- Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.
Once seen as a model for democratic transition among former Soviet states and a leader in Euro-Atlantic integration, the South Caucasian country of Georgia is at risk of democratic backsliding, potentially forfeiting its chance to become a candidate for European Union (EU) membership. With the world’s attention focused on Ukraine, Russian influence in the country is increasing, despite strong public support for EU and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) membership. The United States and the European Union should increase pressure on Georgian lawmakers—through financial assistance to Georgia and the EU candidate perspective—to reverse the trend of democratic backsliding and growing Russian influence in the country ahead of the October 2024 parliamentary elections. Otherwise, a slide toward authoritarianism in Georgia sets a dangerous precedent across Eastern Europe and beyond.
Hopes for a successful democratic transformation in Georgia have slowly faded over the past decade and concerns over democratic decline have increased, particularly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A survey conducted in March 2022 found that 41 percent of Georgians felt that democracy had regressed over the past year. The country’s ruling party, Georgian Dream, has been accused of expanding control over state institutions and security forces, infringing on civil society work and independent media, committing election malpractice (such as voter intimidation, vote-buying, exerting pressure on candidates and voters, and encouraging an uneven playing field), and applying selective justice. The party won the last three parliamentary elections since 2012 largely because of widespread disapproval of former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s misconduct during the later years of his presidency. However, the imprisonment and illness of the former reformist leader, who is being held at a Tbilisi hospital and has called himself a “political prisoner,” is seen as a metaphor for the state of democracy in Georgia. Expectations for greater accountability, transparency, and less oligarchic influence in Georgian politics have not been realized. The founder of Georgian Dream—the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili who made his fortune in Russia—continues to wield excessive political influence in Georgia, even though he no longer holds any official role. One of his primary objectives was to normalize relations with Moscow, and he still maintains business ties to Russia.
Georgia’s democratic backsliding has undermined its path to EU membership. Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia left around 20 percent of Georgia’s territory under Russian control and pushed public opinion in favor of the EU. Once a frontrunner in the “Association Trio” of Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine—all countries that have signed association agreements with the European Union, facilitating trade and visa-free travel—Georgia did not receive EU candidate status in July 2022 when Moldova and Ukraine were granted candidacy. Instead, the EU provided Georgia with twelve priorities the country needs to address, including strengthening judicial and media independence and combating the country’s oligarchic tendencies. The EU will vote on Georgia’s candidacy status again in December 2023. Yet, while 88 percent of Georgians support EU membership, Georgia appears to be moving further away from democratic norms and EU values.
A Failed “Foreign Agent” Law
In March 2023, the Georgian government introduced a “foreign agent” law, which would have forced any organization that receives over 20 percent of its funding from foreign entities to register as a foreign agent. The government claims that the law sought to address “transparency and foreign influence.” However, the legislation mimics Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2012 foreign agent law, which was a critical turning point toward authoritarianism in Russia. After tens of thousands of protestors gathered in Tbilisi in response to the bill, the parliament withdrew the legislation, which would have targeted civil society organizations, corruption watchdogs, and independent media. However, it is possible that Georgian Dream will attempt to pass a similar law in the future.
Russia’s Bid for Influence
Paradoxically, the legacy of Russia’s war against Georgia in 2008 has led Georgian Dream to pursue only lukewarm support for Ukraine in its 2022 war against Russia—partly out of a sense of vulnerability. However, the government has at the same time allowed Russia to increase its influence in Georgia. Nearly 90 percent of Georgians support Ukraine and a majority believes Russia and Putin are responsible for the war. Yet the government failed to join Western-led sanctions against Russia and has kept its distance from Kyiv. Voices close to Georgian Dream have accused the West of attempting to draw Georgia into the war in Ukraine. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili has blamed NATO expansion and Ukraine’s desire to join as one of the main reasons for the war.
Georgia has also acted as a throughway for Western goods to reach Russia. Trade between Russia and Georgia has increased by more than 20 percent since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Cargo transit between Turkey and Russia (a large amount of which was transported through Georgia) tripled during the first six months of 2022. The Georgian government claims it is abiding by international sanctions imposed against Russia despite the increase in trade. In May 2023, Putin issued a decree allowing Georgians to travel to Russia without a visa and lifted a 2019 ban on Russian airlines operating direct flights from Georgia to Russia. This drew heavy criticism from the United States and the EU, as well as from the Georgian people, but the government defended the move.
Keeping Georgia on Track
The United States and the European Union need to work together to increase pressure on Georgian lawmakers ahead of the December vote on the country’s EU candidacy and the October 2024 parliamentary elections. The European Parliament has called for the European Council to sanction Ivanishvili for his role in “the deterioration of the political process in Georgia” and to release Saakashvili for proper medical treatment. The United States has sanctioned four current and former Georgian judges for corruption and abuses of power that have undermined public trust in the judiciary. If the domestic situation in Georgia does not improve, the EU and the United States can condition future assistance to Georgia on stopping democratic backsliding.
The future of Georgia is relevant beyond the borders of the small South Caucasian nation, and is linked to Ukraine’s war. Success in Ukraine would demonstrate that an alternative future out of Russia’s shadow is possible. Yet, democratic failure in Georgia would be a painful illustration that even a country once seemingly irreversibly on the path toward democracy and Euro-Atlantic integration can slide back into autocracy and succumb again to Russia’s sphere of influence.