The Falling Darkness

Did the EU misread the Georgian political situation?

by Regis Gente

As the airplane of the European Council President Charles Michel touched down in Batumi, it was hard to shake off the feeling of déjà vu. Once again, the top European official visits Georgia immersed in a tense, almost intractable political crisis. Charles Michel is hobnobbing with the leaders from Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, to discuss plans for closer association with the EU. But only days ago, the European Union Delegation in Tbilisi, backed by the embassies of all member states, had to issue a stark warning to the government, noting that “intensified rhetoric against [European] values poses a national security risk, increasing the vulnerability of Georgia’s democracy”. Did the EU misread Georgia’s political situation?

Georgia has been in a protracted political crisis for two years now. The original trigger has been so-called “Gavrilov’s night”, when on June 20, 2019, a Russian Communist MP sat in the Georgian Parliament Speaker’s chair to open a session of an Inter-Parliamentary Committee for Orthodoxy. That stirred protest inside and mobilization outside the parliament, followed by the violent police crackdown on protesters and leading to the weeks of street rallies. It would be wrong to assume, that the presence of Mr. Gavrilov, an “imperial-minded” Russian politician, was the real cause for discontent. In fact, this was just a symptom of something going very wrong with the oligarchic governance that Bidzina Ivanishvili and his party, the Georgian Dream, imposed in Georgia from 2012. The Georgian Dream is drawing ever closer to illiberal ideology and so-called “Orthodox values” that are favored by the Kremlin.

The pogroms that took place in the Tbilisi center a few days ago, on July 5-6, were a stark manifestation of this drift. Extremist clerics and parishioners from the Georgian Orthodox Church and so-called “traditionalist groups” attacked LGBT activists, civil society organizations, and journalists, sending the country even further on the downward spiral of violence.

No one should misunderstand what happened in Tbilisi’s streets on these two days. The violent groups acted openly, with an obvious sense of impunity. Even though some of the immediate leaders were summoned to the police, and indicted, none of those who incited hatred were punished. Most of the groups that wreaked havoc in Tbilisi are well-known, they have been harassing political opponents or critical NGOs in the past years, without being brought to justice. It is blatantly clear from the statements of the Georgian Dream leadership, that as a minimum, they politically target the same enemies as those hate groups assault physically.

Many in Tbilisi think that the government allowed this violence to happen, or even helped orchestrate it. Some think this is because the Georgian Dream (GD) fears getting less than 43% of the votes at the upcoming October 2 municipal elections, which would trigger early parliamentary elections. The 43% trigger was brokered by Charles Michel, as he mediated an agreement between Georgian Dream and most of the opposition, after weeks of tough negotiations. As a result, many parties which boycotted the parliament agreed to take up their seats. But many are thinking now that the “Charles Michel agreement” did not have enough leverage to force the Georgian Dream into respecting its engagements.

“Mr. Michel wanted to end the crisis first of all, but without addressing its real roots”, told us Helen Khoshtaria, one of the few who refused the deal. Some in the opposition, even among those who signed the agreement, think that the EC President and his team were naïve on Ivanishvili’s intentions. “As a result, GD didn’t respect its engagement and appointed six judges to the Supreme Court in total violation of “Charles Michel agreement”, told us another opposition MP. The U.S. Secretary of State said recently he was “deeply troubled” by GD reneging on its commitments. The ruling party officials said the top U.S. diplomat has misunderstood the agreement – this is yet another quarrel Mr. Michel would have to weigh in on.

The growing intransigence of the Georgian Dream is, very likely, driven by the electoral logic, but also by the apparent ideological preferences of Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili. By pandering to the ultraconservative radicals and the Church, GD tries to mobilize the aggressive minority and to subdue the majority of the voters by portraying the opposition as being essentially the LGBT cause defender – and tainting the EU with the same color.

“I don’t trust GD but I do trust our European partners. The fact that GD is violating this agreement is not a surprise. Mr. Michel didn’t misread the political situation here. If we would not have his agreement, then we could not speak about sanctions against GD today. But we do have this document”, says Giorgi Vashadze, leader of the Strategy Aghmashenebeli party.

But more disturbing signs can not be ignored. The European flag has been torn put down twice by the violent mob on July 5-6. Journalists were systematically chased and beaten – 53 have been assaulted, one was found dead a few days after being lynched. Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the free press watchdog, condemned “the culpable passivity displayed by the authorities” in halting the violence against journalists.

Since then, the GD representatives also criticized – sometimes bluntly – the Western partners of Georgia. Irakli Kobakhidze, the current GD chairman, who clawed his way back after having resigned as the Parliament’s Speaker during “Gavrilov’s night”, apparently spoke about the U.S. ambassador to Georgia Kelly Degnan as “an unscrupulous high-ranking official who provides distorted information to the United States”. The government has engaged in character assassination of the dead cameraman and boycotted three TV opposition-leaning TV channels that demand justice for their colleagues. Mr. Kobakhidze said all three are being funded by “dirty money”, without presenting proof.

None can exclude that all these signs, when taken together, are the result of a decision, made by the Georgian strongman Bidzina Ivanishvili, to force Georgia into turning its back from the West.  By ignoring the bigger picture and focusing on procedural details, the EU might have misread the gravity of Georgia’s political situation.