The ongoing political crisis in Georgia has now been a consistent issue for almost five months. Matters deteriorated when the country’s opposition refused to recognise the October parliamentary elections – in which the incumbent Georgian Dream government comfortably won 90 seats in Georgia’s 150-seat legislature – with claims that votes had been rigged. The OSCE’s electoral observation mission concluded that the vote was “competitive and, overall, fundamental freedoms were respected”; however, it also mentioned that there were “pervasive allegations of pressure on voters and a blurring of the line between the ruling party and the state”.
While the Georgian Dream party insists that the elections were free and fair, most of the opposition MPs still refuse to take up their mandates, and continue to demand new elections. As a result, one-third of Parliament’s mandates remain unrepresented, which severely hampers the legislature’s representativeness, as well as both international and domestic credibility.
The post-election turbulence has been exacerbated by the court’s ruling to sentence an opposition leader, Nikanor Melia, to prison, for allegedly provoking demonstrators to seize the Parliament building in the summer protests of 2019. The move has been widely deemed politicised, and it once again revealed the problems facing the judiciary in the country. This led Giorgi Gakharia – who is Georgia’s fifth prime minister in eight years – to resign the following day after a disagreement with his party regarding Melia’s detention plan. This resulted in yet another wave of domestic protests and international criticism.
While the EU, which remains occupied with tackling the pandemic, had somewhat overlooked the relatively “free” elections, the government’s increasingly audacious actions have led the Union and Georgia’s other Western partners to express serious concerns. The EU ambassador to Georgia, Carl Hartzell, described the circumstances surrounding Melia’s prosecution as a “dangerous trajectory for Georgia”. Subsequently, the EU released a statement saying that Melia’s sentence “risks undermining Georgia’s democracy” and urged the ruling party and opposition to “find common ground”. It underlined that “an inclusive parliamentary process” is paramount for the country’s future relationship with the EU.
Many believed that this turbulent situation would be resolved at the end of February, when European Council President Charles Michel started his tour of the Eastern Partnership nations – Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine – to show “commitment to the EU’s eastern partners” and to discuss the future of the initiative. While his visit coincided with the domestic upheaval in Georgia, Charles Michel immediately prioritized the resolution of the political crisis in Tbilisi. The involvement of such a high-ranking EU official in the mediation of the crisis has demonstrated Georgia’s importance for the EU. Although Charles Michel highlighted Georgia’s success as an Eastern Partnership state, he noted that constructive dialogue was vital for solving the current political crisis.
On his initiative, the ruling party and opposition met at the presidential palace to attempt to alleviate the political polarization and de-escalate matters, as well as actively involve the EU as a mediator. President Michel urged the government to follow democratic frameworks, reform the country “more ambitiously”, and compromise with the opposition. He prepared a working agenda encompassing a number of key issues, such as electoral and judiciary reforms, the release of political prisoners, and holding provisional elections. The mediation progress was set to be rechecked at the EU-Georgia Association Council meeting in Brussels on March 15.
While the country’s political crisis pertains to the opposition protests against “rigged elections” and the existence of political prisoners, the opposition stated its readiness for dialogue (which should have resulted in the release of the prisoners), negotiations on new elections, and reforms of the politicised judiciary.
During Charles Michel’s visit, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili agreed to “do everything necessary” to take concrete steps to de-escalate the situation, underlining that “Georgia needs to continue becoming more democratic” and that “dialogue with the opposition is paramount”. Charles Michel’s visit prepared a solid ground for an agreement between the government and opposition parties. Nevertheless, once President Michel left the country, the government’s narrative suddenly changed, with Irakli Gharibashvili announcing that new elections cannot be held and remain a “red line” for the ruling party. This way the working plan proposed by the President of the European Council was somewhat neglected and the Georgian government went “empty-handed” to the EU-Georgia Association Summit in Brussels.
Many also hoped that renewed political dialogue led by Charles Michel’s representative Christian Danielson, as well as the EU-Georgian Association Summit in Brussels, could end the crisis. Mr Danielson has prolonged his stay in Tbilisi to settle the situation yet no deal has been reached. Similarly, after the Brussels summit, Prime Minister Gharibashvili insisted that the next election could be held only in 2024, and the release of the prisoners cannot be decided by the government. The ruling party, therefore, has made it clear several times that it is not willing to compromise with the opposition. As a consequence, the EU’s efforts to help a ‘frontrunner’ Eastern Partnership state out of the political wilderness might not bear fruit, and in case it somehow does, it will not be a long-term solution to the deep-rooted crisis that Georgia is facing.
A close partnership between Georgia and the EU was largely framed under the Eastern Partnership in 2009. As a frontrunner of the initiative of 6 countries, Georgia has succeeded in closely integrating with the organisation by concluding the EU-Georgia Association Agreement, which allowed visa-free travel for Georgian citizens to Schengen Zone states. Thus, Georgia has accrued all possible tangible benefits under the EaP framework. While the country has aspired to obtain EU membership, the EU stated that cooperation as part of the EaP and association agreement were not prospects for membership. The recent developments, as well as a noticeable democratic backslide in the country, have demonstrated that if the EU wants to keep Georgia committed to democratic values, it needs to provide the country with more incentives.
Georgia’s potential EU membership currently has no realistic prospects due to the organisation’s enlargement fatigue and authoritarian tendencies in some of its member states, such as Hungary and Poland. Besides, even though Georgia might have shown more willingness to obtain membership, western Balkan states are still prioritised by the EU due to their geopolitical proximity.
The EaP seems to be an obsolete initiative for the partnership unless it is upgraded. Due to the limited progress of key democratic reforms in the EaP countries regarding institution-building, good governance, the judiciary, prosecution services and anti-corruption measures, Brussels is facing a dire necessity to devise more tools under an upgraded EaP initiative to reinforce democracy in Georgian and the region at large.
While the EU-Georgia relationship has found itself in a limbo of uncertainty, there may be new opportunities for the EU to improve relations with the country and other eastern partners. One method could be enhancing sectoral cooperation in transport, energy and other fields, coupled with the full implementation of the EU’s four liberties: freedom of goods, services, capital and labour. This has been suggested by the foreign ministers of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, who signed a joint statement on the establishment of the EU+3 format in order to ensure closer cooperation with the EU. The EU+3 might contradict the EU’s strategy of regionalism, but it could be reshaped as an Eastern Partnership + format, which could encompass all of the Eastern Partnership countries for the sake of inclusiveness, with the EU incentives firmly attached to the countries’ commitments to democratic reforms.
The EU also needs more engagement in Black Sea connectivity, granting Georgia more strategic as well as commercial access to Central Asia to balance Russian and Chinese influence. Supporting more infrastructure and energy projects could reduce the EU’s dependence on Russian energy and enhance the region’s transit importance. The Union could also engage in the currently-halted Anaklia deep sea-port project, which could be paramount for regional connectivity.
Diverging interests of the EU’s member states hinders Brussels from keeping the EaP on the agenda as the EU’s transformative tool in the region. To continue effective democracy-building processes in the region, member states should speak with one voice about the depth of the sectoral integration in the Eastern Partnership policy.
The EU should transform its ‘one size fits all’ approach to Eastern Partnership states by adopting sustainable country-specific policies that will be in compliance with national aspirations and necessities. The modern vision of engagement could create new mechanisms for the EU to lever deepened cooperation and new incentives to keep Georgia in the West’s democratic orbit.