Whither Georgia?

Foto: iosebi meladze /​ Shut­ter­stock

The polit­i­cal crisis in Georgia con­tin­ues after the munic­i­pal runoff elec­tions. The close elec­tion result exac­er­bates the polar­iza­tion between the sup­port­ers of the ruling Geor­gian Dream party and the oppo­si­tion party of impris­oned former Pres­i­dent Mikheil Saakashvili.

The current polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in what was once a front-runner 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 a 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 that, for many people, raised hopes of an end to the era of a 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.

This text first appeared in ZOiS Spot­light 40/​2021 on Novem­ber 10 and has been updated on Novem­ber 12. 


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