Georgia’s Civilizational Dilemma: For Or Against Europe? – Analysis

On June 2, Speaker of the Georgian Parliament Shalva Papuashvili signed into law the controversial bill “On Transparency of Foreign Influence” as the parliament overrode Salome Zourabichvili’s presidential veto (see EDM, May 13, 22). The Russian-style “foreign agents” bill was originally withdrawn in 2023 under intense public pressure but was reintroduced by the ruling Georgian Dream party in 2024 (Csf.ge, February 21, 2023; 1tv.ge; Venice.ceo.int; Imedi.ge, May 21; Rustavi2.ge; JAM-news, June 3).The law on foreign influence and, more importantly, the aggressive way in which it was pushed through have sharpened social divisions and fueled anti-government protests. The law reflects a series of controversial policies that the Georgian Dream government has forced on civil society, including laws on family values, offshore transfers, amendments to the media law, and changes to the electoral code.

Analysis of the recent developments highlights Georgia’s growing confrontation with a civilizational dilemma. The law on foreign influence is not only a manifestation of the domestic struggle for power in Georgia but also a reflection of two competing world views—a democratic, pro-Western movement, on the one hand, and a non-democratic perspective, on the other (see EDM, April 9, 24, May 1). In a political sense, how informal rules and practices as well as cultural norms and structures play out in the struggle for power are the main distinction between the two predominant views. Georgian civil society, which is the primary target of the Georgian Dream law, currently performs its traditional function in countering the concentration of power in only a few hands as the division of power has become merely formal and opposition parties are weak and fragmented. Defining the level and scale of informal practices and norms currently at play is crucial in determining whether a particular political regime is democratic or non-democratic.

The informal practices in today’s Georgia are epitomized by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishivili, who has been dubbed the country’s de facto leader though he does not hold public office (see EDM, January 18, February 6). Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze’s lamentations that Ivanishvili’s $2 billion assets are effectively under Western sanctions can be interpreted in two, albeit not mutually exclusive ways. First, Kobakhidze’s statements primarily attribute current tensions with the West, including the adoption of the foreign agents law, to Ivanishvili’s business interests. Second, the premier’s words downplay the Russian factor in Tbilisi’s decision-making, as the ruling Georgian Dream party does not want to appear to be directly associated with Moscow (Agenda.ge, December 30, 2023; Civil.ge, April 29; Sakartvelosambebi.ge, May 13; Gov.ge, May 14; Transparency.ge, accessed June 18). The split in the country’s geopolitical orientation threatens to destabilize the domestic situation further in the face of upcoming parliamentary elections in October.

Georgian Dream Feigns Continued European Course
On December 13, 2023, the European Union officially granted candidate status to Georgia (see EDM, November 14, 2023). In an immediate response, Irakli Garibashvili, then-prime minister and current Georgian Dream party chair, stated, “The future of Georgia lies in the European Union, and there is no alternative to it. Our nation and my government expect that EU member states will take a strategic and forward-looking decision this week that will firmly anchor Georgia … with the family of European democracies” (Garibashvili.ge, December 13, 2023). Two weeks later, Georgian Dream created the position of honorary chair with Ivanishvili assuming the “ceremonial” position.

Since then, the ruling party has taken a completed U-turn (see EDM, February 6, April 9, May 1). Illustratively, Garibashvili soon changed tone, remarking: “We are not ready to become a member country” (Interpressnews.ge, April 20). Civil society organizations in Georgia have tried to mitigate the damage done by government rhetoric pushing back on EU membership. They continue to contribute to promote European values and practices within Georgian society to ensure that the country, even informally, remains on a European course.

The Georgian Orthodox Church, however, has opposed many of civil society’s efforts. The church itself enjoys widespread moral authority throughout Georgia, and that role is recognized and enshrined in the country’s constitution. Yet, while the constitution recognizes the Georgian Orthodox Church’s special role in the country’s history, it does call for the church to operate independent from the state (Matsne.gov.ge, June 29, 2020; Caucasuswatch.de, February 24, 2022; JAM-news, January 30, 2023; see EDM, March 13; Georgefox.edu, accessed June 19).

The church is historically linked to and enjoys warm relations with the Russian Orthodox Church. Indeed, the Patriarchate of the Georgian Orthodox Church has not recognized the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine granted by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople in 2019, which made the Ukrainian church independent from the Russian Orthodox Church (JAM-news, April 24, 2022; Sova.news, March 27, 2023). According to Georgian scholars Beka Mindiashvili and Gigi Ugulava, the Russian and Georgian churches are connected through the shared ideology of “political orthodoxy” (Ostwest.space, November 28, 2023).

