Is it possible to restore relations between the ruling Georgian Dream and the West? – Analysis – Eurasia Review

Perhaps for the first time, Georgian-American relations are surviving the most critical period of 32 years of diplomatic relations, which span from US humanitarian aid to Georgia in the 1990s to the signing of the Charter of Strategic Partnership in 2009. The adoption of the law on “conductors of interests of external forces” by the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party, which withdrew the same law in March 2023 under domestic and international pressure, became the trigger for the most serious confrontation with the West in recent decades.

The first tranche of visa sanctions against nearly 34 officials and private citizens of the Georgian parliament, announced by the US State Department on June 6, was Washington's response to Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze's statement that Georgian-American relations needed to be “restarted” to make them closer. It is noteworthy that the United States sanctioned four Georgian judges in 2023. Therefore, the latest US sanctions were quite expected, given the increasingly negative dynamics of Georgian-American relations in recent years. It seems that the parties are misinterpreting each other's position. On May 2, Tbilisi rejected a US invitation to Prime Minister Kobakhidze for an official visit, arguing that a “precondition” would be to temporarily suspend parliamentary discussion of the “foreign agents” law. The Georgian Foreign Ministry stated that meetings with preconditions do not embody the spirit of cooperation, which should be based on mutual respect and trust. During his visit to Tbilisi on May 14, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs James O'Brien publicly warned Georgian authorities of the “consequences” that would follow if the law were to come into force.

Relations between Georgia and the European Union are also marked by contradictions. In the coming weeks, Georgia will likely face sanctions from the European Union over the much-discussed law. These could include the suspension of visa-free travel for Georgia, which could be painful for many citizens of Georgia, especially the youth who are leading the ongoing street demonstrations. The sanctions will definitely hit some key sectors of the Georgian economy.

The law on increased transparency for NGOs and media that receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad and their registration as intermediaries of foreign interests is arguably the only reason for such a unanimously sharp reaction from the West. The law has only resulted in the West's verbal discontent being transformed into punitive measures. The latter result from the relatively independent domestic and foreign policy that Georgia has pursued in recent years, especially after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. According to the European Commission's statistics on Georgia, the alignment of its foreign policy with the EU's common foreign and security policy has declined from 61% in 2020 to 31% in 2023. Recently, US President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron joined calls from other Western leaders for the Georgian government to “return to the Euro-Atlantic path.” GD vehemently rejects accusations by the West and the domestic opposition that a single law will lead Georgia away from the Euro-Atlantic path, and often refers to similar laws and regulations that already exist or are planned to be introduced in the West.

The reasons for the current crisis in Georgia-West relations must be sought deeper in all levels of these relations during the Governor General's tenure, which include the different approaches to implementing a number of reforms demanded by the West. In recent years, Georgia has started to speak with the US and EU in the language of “sovereign democracy.” Georgia's sovereign rhetoric under the Governor General's slogan “To Europe with dignity” was translated into actions that included the implementation of EU and US recommendations in a manner that the Governor General considers appropriate and safe for the country and its government.

After the conflict in Ukraine broke out, the Georgian government had opted for a “policy of survival” and somewhat ignored a “values-based policy” – much to the displeasure of the West, which had expected Tbilisi to be more proactive in supporting Kyiv. The Georgians stunned Western circles with their refusal to fully join Western sanctions against Russia. They also refused to supply military equipment to Ukraine and banned the organized deployment of Georgian volunteer fighters to Ukraine. Unlike the authorities in Moldova and Ukraine, the Georgians condemned the review mechanism for verifying the integrity of judges – one of the nine conditions set by the European Commission for Georgia to start EU accession negotiations this year after the country is granted EU candidate status in 2023.

Certainly, the Georgian government has taken the risky step of destroying traditionally friendly relations with the West. The Georgian government's caution towards Russia and the conflict in Ukraine, its relatively independent approach to the West, and its inclination towards a multi-objective policy, including closer relations with China, are unlikely to find approval in the West.

The growing dissatisfaction of the US and EU with the situation in Georgia is also due to the fact that, in their opinion, the above-mentioned law could jeopardize the huge Western investments in the development of Western democracy in Georgia. A letter from 14 US senators clearly testifies to this concern. The West has indeed invested a lot in the formation of a new pro-Western counter-elite in Georgia to replace the old traditional elites. In addition, as they explained, Western circles were irritated by the strongly worded speech of GD founder and current honorary chairman Bidzina Ivanishvili at the gathering of GD supporters on April 29. Ivanishvili promised to end the rule of Georgia by foreign powers, clearly alluding to the US and the EU.

The West is open about its desire to see a multi-party system and a pro-Western coalition government after the parliamentary elections in Georgia on October 26. However, this desire is at odds with the General Democracy's plans to stay in power for another term in order, as it argues, to avert possible problems, including military conflict. The adoption of the law can be considered as one of the security measures to achieve this goal. At the same time, it should be noted that the West's accusations that Georgia has been pushed back from its democratic development under the rule of the General Democracy are not confirmed by a number of competent studies. The Atlantic Council's Atlas on Freedom and Prosperity Around the World – 2024, analyzing the 2023 Freedom Index, lists Georgia among the top 45 countries that have received the status of freedom.

Ahead of the parliamentary elections, the resources and opportunities for a restart of relations between Turkey and the West are almost exhausted. The withdrawal of the law, which the West apparently expects Turkey to do, is unlikely, as it would have meant severe political and reputational damage for Turkey. The only, albeit unlikely, chance is the annulment of the law by the Constitutional Court. The punitive measures already imposed and expected by the West against Turkey and possibly Georgia have also limited the possibilities for a restart of relations between Turkey and the West.

Given the war in Ukraine, the growing confrontation with Russia and the complex geopolitical challenges in the region, the West is more likely to support those political parties that promise to adhere to Western policies once in power than to try to reset relations with Turkey. However, the outcome of the parliamentary elections could derail these plans.

Anna Harden

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