The Georgian Dream is gambling its political future by moving away from the West

Georgian students protest against a law on 'foreign agents' near the Parliament building in Tbilisi, Georgia, 05 June 2024.
© EPA-EFE/DAVID MDZINARISHVILI   |   Georgian students protest against a law on 'foreign agents' near the Parliament building in Tbilisi, Georgia, 05 June 2024.

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Though most Georgians support Euro-Atlantic integration, the ruling Georgian Dream forced a Russian-inspired law to silence civil society and is increasingly critical of the West. Georgia's EU partners are warning that the law will hinder the country's path to European integration, while the United States is talking about revising bilateral relations and introducing personal sanctions against Georgian officials.

Fighting back the Georgian Dream: president Zourabishvili plans to repel the foreign agents law by turning the coming elections into an informal referendum

Despite large-scale protests by Georgian citizens and the opposition, as well as the veto of President Salome Zurabishvili and warnings from international partners, the law “On Transparency of Foreign Influence” was signed by Parliament Chairman Shalva Papuashvili on June 3 and it will fully come into force by August, when media and NGOs that got more than 20% of their funds from foreign donors will have to register as organizations promoting the interests of a foreign power.

To identify these organizations and verify compliance with the requirements of the law, the Ministry of Justice can conduct monitoring at any time, and an authorized official can obtain information it deems necessary, including personal data.

Opponents of the law feel that it can become an instrument of pressure and repression against dissent in Georgia. Most NGOs and media have already stated that they will not comply.

Georgian President Salome Zourabishvili rejected the bill, but the Parliament overruled her vote, pushing Zourabishvili to raise the stakes. On May 26, when Georgia celebrated Independence Day, the president announced her action plan to return the country to a pro-Western path - the “Georgian Charter.” The purpose of the document is to unite all pro-European opposition parties against the pro-Russian government in the upcoming elections.

Zourabishvili plans to turn the October 26 legislative elections into some sort of a referendum on people’s support for EU integration. The plan is to let the new Parliament pass a clear EU integration roadmap, and then dissolve it and call for snap elections. Relations with the US should also be reset.

This plan, according to Zourabishvili, is a peaceful solution and a way to return Georgia to Europe. The head of state is ready to personally take responsibility for the process.

In a short period of time, the interim parliament would have to carry out reforms in more than ten areas, many of whom echo the nine points of the European Commission's recommendations that were attached to Georgia's EU candidate status. Also, the president wants several laws – including the one on foreign agents – to be repelled. In addition, cases brought against demonstrators who participated in the 2024 protests will be repealed. The reforms will also affect the judicial and electoral systems.

Most opposition parties have already supported the Charter. On June 3, at the presidential residence, representatives of 17 opposition parties put their signatures on the document.

Brussels is considering its response which may include suspending the free-visa regime

At the same time, against the backdrop of the Georgian Dream's continuing anti-democratic steps, international pressure on the Georgian government is increasing. Georgia's international partners, including high-ranking EU officials, politicians and diplomats, have repeatedly warned the Georgian authorities that the law will hinder the country's path to European integration. Brussels assesses the consequences of the introduction of this law extremely negatively: they have repeatedly called on Tbilisi to withdraw the bill.

On April 25, the European Parliament adopted a resolution condemning the bill on "foreign agents". The resolution emphasized that the bill contradicts Georgia's democratic values ​​and European aspirations, and that "EU accession talks should not begin while this law is part of Georgia's legal agenda." In addition, the document highlights the threat the law poses to civil society organizations and human rights in general, which “contradicts the Copenhagen criteria for EU membership,” and calls on the European Commission to prepare an interim assessment of Georgia’s compliance with the nine EU conditions. It also calls for personal sanctions against the honorary chairman of the ruling party, Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Immediately after the parliamentary majority overrode the president's veto and approved the law, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wrote:

“The Georgian people overwhelmingly want to join the EU. But the law on transparency of foreign influence contradicts the core principles and values ​​of the EU, negatively affecting Georgia’s path to the EU. We are considering all options and urge the authorities to adhere to the EU's aspirations."

Earlier, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the British Foreign Office and European Council Chairman Charles Michel also made similar calls to Tbilisi. 

And although Tbilisi’s Western partners emphasize that they do not want to punish Georgian citizens, but only put pressure on those who act contrary to the will of the people and help strengthen Russian influence in the region, the likelihood of revising the visa-free regime with the EU no longer seems so distant.

