'Pro-Western' Georgia rapidly drifting towards illiberalism

Officially Georgia sticks to its pro-European retoric, but under the guidance of the Georgian Dream party it is swiftly drifting into illiberal direction. Far right mobs attack Tbilisi's Gay Pride, the government walks out of EU-brokered agreements, the West cancels funding, investment climate is rapidly deteriorating. Even political refugees seem not safe anymore in the Caucasian showcase republic. And former president Saakashvili was arrested on returning to Tbilisi. Georgian democracy is up for its greatest test, argues Neil Hauer.

georgie saakasjvili screenshotFormer president Mikheil Saakashvili arrested upon returning to Tbilisi (picture police.ge)

by Neil Hauer

It’s rarely ever quiet for long in Georgia, a maxim that proved itself again a little over a week ago.

A day before the country’s October 2 municipal elections, the unexpected suddenly occurred: former president Mikheil Saakashvili, exiled for the past eight years, materialized in the country. His appearance led to a day of intense speculation as to his exact plan and whereabouts before he appeared in handcuffs being led to prison by Georgian police that evening.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the detention didn’t lead to protests until the following Monday, when several thousand people showed up to support the jailed Saakashvili as the votes in Tbilisi’s three largest cities – Batumi, Kutaisi and the capital Tbilisi – were already set to head to an October 30 runoff vote. As of now, it remains unclear what Saakashvili’s plan was, or is.

There are few countries in the world with a foreign policy as easily defined as Georgia’s. Since the 2003 Rose Revolution, the South Caucasus republic has devoted itself singlemindedly to the cause of Euro-Atlantic integration, with the ultimate goal of joining both the EU and NATO. This policy has become so sacrosanct that every mainstream political party in Georgia adheres to it, with public opinion overwhelmingly favouring increasingly closer Western ties as a security guarantee against Georgia’s northern neighbour and former overlord, Russia.

Georgia’s illiberal slide now sees it standing as far away from NATO/EU membership as ever

But for this small and geographically remote nation, the path has been anything but smooth, and over the past few months it has become harder still. Against a background of democratic backsliding and open government hostility towards the West, Georgia’s illiberal slide now sees it standing as far away from NATO/EU membership as ever.

Far-right mobs

The present saga goes back three months, to the government-encouraged violence that saw a planned LGBT pride march in the capital Tbilisi end before it began. On July 5, far-right mobs associated with the Georgian Orthodox Church, the most powerful institution in the country, assaulted crowds of journalists who had turned out to cover the rally. With LGBT activists themselves avoiding the pogrom-like atmosphere, the mobs instead ransacked the offices of Tbilisi Pride and beat at least 53 journalists and cameramen with impunity, with insufficient police forces looking on. Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili, of the ruling Georgian Dream party, focused blame for the rampage on the victims, declaring that the march was an opposition plan to create ‘civil unrest in the country. 

The fallout from this touchpoint manifested itself over the next few weeks, as Georgian Dream’s relations with the EU and US began to openly fall apart. In mid-July, GD lawmakers openly flaunted an EU-brokered political agreement that had required six months of negotiation between the ruling party and the opposition. The appointment of six Supreme Court judges in mid-July went directly against the agreement, which GD announced it was pulling out from just a short while later on July 28.

georgie leiders georgian dream pull out of eu brokered deal with opposition picture georgian dreamGeorgian Dream leaders (party leader Irakli Kobakhidze in the center) announce that they are pulling out of an EU-brokered deal with the opposition. (photo: Facebook, Georgian Dream)

This was one of the final straws that led the US Embassy in Tbilisi to use the unprecedented wording of describing its mood towards Georgia’s government as ‘exasperated.’ Despite the fact that the ruling party continues to stress that ‘Euro-Atlantic integration is our foreign policy priority,’ this July was a new major hurdle in achieving that goal.

Catastrophic consequences

The direct consequences of these actions have been twofold, both with catastrophic implications for both Georgia’s economy and development as well as its dreams of Western integration. The first has been the loss of Western funding and development aid, the first instances of which have already occurred. On August 31, PM Gharibashvili announced that Georgia would refuse a €75 million EU loan, citing the ‘political insinuations’ of the deal in light of recent EU criticism of his administration. EU officials fired back, with MEP Viola von Cramon stating that Georgia had not in fact fulfilled the conditions of the loan, and that ‘you can’t decline what you were not eligible for.’

georgie tbilisi old townOld town of Tbilisi

Two days later, US Ambassador to Georgia Kelly Degnan told reporters that American lawmakers would surely take note of GD’s statement that Georgia does not require Western financial aid. The country is thus primed to lose a significant further chunk of the Western funding that has played a major role in driving its economic development over the past two decades.

Beyond international aid, Georgia has also sharply nosedived as an attractive destination for foreign capital and investment. Over the past year, the political turmoil wrought by the ruling party has further compounded longstanding issues with a corrupt and unreformed judiciary that has Western investors now looking elsewhere. One Western businessman in Tbilisi bluntly stated that the current international business climate ‘couldn’t go much lower than it has,’ adding that Western capital has ‘dried up almost completely.’

Beyond international aid, Georgia has also sharply nosedived as an attractive destination for foreign capital and investment

That same investor was deeply skeptical about the situation turning around in the near future, stating that it would be ‘simply impossible’ to reverse course with Gharibashvili and his hardline clique in power. While Georgia’s banking sector remains relatively strong, it is far from certain that it will not also suffer from the knockon effects of a widespread loss of investor confidence in the country’s stability.

