Is Georgian Dream Digging Its Own Grave?

May 03, 2024
Georgia’s entrenched ruling party no longer makes any pretense of adhering to democratic principles.

For 12 years, one of the Georgian Dream government’s greatest powers lay in maintaining a pro-EU veil while subtly and incrementally eroding democracy in the country. The repression of civil society, critical media, and the opposition was often overshadowed by formal progress made in the EU integration process. With the reintroduction of the Russian-style “foreign agent” law and Georgian Dream founder Bidzina Ivanishvili’s speech this week when he lambasted NGOs as “pseudo-elites” leading revolutions, the pro-EU veil has finally come off. As mass protests in Tbilisi enter a third week, it seems that this unmasking is likely to cost Georgian Dream its power in a country where an overwhelming majority of the people support Georgia’s EU integration.

In the same year that Viktor Yanukovych came out in Kyiv and announced that Ukraine was no longer planning to sign its Association Agreement with the EU, Ivanishvili’s newly elected Georgian Dream government was holding meetings with the Polish foreign minister and asking if the signing of the country’s own Association Agreement could be sped up.

This move did not come because Ivanishvili had any fewer ties to the Kremlin than Yanukovych or was any more in favor of the EU integration process than the Yanukovych government. An oligarch with business ties to Russia, Ivanishvili had already declared in 2012 that he did not “think and can’t believe that Russia’s strategy is the occupation of territories of its neighboring countries”. Rather, Ivanishvili’s caution and pro-EU position came from learning from Yanukovych’s mistake that openly rejecting Europe would backfire in a country that enjoys huge public support for EU integration. If he wanted to bring Russian-style authoritarian rule to Georgia, it had to be a gradual, incremental, and subtle process that would allow him to slowly capture the state without openly deviating from Georgia’s declared EU path.

Ivanishvili’s embrace of the West allowed him to maintain internal and external legitimacy while capturing state institutions.

And, indeed, this is what Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream government achieved in the past 12 years in office. While political persecutions of the opposition, civil society, and critical media started as early as 2014, they were slow and often justified with a legal and democratic veil. At the same time, Georgia continued advancing on its EU path—in 2014, the Association Agreement was signed with the EU; in 2016, Georgia received visa-free travel in the Schengen area; and in 2023 Georgia was granted EU candidate status. Whereas Yanukovych’s open rejection of Europe led to him to lose power in Ukraine, Ivanishvili’s embrace of the West allowed him to maintain internal and external legitimacy while capturing state institutions. For their part, the European Union and the United States, with their own internal democracy crisis and prioritization of stability over democracy in the region, rewarded and legitimized Ivanishvili’s government. Until Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Ivanishvili, similarly to Aleksandar Vucic in Serbia, was a master in leveraging both the EU and Russia for his benefit.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine made this game harder to play, however. Authoritarian players like Ivanishvili had to make clearer to both their citizens and international partners which side they were on. While the Georgian Dream government’s decision to not join the sanctions against Russia and attacks on the Zelenskiy government gave an answer of a sort, Georgian Dream still remained cautious in not overtly diverting from its EU path and justified its position by stating it was attempting to “avoid war.” Two years into its full-scale war, however, it seems that Russia wanted to better delineate countries that were on its sphere of influence. This seems to be the rationale behind having Georgian Dream reintroduce the Kremlin-style “foreign agent” law after it failed in 2023. The same bill has been introduced by Russia-favoring autocrats in Kyrgyzstan and Milorad Dodik’s Republika Srpska during the exact same period.

With the reintroduction of the Russia-inspired law and Ivanishvili’s open declaration of his intentions, Georgian Dream’s pro-EU mask has finally come off. The massive and continuous protests in Georgia suggest that citizens of a country where over 89% of the public is in favor of EU integration will not tolerate repressive Kremlin-inspired laws or a Russian-style government. Yet 12 years in power has strengthened Georgian Dream’s state capacity and provided the party with sophisticated tools and resources to push its agenda—including dominance of major information channels and control over a large part of the civil service. The existence of illiberal actors within the EU itself such as Viktor Orbán gives further support to Ivanishvili’s agenda.

Almost all parliamentarians who voted for the “foreign agent” law have ties to the West.

This means that Georgia’s overwhelmingly pro-EU public and civil society need backing from its Western partners in their final fight against Ivanishvili’s government. Ivanishvili has announced that he heads a pro-Russian regime, and it is high time to finally treat him as such. Citizens spending days out on the streets in Georgia should get vocal encouragement and support from the West. Georgian Dream members should no longer be met with open hands in EU institutions. And attention should not be diverted from Georgia’s upcoming elections despite it being election season in the United States and the EU. In addition, sanctions should be used as a tool against Ivanishvili’s cronies. Almost all parliamentarians who voted for the “foreign agent” law have ties to the West; imposing sanctions on them will make them less willing to continue serving Ivanishvili’s interests. The same approach can apply to other institutions captured by Ivanishvili.

The next months will mark a clear make or break moment for Georgian democracy—a few months from now, Georgia can either become Russia’s backyard or a democratic EU candidate country. Everything needs to be done to ensure that the outcome is the latter.

Anastasia Mgaloblishvili is a ReThink.CEE fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. 

This article was first published by Transitions on May 2, 2024.