Georgia’s Slide to Authoritarianism

Georgia’s European future is falling victim to the country’s domestic power struggle. The EU’s delay in granting Georgia candidate status could strengthen the pull of Russia and silence pro-reform actors.

Often considered a beacon of democracy in the post-Soviet space, Georgia faces a major turn toward authoritarianism. Located on the Black Sea, this country recently witnessed another political upheaval triggered by the attempt of the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party to introduce a Russian-style legislation on foreign agents.

Massive street protests led by young protesters from Generation Z coupled with international criticism forced GD to withdraw the bill. For the moment, a major political crisis has been avoided. But Georgians worry that the country is reneging on commitments to foster closer ties with Europe and is moving closer to Russia.

The picture is complex.

The danger of further authoritarian and anti-European backlashes highlights the conflictual nature of Georgia’s political dynamics. It is between the ruling regime focused on its own survival, a fragmented but power-hungry opposition, and—squeezed between the two—a pro-European and reform-friendly civil society.

The introduction of the controversial law was an attempt to control and marginalize civil society and independent media—the only remaining actors in Georgia that could challenge GD’s authoritarian transgressions during the 2024 election and beyond.

Since Georgia’s “foreign agent” law would undermine EU hopes, the ruling party faces a dilemma: staying in power while having to democratize through EU reforms.

Following in the footsteps of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, GD has systematically demonized and marginalized the main opposition parties and, aligned with the Georgian Orthodox Church, has consolidated its power in all branches of government, established loyal mass-media outlets and deliberately slowed down political reforms necessary for institutionally moving closer to the EU.

In doing so, GD is distancing the country from the West and getting applause from Russia.

While many accuse Georgia’s ruling party and its informal patron Bidzina Ivanishvili for deliberately bringing Georgia back into the Russian orbit, another rationale for the GD government seems to be the consolidation of its authoritarian political power domestically. They seek to put themselves into a pole position to win the fourth consecutive term in the 2024 parliamentary election.

Considering the level of mutual enmity and hatred between the GD leadership and the major opposition parties, the ruling party fears that losing the 2024 election may result in a political and personal vendetta by a new government against them.

Looking back at the zero-sum game nature of Georgian politics over the last thirty years, GD leaders’ fears about physical and political survival are not unfounded. Every power transfer in Georgia has so far resulted in political repressions against representatives of the former ruling regime.

Hence, while the fear of losing power does not justify GD’s authoritarian transgressions, the problem itself is of a systemic nature and can be only addressed by changing how political actors in government and opposition interact with and perceive each other.

The reality is that Georgia’s European future has become a victim of the country’s domestic power struggle. After tactically backing down from its polarizing foreign agents bill, GD struck isolationist and ultraconservative notes as it continued to justify the law.

Caught in a political zero-sum game with the opposition, it seems GD wants to integrate with the EU on its own terms, without endangering its stay in power—something that Georgian people and EU would never agree to but that would be welcomed by Russia.

The unexpected turn of recent events was a cold shower for GD. A strong negative reaction from almost every international actor showed that Georgia’s EU integration is not compatible with Orbán-style authoritarian power consolidation. The huge protests showed that Georgian society is ready to go the extra mile to defend the country’s European future.

Yet GD, while driven by a reflex of power consolidation, is also a pragmatic actor and has a good self-survival instinct. In an ideal scenario, it may reconsider its approach and realize that implementing necessary reforms and getting EU candidate status may give it just the boost it needs to win the 2024 parliamentary election, especially considering the weakness of the major opposition parties.

However if, against all odds, GD opts for further authoritarian consolidation, this will drive the country from crisis to crisis and may create space for increasing Russian influence, leading to a major civil destabilization in a society where 80 percent support European integration.

Georgia’s domestic disarray has further exacerbated its deteriorating security and stability. Russia’s negative reaction to the protests also serves as an important reminder that Georgia, like Ukraine and Moldova, is susceptible to Russian threats. Moscow seemed happy with GD’s authoritarian consolidation practices which drove a wedge between Georgia and the West. The Kremlin understands well that the more authoritarian Georgia becomes, the more it will drift away from Brussels and get closer to Moscow, unless there is domestic and international pressure.

Russia’s imperialist ambitions, apparently, are not only about Ukraine but also about increasing its control and expanding its influence in the entire EU Eastern Partnership region by raising pressure in these countries in attempt to blackmail their leaders into loyalty. Increasing Russian malign activities in Moldova are a case in point.

Some reactions from Russian officials to Georgia withdrawing the foreign agents’ law were of an alarming nature. Hence, it remains a serious challenge for Georgia to minimize the risks of a Russian military intervention while making progress on its path toward European integration.

The EU and the United States can play a central role in this regard by helping Georgia boost its deterrence abilities against potential Russian aggression and by communicating with the Kremlin about what another invasion may result in.

As Russia casts the Georgian protests as a coup attempt and accuses the West of fomenting unrest, by the end of this year, the EU needs to decide upon a delicate issue: to grant Georgia candidate status before or after the 2024 election.

The opposition fears that if the EU grants Georgia candidate status before the election, it may further solidify GD’s authoritarian grip on power and strengthen Georgia’s oligarchic leadership. GD leaders fear that the fulfilment of the EU’s twelve recommendations, including de-oligarchization, may lead to it losing power.

Meanwhile, Brussels has its own fears. If it again rejects Georgia’s EU candidate status it may legitimize the Euroskeptic discourse in Georgia, strengthen the pull of Russia, silence pro-reform actors, and give the government a free hand to undermine democratic structures in the country.

On the other hand, giving a positive signal would anchor Tbilisi in the EU’s geopolitical orbit, contribute to peace and stability in the region, and strengthen the EU’s ownership of the domestic reform process. Of course, this approach is risky. Moral considerations aside, disregarding Georgia’s democratic backsliding will be hard to sell to member states. The other option would be for the EU to apply a strategic patience and wait for better momentum for rewarding Georgia with candidate status. Either way, Brussels needs to find creative ways of accommodating its geopolitical interest without emboldening emerging authoritarianism in Georgia.

Whatever EU decides, it is essential that the EU does not compromise on the Copenhagen criteria and applies stringent democratic demands to Tbilisi especially closely monitoring how the Georgian government fulfils the twelve recommendations set by the EU. There is so much at stake—for Georgia, and the region.

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