The likely outcome of this presents a troubled picture for Georgia’s orientation. While the government is highly unlikely to publicly shed its pro-Western image, the growing schism between the GD administration and its EU and US partners, as well as the concurrent investment downturn, will necessarily lead to a greater reliance on other sources of foreign capital. There are some signs of this already, with investors from Central Asia, Turkey and Azerbaijan stepping in to make up some of the vanished Western funding. It is highly possible that additional investments from China could follow as market space opens, while even Georgia’s erstwhile archenemy Russia could step into the void.

Such an influx of capital from decidedly authoritarian and non-democratic sources would then make further illiberal strides by Georgian Dream essentially a fait accompli, as the ruling party grows less dependent on EU/US approval and backing for its continued hold on power. With democracy in retreat across the world, not to mention former communist Eastern Europe, such a development would hardly be unexpected or unique.

georgie pm garibashvili press service governmentPrime Minister Irakli Garibashvili. August 31, 2021. Photo: the Government's Press Service

Safe haven for political refugees?

One interesting angle to this is Georgia’s newfound status as a haven for Russian and Belarusian opposition activists forced abroad over the past year. A recent piece in the Moscow Times described this phenomenon in detail, with one Russian activist stating that there were now so many exiles in Tbilisi that ‘you lose count,’ while a Belarusian migrant estimated ‘300-400’ of his countrymen have relocated in recent months. Georgia’s close proximity to Russia, a widespread knowledge of the Russian language and a low cost of living and startup-friendly culture have made it particularly attractive as a destination for political exiles.

georgie ivan pavlov refugee foto pjotr sauer mtFamous Russian lawyer Ivan Pavlov fled to Georgia (picture Pjotr Sauer, Moscow Times)

Yet their safety is not entirely guaranteed. While it’s unlikely at present that Georgian officials would indulge a Russian request to extradite a political activist, there are several inauspicious precedents for the unwillingness, or even tacit approval, of Georgian security services to protect foreign dissidents in the country.

Perhaps the most prominent is the case of Afgan Mukhtarli, an Azerbaijani opposition journalist living in Tbilisi. Mukhtarli was walking in Tbilisi on May 29, 2017 when he was suddenly abducted by masked men, only to reappear in a Baku courthouse facing politicized charges less than 24 hours later. There are strong suspicions that Georgian security forces were involved in his kidnapping, which immediately placed the entire Azerbaijani community in Georgia on alert. 

Less well-known but perhaps more alarming is the case of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a Georgian citizen of Chechen origin who was the target of several unsuccessful assassination attempts in Tbilisi over a period of years, including a shooting in Tbilisi’s central Saburtalo neighbourhood in 2015. Georgian authorities claimed that Russian or Chechen security services were behind the attempts, but failed to prosecute the case or arrest any of the suspects, leading to suspicions about their complicity. Khangoshvili was eventually forced to flee Georgia for his own safety, where he was eventually murdered by a Russian operative in downtown Berlin in 2019. 

georgie moord op zelimkhan khangoshvili in berlijnZelimkhan Khangoshvili was murdered in Berlin

Neither of these cases will be encouraging to the recent Russian or Belarusian arrivals in Tbilisi, particularly the apparent inability of Georgia’s security forces to prevent foreign agents from operating against their opponents on Georgian soil. Neither will the growing cooperation of the Georgian Dream administration with Belarus and the regime of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Tbilisi has seemingly become a crucial foreign lifeline for Minsk in recent months, doubling flights by Belarus’s national carrier to Georgia just weeks after it was banned from EU airspace following the abduction of a political activist over Belarusian airspace.

More alarmingly, Georgia’s National Security Service entered into force a deal with Belarus’s KGB on August 1, under which the two countries would ‘exchange information on terrorist and extremist’ individuals and organizations, a designation often used by Belarusian authorities to jail any political dissidents. While no extraditions have yet occurred, Georgian authorities have refused to repeal the agreement and it is possibly already being used by Belarus’s security forces to surveil exiled activists in Tbilisi.

Finally, no discussion of declining liberal norms in Georgia would be complete without delving into the recent saga of former president Mikheil Saakashvili, the long-exiled politician who made his sudden return to the country at the end of September. Saakashvili, who was convicted in absentia of abuse of power and sentenced to six years in prison, was shortly arrested and imprisoned near the capital, drawing protests in his support on October 4.

Georgia’s current relationship with its Western allies is at its lowest ebb in nearly 20 years

Leading GD figures have celebrated the arrest, with party head Irakli Kobakhidze saying Saakashvili only existed to ‘serve Russia’s interests’ and PM Gharibashvili stating that additional jail time would be levied against the former president ‘if he does not behave.’ The latter comment in particular drew ire from European commentators, with former Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt calling it ‘a clear indication that charges are politically motivated.’ With no release for Saakashvili seeming likely at present, the saga presents yet another blow to Georgia’s democratic credentials and Western aspirations.

The crux of Georgian Dream’s nine years in power, then, has been to bring Georgia to its present unenviable position in relations with its EU and US partners. It is not hyperbole to say that Georgia’s current relationship with its Western allies is at its lowest ebb in nearly 20 years, the result of a stubborn adherence to domestic consolidation of power with little heed to the democratizing, liberal credentials that brought the country Western favour (and the result financial, political and military aid) in the first place.

The risk posed going forward is not so much that Georgian Dream turns openly away from the West; indeed, continued rhetorical affirmations of Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations are all but certain. What is much more likely and insidious is the ruling party’s continued drift towards illiberal methods of rule and the slow influx of non-Western capital that will make further progress down an autocratic path ever more tempting. Georgia’s challenged democracy has faced many hurdles in its tumultuous history. What comes next may be its greatest test yet.

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