trio” was not granted the status of a candidate for membership in the European Union, and, as the President emphasized, this was not a mistake.
“As a citizen, I was very upset that Georgia was not granted EU candidate status, but it was a kind of warning,” Zurabishvili said. At one time, the President negatively commented on the sharp increase in the number of Russians in Georgia.
“Today, Russia is testing the second front with the help of soft power, with the help of propaganda… The vast majority of people who are fleeing Russia today are not Putin’s supporters. But at the same time, we are aware of the threats used by Russia: that if Russian speakers are not properly protected, it can be used as a pretext for an invasion,” Zurabishvili said.
WHERE IS GEORGIA HEADED IN 2024?
The conflict between Zurabishvili and the Georgian Dream has been going on for a long time, and reached its peak when the government decided to ban visits to certain countries. Despite this ban, in 2023 Zurabishvili conducted a European tour, ignoring the possibility of impeachment, which failed, and the party’s intention to open a criminal proceeding against her. At the time, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, said that the issue of impeaching the Georgian president was “a risk that would make the situation even more tense.”
A cross-section of public opinion leans toward the president’s pro-European stance. A study by the International Republican Institute (IRI) shows that the majority of Georgian citizens (78%) do not support easy, visa-free entry of Russian citizens into the country, and their ability to set-up businesses and buy real estate.
Over the past year, the rating of the Georgian Dream party in Georgia has dropped significantly due to protests and controversy over decisions that contradict the country’s European course.
During the mass protests in March 2023 against the law on “foreign agents,” the Georgian population clearly demonstrated its position on European integration, and the president expressed support for the protesters, promising to veto the law if the parliament passes the law on “foreign agents” again. However, due to the absence of an influential leader and a unified voice in the opposition, the protesters were unable to achieve significant results or gain anything more.
Despite the conflicts and protests during the last elections in 2020, the Georgian Dream party managed to hold on to the elections in a mixed 120/30 (proportional/majoritarian) format. However, according to amendments to the Constitution, the next elections in Georgia in 2024 will be fully proportional. This complicates the possibility of falsification, which the Georgian Dream is preparing for.
In addition, despite the president’s veto, the parliament was able to amend the Election Code to provide that candidates for the position of chairman and members of the Central Election Commission of Georgia will be nominated by the speaker of the Parliament, not the President. These positions will be appointed by a simple majority vote.
After the parliamentary elections, Georgia will hold presidential elections, also under the new rules. The President will be elected by a 300-member Electoral College, half of which will constitute members of Parliament and another one – will be regional delegates. Therefore, the benefits of the ruling party and its influence on the country’s fate will obviously be even greater. The Secretary General of the Georgian Dream party has already expressed his belief that the party will govern the country for at least another eight years.
“I am confident that in 2024 Georgian Dream will win with a convincing, very big result. I am confident that we will win the 2025 local government elections and the 2028 parliamentary elections.” Kakha Kaladze, Secretary General of the Georgian Dream party and Mayor of Tbilisi in July 2023.
INSTEAD OF CONCULUSIONS
The Georgian nation is now facing an important choice that will determine its future path and future in a European context. Ukrainians were in a similar situation when in 2013 they fought for the right of the country to move towards the democratic West from their own government.
Previously, Georgia had the opportunity for rapid European integration as part of the “Associated Trio” led by Ukraine. However, the country’s ruling party chose a policy of appeasing Russia when the whole world began to realize that the Kremlin understands only the “language of power.” Such a course may further drag Georgia into a zone of turbulence and lead to serious negative consequences, including the possibility of active hostilities, which always go hand in hand with the Russian offer of friendship.
Yaroslav Onenko for the Ukrainian Security and Cooperation Center