EU’s Deafening Silence to the State Capture and Growing Signs of Authoritarianism in Georgia

“I will finish you!” Giorgi Gakharia, the newly appointed Prime Minister of Georgia addressed the parliamentary opposition during his speech on September 6. This simple phrase at first glance describes the level of democracy in Georgia, a country which continues to be considered by the European Union as a success story and the front-runner of the EU’s Eastern Partnership Program (EaP).

Launched in 2009, the EaP aimed at developing relations between the EU and Georgia through democracy promotion and assistance to the state-building process with the final goal of signing an Association Agreement (AA) and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA), and achieving visa free travel for Georgian citizens to the EU Schengen zone states. These objectives have been achieved, but Georgia has failed to become a stable democracy.

The partnership between the EU and Georgia has to be based on “fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law and the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms”, states an EaP document. Moreover, the Association Agreement details that Georgia should be committed “to strengthen[ing] respect for democratic principles, the rule of law and good governance and to consolidate[ing] domestic political reforms”.[1]

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, Georgia remains in the category of “hybrid regime”, capable of improving its score from 4.62 to only 5.5 (on a 10-point scale) in the last ten years.[2] Informal governance, absence of effective checks and balances, lack of respect for state institutions, elite corruption, selective justice, no tolerance and demonization of opposition groups and a political, financial, informational and judicial war against the new political movements and/or social activists are the main characteristics of Georgian democracy today. A logical consequence of a reality in which “oligarchic actors hold outsized influence over policy and political choices and the rule of law continues to be stymied by political interests” (as stated by the Freedom House Country Report 2019).[3]

Indeed, erosion of the rule of law under pressure from the Georgian Dream Party leader, Bidzina Ivanishvili, and informal governance remain the main challenges to good governance and democracy. An example is the constant reshuffling of the government in response to its own political interests. In seven years, Georgia has witnessed five Prime Ministers. The last change in the cabinet, namely Gakharia’s appointment to the post of Prime Minister can be considered the most scandalous one.

Since June 20 2019, demonstrators had been demanding Gakharia’s resignation from the post of Interior Minister, as they hold him responsible for the dispersal of a demonstration in which approximately 240 people (including 30 journalists and 80 police officers) were injured and at least two blinded after being deliberately shot in the face with rubber bullets – “less-lethal” rounds. The next day, 39 local civil society organizations issued a statement calling for the resignation of the Interior Minister, arguing that a video of the event gave the impression that the aim of the police was to inflict injures rather than disperse the protestors.[4] Amnesty International as well as Human Rights Watch also condemned police actions and called for an investigation.[5]

Instead Gakharia not only remained in office, but was even promoted by Bidzina Ivanishvili to the most important position in the country. Little wonder, as Gakharia was the one who ensured the victory of a candidate supported by Ivanishvili in the second round of the presidential election in 2018, through the use of administrative resources. In view of the upcoming 2020 parliamentary elections, it is indeed in Ivanishvili’s best interests to have him on his side.

Gakharia is linked to another scandalous affair in Georgia, namely the General Prosecution’s investigation of Georgian businessman and founder of the TBC Bank, Mamuka Khazaradze, who recently announced his intent to set up a new political movement aimed at winning the 2020 elections. This case brings us to the issue of political persecution in Georgia, a politicized Prosecution Office, and political interference in courts decisions.

Mamuka Khazaradze is facing criminal investigation over money laundering involving a $17 million transaction that took place eleven years ago. Khazaradze denies the charges and instead accuses the government of conducting a political war against him. Considering that the investigation regards a transaction carried out eleven years ago, it really looks like political persecution. Indeed, according to Khazaradze, he received written threats from the Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia prior to the second round of the presidential elections in 2018, warning him of damage to his reputation, if he refused to accept the conditions defined in his letter. One of the conditions was that Khazaradze had “to issue an official statement saying that the return of the United National Movement [was] unacceptable, [that] the Georgian businessman remembered very well how they were treated under the UNM government and that it should not happen again”.[6] Khazaradze indeed made a public statement warning people not to vote the UNM candidate, as the UNM could “impede the country’s development for years and lead to chaos”.[7]

