The West must not give up on Georgia

Georgians who still fight and hope for the European future of their country need for the West not to give up on the country again, even when there might be many reasons to do so.

This is the story of how the country which was once named by an American president “the beacon of democracy” is drifting closer towards its northern neighbour. While the West is betting on Ukraine prevailing in the military conflict, it is losing its own soft power war over Georgia.

The ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine is about much more than a territorial dispute between the two countries. It is a war about the liberty to choose one’s own foreign policy goals, the notion of spheres of influence in international relations and a clash of values between the admirers of democracy and authoritarianism.

There is no gray area: not supporting Ukraine today actually means supporting Russia. This is why its jarring for many to observe how Georgia, the very country which in the not-too-distant past represented the best hope for liberty and democracy in the Caucasus region, has started distancing itself from Ukraine – and therefore the West.

While there have long been concerns in Georgian civil society, its free press and wider public that the current Georgian government was slowly changing the country’s pro-Western foreign policy direction (which is established in the Georgian constitution), as the situation in Ukraine escalated to war, this process became more apparent than ever.

The fates of Georgia and Ukraine have long been intertwined. Ukraine was one of the first countries to recognise Georgian independence from the Soviet Union in the 1990s, both countries went through peaceful revolutions in the 2000s to launch their more democratic futures and they have both pursued the path of European integration – with varied degrees of success, as the process very much depended on who found themselves in power in Kyiv and Tbilisi.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the now famous promise from NATO that Georgia and Ukraine would become members of the alliance was also extended simultaneously to both countries. There was never any doubt that when it came to the political and economic integration with the West, Georgia and Ukraine have always been two inseparable parts of one deal. Following the actions of the Georgian government and the reaction from the West this no longer stands to be true.

Bad optics

It started with the issue of sanctions. While the majority of democracies initiated sanctions against Russia right after the war started in order to weaken Moscow economically, pro-Western Georgians were outraged by the complete failure of the Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili to vocalise Georgian support of the initiative. Rather, he declared the complete opposite and stated that Georgia would not be joining the worldwide sanctions package.

The optics remained bad as Georgian military volunteers died in Ukraine fighting for what they believe is Georgia’s democratic future as much as Ukraine’s. Not only did the Georgian Dream government fail to properly respect and recognise their sacrifice, certain members of parliament even suggested stripping Georgian soldiers (who joined Ukrainian forces) of their citizenship.

Georgia’s ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili is another contributing factor to the worsening relations between Georgia and Ukraine. When Saakashvili and his party lost elections and power to the current ruling party in 2012, he found himself active in Ukrainian politics. He served in the governments of both Volodymyr Zelensky and his predecessor Petro Poroshenko.

After being criticised for years for wanting to remain active in Georgian politics while being physically absent, he finally made the lifechanging decision to return to Georgia in October 2021. Saakashvili – who is now a Ukrainian citizen – was arrested. Despite the worsening condition of his health and multiple calls for his release, he remains imprisoned, referring to himself as Putin’s personal prisoner.

Second front

In the meantime, the Georgian government has been spreading the narrative that had the country offered more support for Ukraine, Georgia would have become a second front.

Georgian Dream calls its approach a “pragmatic policy”. The prime minister himself went so far as to argue that Ukraine and Western partners of Tbilisi – including the US – want Georgia to engage in military conflict with Russia. Even the US ambassador found herself openly and personally attacked by representatives of the ruling party, another powerful attempt to undermine the relationship with Georgia’s main strategic partner.

The West could not close its eyes to all these developments and as a result, when the EU gave candidacy status to Ukraine and Moldova, Georgia missed out on this exceptional opportunity.

This gave pro-Russian politicians further ground to argue that perhaps a European path is not inevitable for Georgia and the West has already given up on it. Some ruling party representatives went as far as to blame the former EU ambassador for the disappointing decision on the candidacy application by stating that he, “could have worked better to get Georgia [EU] candidate status.” Instead of candidacy, Georgia was given a European perspective and a list of 12 priorities that must be quickly addressed. Only then will Georgia’s request for candidacy will be reexamined.

It is hard to imagine how the current ruling party of Georgia, which was founded and is financed by the oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili – who has proven connections with Russia – is going to be able to fulfill at least one of the 12 EU priorities – “commitment to ‘de-oligarchisation’ by eliminating the excessive influence of vested interests in economic, political, and public life”.

A Kremlin-inspired law

When it became obvious that these goals would not be accomplished by the initial deadline, the EU extended the timeline. However, the government continues to sabotage Georgia’s EU aspirations, most recently with the introduction of the so-called foreign agent bill which targets NGOs and civil society and clearly intends to further block Georgia’s EU integration.

The opposition, activists and members of the public have hit the streets to protest against the adoption of the bill. On March 7, parliament took a major step towards making the bill law, in response to which the US Embassy in Georgia made the following statement:

“Today is a dark day for Georgia’s democracy. Parliament’s advancing of these Kremlin-inspired laws is incompatible with the people of Georgia’s clear desire for European integration and its democratic development. Pursuing these laws will damage Georgia’s relations with its strategic partners and undermine the important work of so many Georgian organisations working to help their fellow citizens. The process and the draft laws raise real questions about the ruling party’s commitment to Euro-Atlantic integration. “

Following two days of protests on the streets of Tbilisi, Georgian Dream surprisingly promised to withdraw the bill on March 9. Whether this promise is to be trusted remains to be seen. Protests in Tbilisi meanwhile continue, suggesting that the public is not convinced.

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The West must not give up on Georgia again

The situation in Georgia therefore remains delicate, requiring a deep understanding and sensitivity towards the soft power war that is being raged. While it is not a military conflict, it might be even more sinister. While the words of the government remain pro-Western in many cases, their actions increase the likelihood of the opposite result.

Many commentators agree that the collective West should have seen what was about to come after having witnessed the war Russia ignited in Georgia in the summer of 2008.

During that five day war, the West stayed relatively silent, the US administration of the time arguably let it slide and launched a “reset” policy with Russia only months later.

Luckily, things have changed, and the West does much more today to support its Eastern allies. It is increasingly hard however to support a country, the government of which refuses to actively cooperate.

Yet not doing so is to let down the people of Georgia once more. While normally it is assumed that a government represents the will of its citizens, in this case it could not be clearer that Georgian Dream is failing to do so.

Georgians who still fight and hope for the European future of their country need for the West not to give up on Georgia again, even when there might be many reasons to do so. The recent polls and ongoing protests in Tbilisi continue to show unwavering support for EU integration among the Georgian population.

Since the war started in Ukraine and the EU perspective for Georgia became more real than it had ever been, it also became apparent that the battle for Georgia’s political and foreign policy future is far from over. There is still a very real danger of veering off course.

The West needs to see these developments for what they are while still managing to act strategically by doubling down on support. Giving Georgia more time before reexamining its candidacy application is certainly one positive move. Here is to hoping that many more are to come.

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