As EU demanded negotiations go south, Georgia faces the danger of moving further away from the West

How it all started

A political crisis in Georgia is hardly the news in recent months. However, these days the crisis has intensified to a different level in the aftermath of the former Prime Minister’s resignation and imprisonment of Nika Melia – the leader of the main opposition party “National Movement”.

The current escalated crisis started at the end of last year, over the official results of the decisive parliamentary elections of October 2020. This election was a chance for Georgia to move forward from years of political polarization which proved to be destructive. The dream of many Georgians to have a multiparty government did not come true, because it did not align with the political intentions of “Georgian Dream” – the governing party of Georgia supported by its informal leader and oligarch – Bidzina Ivanishvili and his unlimited financial resources. Despite the overwhelming amount of evidence that there were substantial issues with the election, which caused it to be rigged to the extent that the governing party would keep the majority, “Georgian Dream” refused to make any compromises, by regarding the possibility of reviewing election results as a “red line” in negotiations facilitated by the diplomatic community. Elected parliament members of the opposition refused to take part in parliamentary sessions and by February 2021 the conflict was effectively frozen. The final drop was marked by the arrest of the major opposition leader – Nika Melia.

After the former Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia, who was arguably the most popular member of the “Georgian Dream” and its face in the 2020 election campaign, refused to follow the order to imprison Melia, the informal leader of the country, who supposedly had left politics for the second time after he ensured the win of his party in the parliamentary elections; quickly reinstated his most loyal “student” – Irakli Garibashvili into the Prime Minister post. Gakharia admitted that it was exactly because of his unwillingness to imprison Melia that he was forced to resign. Since this became public, there has been no more doubts that there is actually a disagreement within the government over how far they are willing to go in their anti-democratic actions against the opposition and eventually against the declared foreign policy aspirations of Georgia. Newly returned Prime Minister Garibashvili had no reservations about doing the deed, as demonstrated with his huge police raid carried out on the headquarters of the “National Movement” and Melia arrest, the day after his official appointment.  

Reaction from the West

International reaction was quick and overwhelming, especially in the Twitter feed. The arrest was followed by multiple negative feedbacks from the diplomatic circles. The statements from the supporters of Georgia’s Euro Atlantic aspirations both in the US and Europe highlighted how much of a step back this action represented for Georgian democracy. For the first time the idea of introducing sanctions for politically powerful Georgian nationals is being discussed within US Congress.

A very powerful demonstration of the legitimate concern from the West was the visit of the President of the European Council – Charles Michel on 1 March 2021. After the joint press conference, the President asked for the renewal of negotiations between the government and opposition by effectively putting pressure on the Prime Minister to attend a meeting scheduled on the same evening, with the personal involvement of Mr. Michel himself.

The meeting between the Prime Minister representing the government and the opposition parties was indeed held on 1 March 2021 at the Presidential palace in Tbilisi. At the meeting, 6 topics of discussion were identified including the release of the political prisoners and the possibility of holding next elections in 2021, since the opposition never consented to the announced results of the rigged elections. Once the initial meeting concluded, all involved made positive comments and expressed their hopes about the fruitful result of the continued negotiations. A timeline of two weeks was given to make progress on the identified issues, since by this deadline the visit of Georgian Prime Minister in Brussels is scheduled.  

As they listened to the softened rhetoric of the Prime Minister, for a short period of time things started to look hopeful for the majority of Georgian population, who are craving meaningful changes. This hope was shared by the President of the European Council, who before his departure commented the following:

The political crisis and polarisation in the country is of the deepest concern to the EU and to me personally. Nevertheless, I sensed today in all political actors the willingness to discuss, to move forward, to break the deadlock.

What lies ahead?

This optimism turned out to be premature. Things could not have gone south quicker. Barely had Charles Michel left the Georgian airspace, that the Prime Minister drastically changed his tone again and announced that there would be no discussion on the topics of political prisoners and/or new parliamentary elections, which are the two of the most important issues for the opposition.

Going against the EU recommendations this quickly and demonstratively naturally raises the question, if the government is actually trying to move Georgia away from its intended path of joining the EU and generally from its Euro-Atlantic aspirations. There is no easier way to achieve this goal, than to turn the country into an undemocratic state, with rigged elections, one party dominated parliament and imprisoned leader of the opposition. These and similar actions of anti-Western nature are more than enough to do harm. If the government officially declared that it no longer wishes Georgia to become an EU State or to keep the US as its main strategic partner, this would most likely cause an immediate upheaval of people. A much more sinister way to change the direction of Georgia, is to take such actions which will ensure that it simply will not be accepted any time soon by the Western community in any meaningful way, simply because it cannot comply with the necessary standards. Declared aspirations do not count for much, if those words are not supported by appropriate actions which align with our announced foreign policy aspirations.

Conclusion

The evidence increases that more and more anti-democratic actions are being taken, while economic and pandemic struggle continues. The Prime Minister’s visit to Brussels for the Georgia EU Association Council is scheduled for mid-March (16th). This is the point at which the EU has to look at the results of its recommended negotiations which Georgia was intended to resolve. So far it looks like Garibashvili will not have much to report on any sort of progress or success in the EU demanded negotiations. It is also obvious, that it was he, who basically killed any chance of positive results by declaring red lines before the process could even begin, thereby ignoring the EU recommendation. All these considered, there is a good chance that the upcoming visit and EU’s reaction will mark Georgia’s further alienation from the West, unfortunately.



Teona Kvirikashvili is a Georgian lawyer with Honors LL.B. from Tbilisi State University and Master’s degree in International Law from the University of St. Gallen (HSG). She has worked at several diplomatic representations in Georgia and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Lucerne. She is also a member of Georgian diplomatic reserve.


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