The Georgian Dream, Saakashvili, and the E.U.

The Georgian Dream, Saakashvili, and the E.U.

Source: Georgian presidential election, 2013 | Marco Fieber 

In November 2020, Georgia’s incumbent Georgian Dream party won a third term in parliamentary elections with 48% of the vote. The country’s main opposition party, the United National Movement (UNM), condemned the result as “illegitimate.” Georgia has since been gripped by a political crisis: a democratic retreat, the return of controversial former prime minister Mikheil Saakashvili, and disputes with the EU have all fanned the flames of political tension. Yet as Georgia’s young democracy comes under pressure, it remains a country with favourable conditions for a prosperous and open future.

Turbulent Politics at Home and Abroad

Georgia has long been upheld as an exemplar of a successful transition to democracy in the post-Soviet space. Since Georgian Dream came to power in 2012, however, the party’s commitment to democratic rule has waned. There were early warning signs in 2019 when the party u-turned on promised electoral reforms, but more recent moves are indicative of an increasingly skewed political environment. For instance, the UNM’s chairman, Nika Melia, was arrested in a police raid on the opposition party’s offices in February, and the OSCE described October’s local elections as “marred by widespread and consistent allegations of intimidation…and an unlevel playing field.” In short, Georgian Dream seems to have used problematic tactics to shore up its rule and possibly undermine Georgia’s electoral processes.

Former prime minister Saakashvili’s treatment at the hands of the authorities has also thrust Georgian Dream’s questionable tendencies into the spotlight. He is a highly polarising figure, having led Georgia into a disastrous war against Russia in 2008. Saakashvili reinvented himself as a politician while in exile in Ukraine and supported the 2014 Euromaidan protests. He returned to Georgia against EU advice in early October to “save the country,” but was arrested immediately upon arrival based on a 2018 conviction in-absentia. Saakashvili has just agreed to end a 50-day hunger strike against his detention, claiming that his conviction was based on political revenge. Saakashvili’s return has destabilised Georgia’s delicate political situation by invigorating opposition MP’s and protestors, making compromise increasingly unlikely.

Moreover, Georgia’s strong relationship with the EU traditionally acted as a guarantor of Georgia’s burgeoning democracy and a future commitment to “European” values. This development too, however, has been thrown into question. The EU involved itself in the political crisis in early 2021, seeking to form an agreement between Georgian Dream and the opposition parties. The agreement stated that Georgia would hold new parliamentary elections if Georgian Dream received less than 43% votes in local elections. Georgian Dream agreed in April but annulled the decision in July, and then gave up $89m worth of EU funding in September by defying commitments it had made which effectively stated the party would not pack the judiciary with its allies. These actions highlight that Georgian Dream’s increasingly self-serving behaviour threatens to undermine two decades of close integration with Europe.

Georgian Society and Future Prospects

Despite these concerning developments, there are unignorable underlying positives. Georgia’s economy achieved an average annual growth of 5% from 2005 to 2019 and increased trade with the EU has been integral to this. Accordingly, many Georgians feel that Georgian Dream’s antagonism towards the EU and democracy threatens to undermine the country’s progress in the last decade.  Just 23% of voters believe that Georgia is heading in the right direction politically, for example, while almost 80% would consider EU membership a positive development. Though Georgia’s democracy is certainly under threat, the potential role of civil society in defending it should not be overlooked. Indeed, any hypothetical accession to the EU will hinge on Georgia’s commitment to democracy. With the public overwhelmingly in favour of this, Georgian Dream must tread carefully, or it risks completely undermining its own support base within a besieged – but still salvageable – democratic system.

Georgia is also unlikely to stray too far from the EU’s orbit because doing so would risk geopolitical isolation. Georgia’s only geographic alternative for a powerful ally would be Russia. Since the 2008 war, however, Russia has de facto occupied 20% of Georgia’s internationally recognised territory in the frozen-conflict regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This remains an extremely sensitive issue that also cannot be ignored by Georgian Dream. Carnegie Endowment polling, for instance, shows that just 13% would prefer EU accession over regaining these territories if the hypothetical situation arose.

While this does certainly throw the motivations for EU accession into question (i.e., as Nino Levaja claims, they are perhaps economic rather than because of a full embrace of “European values”), it does indicate that rapprochement with Moscow would be a politically impractical decision. Though Georgian Dream has shown that it will not always play by the EU’s rules, pushing too far would serve only to undermine its own legitimacy. The fact that it committed to a 2024 application for EU membership as recently as May reinforces this hypothesis.

Finally, international organizations and investors remain confident in the country’s economic prospects. Though the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed Georgia’s impressive growth in the last decade, both the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank are predicting annual growth totaling 8-8.5% in 2021 with a further 6% forecast for 2022. Financial confidence is also bolstered by the fact that Georgia remains remarkably favourable for foreign investment owing to its low corruption rating. Recent global corruption rankings from Swiss firm Global Risk Profile (GRP) ranked Georgia 41st out of 190 countries, ahead of 9 EU and NATO member states. This is equally impressive in a regional context: Russia and Azerbaijan are far behind and though Armenia sits closely in 52nd place, uncertainty over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has undermined investor confidence.

Georgia’s Risk Outlook

Concerns that Georgian Dream’s current trajectory is undermining Georgia’s young democracy are certainly valid and future developments should be watched carefully. But this does not mean that Georgia is a lost cause. The country’s risk outlook remains relatively low thanks to pertinent support for European integration and democracy in civil society, while Georgia too remains a stable business environment in a region marred by corruption and uncertainty.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author