As such, church officials have publicly supported the law on foreign influence (Interpressnews.ge; Facebook.com/sazupatriarchate, April 27). Incidentally, former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze recalled in his memoirs that Ivanishvili made donations to renovate the Sameba church in Tbilisi, apparently in a move to curry favor with church leadership. The most transformative and pro-western Georgian leader, former President Mikheil Saakashvili, also sought to appease the Patriarchate of Georgia. He increased state funding for the Patriarchate to a record level and, more importantly, approved the change of the national flag to the current iteration as encouraged by Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia Ilia II. Shevardnadze had earlier declined to approve the flag change. The Georgian Dream government raised the state funding for the Patriarchate once again in 2024, upholding the tradition of Georgian government’s paying homage to the church’s power and influence (Civil.ge, October 20, 2021; Frontnews.ge, March 19).

Another vivid manifestation of the clashing two world views is seen in Georgian Dream’s dogmatic approach to the country’s sovereignty and the national aspiration to integrate with the European Union. The dogmatic approach is vivid in the adoption of the law on foreign influence. The Georgian Dream government regards sovereignty as the end goal and sees it exclusively as the state’s complete independence and control over civil society. In the name of that sovereignty, the ruling government tends to monopolize power and decision-making while ignoring another equally important aspect of sovereignty—namely, the sovereignty of the people.

In contrast, democratic states tend to take an instrumental approach to sovereignty to serve the welfare of citizens. The instrumental approach would allow the government to use its sovereignty to uphold Article 78 of the Georgian Constitution to facilitate European integration and serve its citizens’ aspirations. Georgian Dream officials, however, have framed the foreign agents law as serving to consolidate state sovereignty. Such a stance resonates strongly with the Georgian Orthodox Church’s framing of sovereignty as “complete state independence,” without which “no good deed will come out for the country.” Seemingly competing with that view, Article 78 of the constitution obligates the government to “take all measures within the scope of its competences to ensure the full integration of Georgia into the European Union” (Matsne.gov.ge, June 29, 2020; Civil.ge, April 29). At the time of writing, it remains unclear how the ruling party intends to walk this tightrope.

The Georgian Dream’s approach to sovereignty is intended to take Georgia away from the European integration (see EDM, February 6, May 10, 25, 2023). The ruling party, nevertheless, does not want to make that decision. Instead, it wants to provoke the European Union to reject prospective Georgian membership and pin the blame on Brussels. Georgian Dream officials are clearly aware that, as a supranational organization, the European Union requires member states pool together parts of their national competences for the common good. The European Union’s policies on the Schengen Area are instructive in this regard. Those member states that have become a part of Schengen have agreed to delegate part of their sovereignty to Brussels. The dogmatic approach would block the free movement of people among EU member states. The applied instrumental approach, in contrast, facilitates full free movement to serve the welfare of citizens.

The European Union granted candidate status to Georgia even before it satisfied the necessary requirements for the candidacy (see EDM, November 14, 2023; January 8). The Georgian Dream leaders rushed to take credit for it ahead of the parliamentary elections (Eurasianet, November 10, 2023; OC-media.org, December 14, 2023). Brussels had previously granted visa-free travel to Georgia in 2017. In the early 2010s, Russian President Vladimir Putin had publicly requested a visa-free regime with the European Union, later complaining that Brussels had not granted his request. He claimed that a visa-free travel regime was critical to “beginning the process of real integration between Russia and the European Union” (Kommersant, November 17, 2011; TASS, January 19, 2014). On March 31, 2024, Bulgaria, a Christian Orthodox country and EU member state, celebrated partially joining the Schengen Area after 13 years of waiting (Novinite.com, June 20). Other Orthodox countries, including Greece, Cyprus, and Romania, have enjoyed numerous benefits as EU members. While EU membership has had its own complications for these countries, the benefits have far exceeded the costs largely due to the access to the huge single market, economic and investments opportunities, as well as strengthened cooperation on defense and security. As Cristian Ghinea, who served as the Romanian minister for European funds, put it “EU funds for us is like gas money for Russia, or oil money for Saudi Arabia” citing new roads, running water in rural areas, and new or improved waste management systems as among the concrete benefits of membership (Ekathimerini.com, January 6, 2022).

Overall, it is Georgia’s sovereign choice, including that of the government and the people, to pursue or end aspirations for EU membership. Currently, official Tbilisi’s discourse and behavior create an impression that Georgian Dream officials do not want to officially initiate the abandonment or refusal of the country’s European course themselves. Instead, they seem to be angling to provoke the European Union to refuse Georgia’s European perspective. Illustratively, Kobakhidze claimed that the law on foreign influence will in fact “create a better basis for ensuring Georgia’s accession to the European Union” (Agenda.ge, May 28). He rationalized this position by alleging that the law “will contribute to the fulfillment of the main recommendation of the European Union—depolarization.” Thus, it will strengthen the democratic institutions through “pacification of the country.”

