Georgians fear their government will sabotage EU hopes – POLITICO

By on July 11, 2022 0

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TBILISI — Anger is mounting among a growing number of Georgians, who fear their country’s government is deliberately undermining Tbilisi’s European aspirations.

To tens of thousands of protesterswho gather in weekly protests, it was a blow that their Caucasian nation of 3.7 million people failed to secure EU candidate status alongside Ukraine and Moldova at a June 23 meeting of European leaders.

During protests calling for the resignation of the government, Georgian, Ukrainian and European anthems blare from loudspeakers as crowds throng to Tbilisi’s central Rustaveli Avenue, where Georgian and European flags flutter side by side.

The idea of ​​joining the EU enjoys overwhelming public support in Georgia, where the pivotal geopolitical choice is largely between Moscow and the West. According to polls, around 88% and 75% of Georgians support EU and NATO membership respectively.

“We are dealing with a national problem – the maintenance of long-term independence, which is only possible through the EU. There is no other solution to the existential problem of our country said civil activist Shota Dighmelashvili as he addressed the crowd on July 3.

Protesters fear former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili doesn’t want EU reforms to rock the boat with the Kremlin | Zurab Kurtsikidze/EPA-EFE

The problem is that the ruling Georgian Dream party, in power since 2012, has failed to show its commitment to these European aspirations, leading many to wonder whether Georgian Dream is placating Russia at the expense of Georgia’s European future.

Protesters fear that former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is widely seen as the puppeteer behind the ruling party, will founded, does not want intrusive EU reforms to rock the boat with the Kremlin.

Ivanishvili, whose assets account for more than 20% of Georgia’s total economic output, earned billions in Russia before becoming Georgia’s prime minister. Under his leadership, Georgian Dream defeated the United National Movement party in 2012 and since then has maintained power by doubling down on accusations that the opposition is the public enemy – forcing the nation into feverish political polarization.

Solidarity – and lack thereof – with Ukraine

Fears that the Georgian government wants to appease Russia intensified in the aftermath of President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, when Tbilisi veered off the path of Western sanctions and instead seized the opportunity to export goods to Russia.

While Georgia itself experienced a Russian invasion, with the assault on South Ossetia in 2008, people took to the streets in massive solidarity with Ukrainians.

“There are times when the citizens are not the government, but better [than] the government,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tweeted in response. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Georgian officials then gave Ukrainian leaders a lick of retaliation.

Later, when Georgia was denied candidate status, the government suggested it was because the country was not involved in the war, even insinuating that the West, with the help of the Georgian opposition, wanted to drag Georgia into the war.

“Theoretically speaking, if a war breaks out in Georgia by December, we are guaranteed candidate status. You will probably agree that receiving candidate status in this way is not worth it,” said Irakli Kobakhidze, chairman of the Georgian Dream party, on July 5.

Tinatin Akhvlediani, a researcher at the Brussels-based think tank CEPS, noted that Georgia has an impressive track record in honoring its Association Agreement to foster deeper political and economic engagement with the EU, surpassing even Ukraine. and Moldova in this regard. The fact that this ultimately did not help him achieve candidate status meant there would appear to be a political obstacle in the form of government, she suggested.

“Given its progress on the association agreement, Georgia should have received as much as Ukraine and Moldova if, of course, the government did not sabotage its current candidacy,” Akhvlediani said.

Insults and arrest

In a maverick move for a country aspiring to membership, the Georgian government proceeded to insult EU officials and institutions as the country waited for the European Commission to announce its decision.

For several years, MEPs and other EU officials have been warning Georgia against its democratic backsliding and political leaders hitting back.

In one of the most caustic exchanges, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili accused former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt and his wife, a former member of the European Parliament, of driving millions out of the country under the administration. of the United National Movement. Image tweeted back that Garibashvili was “irreparable”.

“He derailed. It is a tragedy for what is a very beautiful country,” Bildt said.

German MEP Viola von Cramon has also come under fire for criticizing the ruling party over the sentencing of prominent government critic Nika Gvaramia. Georgian Dream party chairwoman Kobakhidze called her a “guardian of criminals”.

“To say the least, it is not wise to personally attack your main allies who defend Georgia’s European aspirations on a daily basis in Brussels and elsewhere. It makes me wonder if the Georgian government really shares its people’s aspirations to EU membership,” von Cramon told POLITICO.

Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili also questioned the logic behind such attacks.

“I have a lot of questions, but I don’t think you would expect the president of a country to say that the government is sabotaging the country…I have to say that I took issue with that rhetoric, I I have a lot of questions about what was the logical policy behind such rhetoric and clearly it didn’t help, to say the least, the issue of our candidacy,” Zurabishvili told POLITICO.

Suspicions that Georgia was undermining its own candidacy were only heightened by the timing of the sentencing of Gvaramia, head of Georgia’s main opposition television channel. As it is widely believed that the Georgian court acts in concert with the government, the sentencing of Gvaramia, while Georgia was still awaiting the decision of the European Commission, was seen as a calculated measure.

In response to criticism, party chairman Kobakhidze said MEPs who criticize the government over Gvaramia’s arrest were themselves detached from European values. “These people, who constantly push the system towards injustice, are in essence anti-EU, because European values ​​are many, but among them, one of the most important is the rule of law”, he said. he declares.

The way to go

Although Georgia did not receive candidate status this time, the European Council was an opportunity for Tbilisi to catch up by imposing a series of conditions. Among other things, the list includes countering political polarization, implementing a commitment to “deoligarchization,” and ensuring judicial independence.

The government recently presented a plan detailing how it aims to achieve these goals, but it failed to impress the opposition. The government’s plan relies on the creation of parliamentary task forces to monitor the achievement of each priority, which some opposition groups say will not be enough.

One of the most controversial items on the list is “deoligarchization,” which seems difficult for Georgia to achieve. The ruling party has pledged to pass a law but it would not affect its founding oligarch, Ivanishvili.

Although it did not obtain candidate status, the European Council offered Georgia the opportunity to catch up | Stephanie Lecocq/EPA-EFE

When the European Parliament passed a resolution criticizing Georgia on June 9, suggesting personal sanctions against Ivanishvili “for his role in deteriorating the political process in Georgia,” the ruling party rushed to his defense. Prime Minister Garibashvili called the resolution “irresponsible and offensive to the Georgian people”.

When the stakes are so high for Georgia, such devotion to Ivanishvili means that “deoligarchization” will likely remain in limbo. The ruling party refuses to acknowledge Ivanishvili’s influence on Georgian politics, suggesting instead that imprisoned former president Mikheil Saakashvili is the true oligarch.

Speaking to POLITICO, President Zurabishvili pointed out that while she thinks Ivanishvili probably wields some power, she doubts he is making any real political decisions.

“I’ve been telling the authorities for a long time that they should have taken steps to clarify the designation of Russian oligarch about Ivanishvili… Does he wield any power? I would probably say yes. Does he exercise power? I would probably say no. Since he distanced himself [from politics] for two years now, I don’t think he’s the one making the real political decisions,” she said.

The question is whether the Georgian leadership will ever manage to overcome the internal confrontation for the greater good.

Kornely Kakachia, director of the Tbilisi-based think tank Georgian Institute of Politics, thinks that, so far, political parties are playing a zero-sum game.

“The ruling party’s basic instinct is to cling to power at all costs,” he said. “Implementing the recommendations of the European Commission would deprive them of the leverage to maintain their power. Equalizing the balance of power could cause them to lose the election. Such a scenario is unacceptable to them.