10/03/2023 GIP

Is Georgia on the Path to Authoritarianism?

Stefan Meister

DGAP, Head of Center for Order and Governance in Eastern Europe, Russia, Central Asia.

After two nights of protests in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, the ruling Georgian Dream party has announced it will drop the foreign agent law which was designed to discredit Georgia’s organized civil society and independent media. This decision was the result of massive demonstrations on the streets of Tbilisi, especially by Georgia’s youth, combined with external pressure from the EU and the US. Nevertheless, this decision is a partial victory, since it is unlikely that the ruling Georgian Dream party will stop undermining civil society organizations, independent media or the foreign funding of either. This law has to be seen in the wider context of increasing authoritarian Georgian politics and the failure of the European Union to deal with a government which has no interest in European integration.

Eliminating the barriers to staying in power

After the 2003 Rose Revolution Georgia became a key partner for the EU and the US in the South Caucasus and greater post-Soviet space. Despite the many shortcomings of then President Mikhail Saakashvili, and the increasingly authoritarian tendencies in his second term, he successfully enacted reforms, fought corruption and modernized the country. Georgia’s path towards transatlantic integration was the main political narrative which gave the country a goal after years of civil war and weak governance. The EU failed then to offer Georgia a membership perspective when it was on the reform track, and is making up for it now (in the light of the Russian aggression against Ukraine) when Georgia’s government is on an authoritarian path. The current Georgian Dream (GD) government has decided to eliminate any competition or criticism on its way to a fourth term in power. The hastily introduced foreign agent law is but one milestone on the way to an authoritarian state. For the ruling party it is not only the divided main opposition party UNM which challenges it, but Georgia’s pro-European civil society and independent media. Both are crucial as watchdogs against authoritarian tendencies and act as a critical link with Western partners.

The current government has tried for years to undermine, discredit and threaten Georgian civil society and independent media. The violence of right-wing groups in Tbilisi around July, 5th 2021 against Tbilisi pride marked an important moment of cooperation between the ruling party, the Georgian Orthodox Church and right wing groups. For GD it was an important testing ground to see the reaction of Western partners, who consequently failed to react strongly enough to deter Georgian from an authoritarian path. The main aim was to threaten civil society and increase the gap between the progressive part of the society and the traditional, apolitical part. The currently discussed foreign agent law would give the government and the ruling party a legal instrument to discredit, fine and disassemble civil society. The draft law, “On Transparency of Foreign Influence” aims to label all non-profit organizations which receive at least 20 percent of their funding from abroad as foreign agents. The entire spectrum of democracy, election, anti-corruption and rule-of-law watchdogs, as well as independent media would be covered by the law. For the majority of these types of organizations there are no domestic alternatives to external funders. This would result in increased vulnerability for civil society organizations in relation to the state and judiciary which is already under control of GD. Additionally, it will harm the credibility of the organizations in the eyes of the society, and cut them off from the funding needed resulting in a liquidation of organized civil society. Arguments that this is about transparency and the law is merely a copy of US legislation is designed to distract from the real aims. While the US law from the 1930s is focused on political lobbying, the Georgian law is about the country’s civil society.

Undermining support for European integration

This law must be seen in the context of the GDs aim to steer Georgia away from its transatlantic and especially European integration course. If Georgia would really fulfill the criteria for candidate status, according to the Maastricht treaty, reforms in areas like transparency, political competition, independent media and judiciary as well as rule of law would be needed. All these reforms would undermine the main goals of the government: to stay in power, distribute the best parts of the economy and the country’s natural resources among its allies and introduce authoritarian rule as precondition for the end of political competition. It is about the power and security of the ruling party and primarily its patron Bidzina Ivanishvili. That means that EU integration is not in the interest of the ruling elite. Since the overall majority of the society is for integration into the EU, (according to an IRI poll 85% support EU integration at the end of 2022) the government cannot directly oppose this path. However, it tries to systematically undermine the credibility of the key advocates for EU integration, the organized civil society. At the same time, the government is using Russia’s war in Ukraine to discredit Georgia’s Western partners. The disinformation campaign, that the West wants to drag Georgia into war, plays on the fears of a not so distant past.

In the end, the ruling party wants to undermine the pro-European orientation of Georgian society, discredit the West and spoil the EU-institutions and member states  in such a way that it will withdraw the candidate status. Consequently, the Georgian government does not want to be blamed for losing the membership perspective, and instead the EU should take the fall. The disorientation of the society, as a consequence of losing the membership perspective will make it easier for the Georgian leadership to manipulate the society and to go the next steps in its rapprochement with Russia, which can also be economically beneficial for some Georgian actors.

How will the EU react?

For the EU and its member states the foreign agent law is a litmus test for how serious they are about their neighborhood in the light of the Russian aggression and the shifting balance of power and security in the post-Soviet space. This is not “only” about Georgia, it is about the success of EUs transformative and normative policy in its neighborhood. Georgia has been a free and open space for those who disagree with authoritarian rule for over 15 years. It even provides a home for many Russians who disagree with Putin’s invasion in Ukraine, and it is still a crucial platform for exchange between Armenians and Azerbaijanis who are searching for peace after the 2nd Nagorno Karabakh war. Georgia has been the success story for reform and fighting corruption in the entire post-Soviet space. Therefore, it is not understandable why the EU and its member states have reacted so softly to the Georgian government in the past who is playing the EU with its own instruments.      While the EUs annual report shows Georgia as a technically good performer in relation to the reforms within the framework of the Association Agreement, in reality this government is systematically undermining rule of law, disturbing the balance of power, disrupting independent media and violating EUs norms and standards.

When the EU introduced the 12 points needed to get the candidate status for the EU accession process, demands about de-oligarchization and depolarization allowed room for interpretation and manipulation. These terms are so fuzzy, that either side can interpret them in their interest. Polarization is a major feature of the Georgian political system. All key actors use polarization to mobilize their electorate. How to progress in such a field when it is part of the political culture? The same is true for de-oligarchization. How to measure progress in areas which are not clearly defined with criteria? Therefore, the EU needs to define clear, measurable conditions for candidate status. Member states including Germany have not been clear enough in their statements towards the Georgian government.  A clear message is needed about what is going wrong in Georgia and why this government is no longer on a pro-European path. There needed to be clear consequences for misbehavior in terms of cutting financial support for state institutions and even sanctioning the assets and ability to travel of those who bring or support anti-democratic laws into the parliament. Finally, the communication among the EU member states, the EU delegation and the US ambassador and government must be better coordinated. Member states and EU institutions need to take more responsibility for Georgia’s path to Europe and communicate more politically if this is in the will of the Georgian society. In this, Georgian civil society plays a crucial role.

Georgia should always have a membership perspective as it is a European country. But as long as the government is not ready for it, Brussels must make clear why this process is on hold. If the EU is not clear here, Russia might lose the war in Ukraine, but might win or keep its influence in other post-Soviet countries through its example of governance.

Stefan Meister – DGAP, Head of Center for Order and Governance in Eastern Europe, Russia, Central Asia.


© Photo Credit: Euronews Georgia
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