In the case of Brussels’ suspension or withdrawal of Georgia’s candidate status and/or potential refusal to open accession talks, Georgian Dream would use that to try to discredit the European Union in the eyes of the Georgian population, on the one hand, and rally popular support for its controversial policies, on the other. This is why granting Georgia candidate status even though the government failed to satisfy the necessary requirements was a prudent and preemptive act (Eeas.europa.eu, September 20, 2022; Georgiatoday.ge, November 22, 2023). As Georgian expert Kornely Kakachia evaluated last year, Georgian Dream was “aiming for EU candidacy status, if only to claim credit for it ahead of parliamentary elections” (Caliber.az, December 12, 2023).

Georgian Dream’s Perspective on Moscow
An increasingly public debate has centered on the question of whether Georgian Dream acts in direct collaboration with Moscow (see EDM, August 11, 2022, February 6, 22, May 15, 25, July 3, August 10, 2023, February 15, March 19, April 9). No solid proof yet confirms or rejects the notion that the foreign agents law and Georgian Dream’s policies are directly connected to the Kremlin. Even so, an overlapping consensus is already emerging between official Tbilisi and Moscow. As any other state, Russia pursues its own interests and, therefore, sees an added strategic value in Georgia following the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers from Azerbaijan and Armenia’s pivot to the west.

The Georgian Dream government is keen to seize this opportunity (Chegem.su, May 2; Chatham House, May 23). In this context, media speculation and related reports have resurfaced suggesting the possibility of the creation of a confederation between Georgia and the self-proclaimed, Russian-recognized breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (see EDM, June 17). Theoretically, such a scenario might be possible. In its April 27 statement in support of the law on foreign influence, the Patriarchate of the Georgian Orthodox Church emphasized the aspiration “to live in a united state with our Ossetian and Abkhazian brothers.” This was echoed in Kobakhidze’s Independence Day address, in which he proclaimed, “let us live … together with our Abkhazian and Ossetian brothers and sisters.” Whether Georgian society would agree, Abkhazia and South Ossetia would accept that arrangement, and Russia would seriously consider such a scenario remain open questions (Civil.ge, December 12, 2006; Kavkaz-uzel, March 8; see EDM, March 19; Ekhokavkaza.com, April 3; Chegem.su, May 15; YouTube, May 26). Such speculations may be intended to check the public reaction and simultaneously divert attention from the law on foreign influence.

Nonetheless, as Abkhazian expert Inal Khashig put it, “the Georgian choice must be between those who choose a European future and those who are ready to continue dreaming about Abkhazia” (Chegem.su, May 27).The law on foreign influence, among other intentions, seeks to affect civil society primarily by countering potential domestic objection to that status for Abkhazia. Almost simultaneously, a similar law is under consideration in the Abkhazian parliament (Sakartvelosambebi.ge, February 8; Abkhazworld.com; Ekhokavkaza.com, May 15).

Russia’s most realistic interest in the confederation scenario is to influence Georgia’s foreign policy orientation through the purported confederate regions (Korrespondent.net, March 7, 2014). Russian leaders, including Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, have repeatedly claimed that Moscow needs a legally binding obligation from the West that NATO will not expand into the post-Soviet republics (Kremlin.ru, February 10, 2007; Mid.ru, September 1, 2017; Geopoliticalmonitor.com, May 25, 2018). When this was declined, the Kremlin considered overriding the foreign policy decisions of those states through setting up a confederative structure with pro-Russian regions in those countries. This was apparent in Moscow’s vision of Ukraine through the Minsk agreements that were presented before the full-scale invasion in February 2022.

Wider Impact on South Caucasus
In the South Caucasus, each country has its own comparative advantage and strategic value. Armenia’s comparative advantage is found in its large and powerful diaspora and related bonds with the United States and France as well as countries across the Middle East and Europe. That of Azerbaijan is connected to its energy resources and alliance with Türkiye. In contrast, Georgia’s comparative advantage is based on emerging (until recently), albeit vulnerable European-style democracy; partnerships with the transatlantic community; and its key geographic location. The Georgian Dream law has seriously challenged these advantages. The lack of further integration with Europe could severely limit Georgia’s strategic value in the region.

For Armenia and Azerbaijan, the law on transparency of foreign influence itself is not the chief worry. Rather, the related distancing of Georgia from Europe is the main source of concern. Georgia is the door for landlocked neighbors Armenia and Azerbaijan to the Black Sea and Europe. The central reasoning of the transnational infrastructure projects that underpin the Azerbaijani-Georgian strategic partnership is to diversify transit supply and export routes away from Russia. In the current circumstances, this might be challenged. For their part, Moscow and Tehran hope to restore a railway line from Russia to Armenia and Georgia via Abkhazia and then extended further into Iran. This challenges Baku’s proposal to open the Zangezur Corridor and further develop Azerbaijani portion of the North-South International Transport Corridor (see EDM, March 19, January 25, February 22, 2021; Al-Monitor, December 2, 2023; Gfsis.org, February 2024; Iarex.ru March 14).

