The current political situation in what was once a frontrunner country in the rule of law and democracy within Europe’s Eastern neighbourhood is worrying. For at least two years, Georgia has been in the grip of a permanent political crisis, whose end – particularly after the second round of local elections on 30 October 2021 – is not in sight.
One of the reasons for this unfortunate state of affairs is Georgia’s highly polarised society. There appear to be irreconcilable differences between the supporters of the ruling party, Georgian Dream, and the largest opposition party, the United National Movement (UNM). Mikheil Saakashvili, the imprisoned former President and founder of the UNM, is on hunger strike in order to secure a fair trial. The current political leadership has put a question mark over his pro-Western, pro-European policy course. The images of mass street protests, held even during the pandemic, reflect a widespread sense of hopelessness. Where is Georgia heading?
Historic local elections
After the controversial parliamentary elections in October 2020, the local elections on 30 October 2021 were a historic moment which, for many people, raised hopes of an end to the era of one-party government. Elections were held in 15 municipalities and five self-governing cities, including Tbilisi. According to official results from the Central Election Commission, Georgian Dream was the election winner in all the municipalities, with the sole exception of Tsalendjikha in the west of the country. The opposition coalition has refused to accept the election results. It is demanding new elections and is attempting to put the government under pressure with ongoing street protests.
It is a sad truth that almost all the elections held to date were characterised by extensive use of administrative resources, including threats of dismissal on political grounds or intimidation and bribery of public officials. Other such measures include the creation of favourable conditions for the ruling party in the election commissions, provocations at polling stations and irregularities in election tallies. Given that the result of the elections in some local authorities was too close to call, these irregularities may well have influenced the outcome on 30 October. The International Election Observation Mission also noted considerable pressurising of voters, along with a clear imbalance in the allocation of resources, to the ruling party’s benefit, as EU Ambassador Carl Hartzell notes in his statement. On top of that, there is lack of independence of the judiciary and public distrust of the courts.
Despite the opposition coalition’s narrow defeat, the long-term signals point to change. It is clear that oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili’s party has had its day and now merely conveys an illusion of power. If the opposition shows some political maturity, acts pragmatically and presents a credible strategy, and if it succeeds in mitigating the polarisation of society, early parliamentary elections cannot be ruled out.
Disappointed Western partners
A number of recent events in EU-Georgian relations suggest that the EU is disappointed in its former model pupil. The Western partners, who see this partnership as being based first and foremost on common values, are concerned that after 30 years of Georgian independence, the shared path towards democracy and rule of law is no longer being pursued. They are also irritated by the Georgian government’s dismissive and disparaging tone towards the EU. A watershed moment occurred on 28 July 2021, when the Georgian government withdrew unexpectedly and unilaterally from the agreement to overcome the political crisis, which European Council President Charles Michel had spent months negotiating. The 19 April 2021 agreement includes a clause on reforms aimed at building an independent judiciary, but Georgian Dream has yet to implement this provision and continues to make politically motivated judicial appointments to the Supreme Court.
Soon afterwards, in August 2021, the Georgian government, at its own initiative, rejected the financial assistance from the EU, despite the grave economic crisis facing the country. Brussels took the view that Georgia was no longer entitled to the upcoming tranche of financial assistance in any case, due to its failure to implement the reforms. In essence, with this decision, the Georgian government has rejected a tried and tested EU instrument of conditionality and questioned its effectiveness. The loss of trust was exacerbated by indications that the Georgian state intelligence agency had been spying on Western diplomats.
Not least, the calls from some MEPs for an end to the political persecution of former President Saakashvili in Georgia and for him to be given a fair trial were dismissed in forthright comments by Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili. Then on 31 October 2021, the Georgian Conference of Judges appointed two new judge members to the High Council of Justice. These appointments took place on the day after the local elections and only four days after the publication of the Conference’s agenda. The new appointees’ predecessors, whose terms in office had not yet expired, had unexpectedly resigned from their positions. No announcement of candidates was made in advance of the appointments. According to EU Ambassador Carl Hartzell, this is the fifth setback in the area of the judiciary and rule of law in Georgia within only four months.
After all of this, it is legitimate to ask whether Georgia’s European integration, which is enshrined in the Georgian constitution, will henceforth be anything more than a formal aspiration. Are we seeing a progressive change of foreign policy course in this EU-associated country?
In order to embark on a stable reform course, a transition country needs firm political will and a strong civil society. There is still a firm commitment to the Euro-Atlantic path within Georgian civil society. Indeed, the majority of the Georgian people (80 per cent) are in favour of the European path, and expectations of the EU are correspondingly high. The road towards more democracy and the rule of law is rocky, however, and requires a well-crafted strategy, patience and active participation, not only by politicians but also by civil society. For that reason, the EU should not lose its strategic patience but should collaborate more resolutely with its Western partners to play a formative, partnership-based role in Georgia.
Dr Khatia Kikalishvili is the Programme Director of the Eastern Partnership Project at the Center for Liberal Modernity (LibMod).
*The English version of this article has been updated on 12 November.