On May 28, the head of European diplomacy, Josep Borrell, said that EU member states are considering all options for responding to the adoption of the law on “foreign agents” in Georgia. Later, the Ambassador of the European Union to Georgia, Pavel Gerchinsky, confirmed that one of the options being discussed is the suspension of the visa-free regime with the EU. According to him, after the adoption of the law on “foreign agents,” Brussels must check whether the conditions for visa liberalization are still being observed.

It is worth noting that the visa-free suspension procedure can be launched by one of the 27 EU member states or by the European Commission. For restrictions, a qualified majority is sufficient, that is, support for the decision by 15 EU countries. In this case, visa-free travel may be suspended for 12 months, then for another 24 months. If no solution is found to correct the situation within this time, the EU may decide to permanently abolish the visa-free regime.

The Americans are going for a stick and carrot approach

A serious signal to the Georgian government also came from Washington on May 24. Senators, Jeanne Shaheen (a Democrat) and Jim Risch (Republican), initiated a bi-partisan bill that would require US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to submit to Congress lists of “individuals who harm Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration” no later than 120 days after the adoption of the law.

The restrictions will affect those who adopted the bill on “foreign agents,” as well as those who participated in the use of violence against protesters. In addition, bilateral cooperation between the US and Georgia may be reconsidered.

Anyone who undermines Georgia's democratic processes or institutions - including in the run-up to, during or after the October 2024 elections - will be denied US visas and travel to the United States, Antony Blinken said.

After the Speaker of the Georgian Parliament, Shalva Papuashvili, announced that the law had been finally signed and would soon come into force, Washington took more radical steps. At a briefing on June 6, US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said that the United States of America had imposed the first package of sanctions against a dozen Georgian citizens. Among the citizens subjected to sanctions are members of the Georgian Dream, members of Parliament, law enforcement officers and “private individuals” who supported the “Russian” law on foreign agents. The names of those on the list have not been released, but it is known that the first set of restrictions will affect from 24 to 34 people.

However, this “stick” approach is not the only one in Washington. The day before the State Department announced personal sanctions, the Congress held hearings within the Helsinki Commission on the MEGOBARI Act (Mobilizing and Enhancing Georgia's Options for Building Accountability, Resilience and Independence) bill, which was initiated by Republican Joe Wilson. It is also noteworthy that in Georgian the word MEGOBARI means “friend”. According to the bill:

  • Washington could sign a comprehensive package of economic and security support for Georgia if its government abandons its increasingly anti-Western rhetoric and reverses its human rights rollback;
  • The US will begin negotiations to open a “strong preferential trade regime” if the country meets key political criteria;
  • Possibility of liberalizing the visa regime for Georgian citizens;
  • Officials are directed to develop a package of military assistance to Georgia that includes “the provision of security and defense equipment ideally suited for territorial defense against Russian aggression, as well as the conduct of operations with appropriate training, maintenance and support elements.”

However, this entire program will only be activated if the US certifies that “Georgia has demonstrated significant and sustained progress in revitalizing its democracy, as evidenced by at least largely fair and free elections and a balanced electoral environment.”

Georgia’s ruling party seems to choose a confrontational path with the West, but that may come with major political costs

For now, Georgia’s ruling party seems unwilling to yield to all the international pressure; on the contrary, it has been rather combative. For instance, Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze denounced the MEGOBARI Act bill, stating that it is hostile to Georgia:

“This is a continuation of the usual betrayal. It is cynical when the law being discussed in Congress, called the MEGOBARI Act, is downright hostile. I would call this law DAUDZINEBELI (the sworn enemy), such a name would be more appropriate. It’s a pity; all this will not help improve Georgian-American relations”.

There were other signals too, that went beyond statements. Georgian Dream founder, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, widely regarded as Georgia’s shadow ruler, has been refusing to meet Western officials for months. Kobakhidze said that reason for Ivanishvili’s refusal is that he has been under “de facto sanctions”. According to Kobakhidze, Ivanishvili entrusted $2 billion to the West, but it ended up in the hands of the “global war party” and was frozen.

“Bidzina Ivanishvili’s position is that he cannot hold a single meeting while under blackmail. This is his clear position. As soon as the blackmail and de facto sanctions end, naturally, any meeting is possible,” Kobakhidze said.

Kobakhidze did not say who exactly he considers to be the “party of global war,” saying that this could negatively affect Georgia’s national security interests.

The Georgian Dream seems to be taking a huge gamble with this confrontational approach. For the EU integration process, the country must fight disinformation about the European Union and its values, and ensure freedom of the media and civil society; it is doing neither. As the overwhelming majority of the Georgian population is in favor of integrating the country into Euro-Atlantic structures, payback may come for the Georgian Dream this fall, when Georgians are called to elect a new parliament.

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