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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