Georgian Dream’s recent policies may serve to inflame several unresolved regional disputes. For example, the disagreement between Baku and Tbilisi over the status of the David Gareji monastery on their shared border has yet to be resolved (see EDM, July 8, July 30, 2019). Under the constitutional agreement between the state and the church, “monasteries (acting and non-acting), their remains, and the land they are built on” are the possession of the Georgian Orthodox Church (Forbcaucasus.wordpress.com, August, 2014).

Georgia’s relations with Armenia have traditionally been ambivalent The Armenian and Georgian churches have a series of unresolved disputes over property ownership (Azatutyun.am, June 13, 2011). Currently, Nikol Pashinyan’s government and the Georgian Dream appear to be pursuing ideologically divergent paths at a time when Yerevan’s apparent pivot to the West necessitates stronger ties with Georgia. Additionally, the European Union has pledged to investing more in improving Armenian-Georgian connections (Al-Monitor, April 13).

Azerbaijan’s closest ally, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has refrained from endorsing the Georgian Dream’s recent policies. At a meeting with Kobakhidze in Ankara, Erdogan voiced “hope and desire for the developments to conclude in favor of the Georgian people.” He reaffirmed continuous support for “Georgia’s efforts to integrate with Euro-Atlantic structures.” Just days later, Kobakhidze lamented that Türkiye had considered an even stricter draft bill on foreign influence than that of Georgia but faced no criticism from the West (Tccb.gov.tr, May 16; Imedi.ge, May 23). This is symptomatic of other related disagreements between Tbilisi and Ankara.

In the wider picture, focusing solely on the Russian factor in Georgia carries an adversarial effect. Doing so ultimately downplays the agency of Georgian society. Two domestic factors will primarily matter in turning the October parliamentary elections into Georgia’s watershed moment: whether citizens will flood to polling stations and maximize voter turnout and whether the opposition parties will be able to overcome their differences and unify ahead of the elections.

Conclusion
The need for high-voter turnout in Georgia and the political opposition to unite becomes particularly vivid against the backdrop of a civil society that has remained vibrant and Western partners have demonstrated an unequivocal position. Protest rallies alone are not enough to be a game-changer. Businesses, civil servants, and other segments of the population have not voiced their position clearly for diverse reasons. Only 11 universities supported protests rallies while over 35 did not. An almost negligible number of civil servants and businesses have spoken out against the Georgian Dream’s policies. Archbishop Zenon (Yarajuli) is the only high-ranking clergy who opposed the foreign agents law (Netgazeti.ge, April 24; Imedi.ge, May 14; JAM-news, May 27). Thus, the results of the October elections will crystallize the country’s future course and provide a definitive decision on whether Georgia turns irreversibly authoritarian or reinstates its democratic path. As history has confirmed again and again, citizens’ indifference and political passiveness manifested through low-voter turnout is capitalized upon by a hybrid regime in choosing which path to follow.

Unsurprisingly, Western sanctions and incentives have yet to cause Georgian Dream to repeal the law on foreign influence. The imposition of sanctions may be symbolically important but, if not meticulously designed, may make little practical difference (Accentnews.ge, May 21; 1tv.ge, May 25; Idfi.ge, May 27). The main sensible benefits of sanctions and incentives could materialize if the opposition concentrates and instrumentalizes those sanctions and incentives to convince Georgian citizens to vote. Zourabichvili has shown strong leadership in that regard. Some hobbling attempts have been made by the opposition parties themselves but have yet to produce any tangible results. While opposition parties trade accusations against each other, Georgian Dream officials demonize the opposition as a whole (Interpressnews.ge, May 30, 2021; Civil.ge, April 29, May 24; Agenda.ge, May 10; YouTube, May 21; 1tv.ge, May 22; Rustavi2.ge; Georgiatoday.ge; Sakartvelosambebi.ge, June 3).

The ruling Georgian Dream party likely bets not on purported collaboration with Russia but mainly on citizens’ indifference manifested through low-voter turnout, opposition parties’ inability to unite, and related failures to convert massive public protests into political capital. That said, the ruling party appears to be preparing for diverse scenarios, including a united opposition, overwhelming voter turnout, and disputed election results. Illustratively, the government’s amendments to the current electoral code provide for the abolishment of the Central Election Commission advisory group and the position of deputy head, who was to be nominated from the opposition. The currently fragmented opposition is a strong advantage for Georgian Dream in the lead-up to the October 26 elections dubbed as a “referendum for or against Europe.” In contrast, the Georgian Dream’s main disadvantage is the vast popular support for European integration manifested through public protests and various opinion polls. Whether those poll results will correlate with the election results depends on Georgian citizens, who simultaneously aim to resolve the country’s civilizational dilemma.

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