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Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, leader of the created by him the Georgian Dream party. Alamy Stock Photo
VOICES

Georgia unrest 'The Kremlin is relishing the falling out between the ruling party and the EU'

Donnacha Ó Beacháin looks at the recent political turmoil in Georgia and assesses where it will all lead.

LAST UPDATE | 20 May

GEORGIA IS NO stranger to political tumult and once again the country has endured weeks of mass protests, police brutality and international condemnation triggered by the passage of a deeply polarising law on ‘foreign agents’.

The legislation is controversial, as it would require civil society organisations and media outlets in receipt of funding from outside of Georgia to register as organisations “bearing the interests of a foreign power”, subjecting them to enhanced government oversight and possible sanctions.

Critics have dubbed it “the Russian law” as the Kremlin has in place similar legislation designed to quash NGOs and non-government-controlled media. Given Georgia’s relative poverty and the huge resources at the disposal of the state, NGOs play an important role in promoting human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.

The legislation evokes strong emotions because many see it as consolidating authoritarianism in Georgia and jeopardising the country’s chances of joining the EU, which most Georgians favour. Coming so soon after the EU’s decision to award Georgia candidate status, protesters see this as an existential moment for Georgia’s future, whether it becomes a Russian satellite like Belarus or a fully-fledged member of Euro-Atlantic structures, as the Baltic States have done.

If all this sounds familiar, it’s because the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party tried to introduce an almost identical bill last year but backed down following huge street demonstrations and international condemnation. The GD government seems more determined this time to push the legislation. Peaceful protesters have been beaten up on the streets. The homes of prominent civil society leaders have been targeted with smearing posters. Those who supported Georgia’s application for EU candidate status – it was conditionally approved last December despite major reservations — now feel betrayed by the GD government. 

The big man in Georgian politics

Post-Soviet politics in Georgia has been dominated by four powerful and divisive leaders. The first two, Zviad Gamsakhurdia and Eduard Shevardnadze, were overthrown while the third, Mikheil Saakashvili is in prison. The fourth and current political heavyweight is Bidzina Ivanishvili, a multi-billionaire who made his fortune in Russia during the 1990s before returning to his native Georgia and becoming prime minister in 2012.

Ivanishvili has drifted in and out of formal positions according to his whim but is generally recognised to be the key figure directing Georgia’s government. His current position — honorary chairman of the ruling GD party – reveals little of his real power or resources.

billionaire-bidzina-ivanishvili-leader-of-the-created-by-him-the-georgian-dream-party-greets-demonstrators-during-a-rally-in-support-of-russian-law-in-tbilisi-georgia-on-monday-april-29-2024-a Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, leader of the created by him the Georgian Dream party. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Despite a steady stream of western diplomats and politicians visiting Georgia to petition for a change of course, Ivanishvili has refused to meet any of them. In an illuminating admission, the Georgian government attributed this boycott to the fact that a staggering two billion dollars of Ivanishvili’s wealth has been frozen in Swiss bank accounts since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Consequently, it seems that Georgia’s geopolitical direction and its interaction with the rest of the world is to be dictated by the interests of its richest man.

Ivanishvili has also sharpened his anti-western rhetoric. In a recent public address, he described his predecessors, who governed Georgia from 2004-2012 as “a foreign appointed revolutionary committee” that “came to power as a result of an NGO-led revolution”. He claimed that NGOs constituted a “pseudo-elite nurtured by a foreign country’ who ‘have no homeland; they do not love their country or their people”. Apparently referring to influential figures in the EU and US, Ivanishvili admonished what he called “the global party of war” which had “forced the confrontation of Georgia with Russia and then put Ukraine in even worse peril”.

Conflicting visions of Europe

How can we reconcile GD’s stated objective of joining the EU with the enactment of policies it knows will sabotage the membership process? While the GD government has been inconsistent in its foreign policy messaging it now appears to have concluded that EU membership, however popular it might be with the electorate, would necessitate undesirable changes in how Georgian politics is conducted.

If a coherent aim can be identified, it is for GD to emulate the Hungarian government of Victor Orbán which has proved adept at defying EU partners while accepting billions in funds from Brussels. Indeed, Orbán has developed something of a bromance with his GD counterparts, in particular on the promotion of ‘traditional values’ and countering LGBT ‘propaganda’.

But while Hungary is inside the EU camp, the Georgians are on the other side of the tent looking in. For his part, Orbán wants countries like Georgia and Serbia in the EU to help transform it into something more aligned with his illiberal nationalist project. Within the EU, however, Orbán is seen as an unwelcome outlier rather than a model for future members. 

International reaction 

Predictably, GD’s decision to push through the controversial law has attracted widespread criticism from its ostensible partners. The EU parliament overwhelmingly passed a stinging resolution condemning the draft law, which it claimed was incompatible with EU values and democratic principles, undermined Georgia’s ambitions for EU membership, and endangered the country’s Euro-Atlantic integration.

Furthermore, it stressed that EU accession negotiations should not be opened as long as the foreign agents law is part of Georgia’s legal order. Only 25 of the parliament’s 705 MEPs voted against the resolution, including Irish MEPs Clare Daly and Mick Wallace. Luke Ming Flanagan was one of thirty MEPs who abstained.

Speaking to the pro-Government Imedi TV channel, Daly urged Georgians to ignore the European Parliament resolution as the elections in June would bring positive change in Brussels. She claimed there were lobbyists within the European Parliament trying to bring Georgia into conflict with Russia “as they did in Ukraine”. Daly described the EU position as “disgraceful”, and said there was ‘nothing undemocratic’ about the foreign agents’ law.

The Kremlin has relished the falling out between GD and the EU. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov maintained that the Georgian government was merely trying to protect itself from foreign meddling and he admonished the “undisguised interference” in Georgia’s affairs from western states. His assertion that “Russia does not interfere and does not intend to interfere in the future” would excite mirth amongst many Georgians given their history of conflict. 

Georgia at the crossroads (again)

Georgia has been at the brink many times during the last decades. Sometimes it has pulled back at the last moment, other times it has fallen into the abyss. Irrespective of how this episode ends, Georgia’s reputational stock within the EU has plummeted. More importantly, Georgian society is polarised to a dangerous degree. The cycle of relentless upheaval in Georgia and zero-sum politics seems set to continue. 

Where does it leave Georgia’s aspirations to join the EU? The GD government confidently predicts the country will join in 2030. The reality is that Georgia’s membership prospects are in the distant future.  But while EU membership is not practical politics right now, the aspiration will continue to play a major role within Georgian society. For most Georgians, the only alternative to the European path is the one that leads to Moscow. And they know well from experience and observation how that story goes.

Donnacha Ó Beacháin is Professor of Politics at Dublin City University. For more than two decades he has worked and researched in the post-Soviet region and has been published widely on the subject. 

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Donnacha Ó Beacháin
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