It is not yet clear how the Khazaradze story will evolve; what is clear is that a fair investigation cannot be expected. And this brings us to the second main challenge to democracy in Georgia and that is selective justice and the failed reforms to the judiciary system. Despite some legislative amendments aimed at reforming the Prosecution Office, it is still under the supervision of the Ministry of Justice. The prosecution system remains extremely centralized with all prosecutors subordinated to the Chief Prosecutor, a political appointment. The problems also persists in the appointment/selection procedure of judges along with executive interference in courts decisions. Recently, the ODIHR’s monitoring team reported shortcomings in the nomination process of Supreme Court judges in Georgia, negatively impacting on transparency and fairness.[8]

The impartiality of the judiciary has been questioned in the case of the Tbilisi City Court decision, when it ordered GEL 700.000 bail for Mamuka Khazaradze, as well as in the case of businessman Avtandil Tsereteli, accused of money laundering alongside Khazaradze, when the Tbilisi City Court upheld the motion of the Prosecutors’ Office and also ordered GEL 50.000 bail for him. Tsereteli is the father of the founder of the critical tv-channel TV Pirveli – and this brings us to another challenge to Georgian democracy, namely the freedom of the media. Already in 2018, the government tried to influence the editorial policy of TV Pirveli. Indeed, a joint statement made by civil society organizations in August2019, says: “the suspicion arises that the investigation process could be used to exert pressure on the independent and critical broadcaster, especially considering that the ruling team had allegedly attempted to change the editorial policy of TV Pirveli in the past”.[9]

The lack of independence among law enforcement bodies and the judiciary hinders also the implementation of anti-corruption measures in the country. According to Transparency International, the government’s progress in addressing elite corruption has remained weak, as there have been a number of cases in which law enforcement agencies have avoided dealing with high-profile cases of alleged corruption related to criminal activities. These include unlawful interference with business activities, illegal participation in entrepreneurial activities, illegal enrichment, violation of election campaign financing rules, vote buying during the 2018 presidential elections, transfer of public property to a private company linked to the former Chief Prosecutor, etc.[10] Fair investigation into all these cases cannot be expected as there is no independent anti-corruption agency and, as mentioned above, the whole political and judicial system is concentrated in the hands of the ruling party.

The situation described above exposes the challenges facing democratic institutions in Georgia in general and, in particular, areas such as good governance and the rule of law, the right of assembly and demonstration, freedom of the media, independence of the judiciary and the fight against corruption.

By signing its Association Agreement (AA) with the EU, Georgia has committed itself to strengthening democracy in line with EU demands. It seems that the EU has not been able to shape domestic developments in the country and impact positively the process of democratic transition. Quite the contrary, the emerging feeling is that Brussels has given local authorities carte blanche to resist reforms. Indeed the EU’s criticism of the ruling political establishment remains weak and mild, especially in comparison to the condemnation of democratic setbacks under the previous government.[11] Official Brussels, as well as the EU delegation in Georgia have refrained from expressing any kind of open criticism during all the above-mentioned events. Conversely, after meeting Bidzina Ivanisvili at a conference in Georgia, President of the European Council Donald Tusk declared the following: “After meeting with you, your opponents, the government and the president, I feel that Georgia has a very good and promising future…I think everything is wonderful in Georgia”.[12] Similarly, Johannes Hahn, Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, on the one hand has stressed the need for successful reforms of the judiciary and a pluralistic media landscape, but on the other hand has surprisingly repeated that Georgia is the frontrunner especially in the area of rule of law in the Eastern Neighbourhood.[13]

It is evident that the EU’s rhetoric about Georgia being a success story of the Eastern Partnership is in sharp contrast with reality. One can only speculate about the reasons for the lack of EU criticism and introduction of political costs on the Georgian government for non-compliance in the AA’s political areas. First of all, the EU’s power vis-a-vis Georgia is weaker today than it was before the signing of the AA and DCFTA and before visa liberalization. Signing the agreements cannot trigger the necessary development of democracy alone; it needs a serious follow up in terms of political and financial conditionality from the EU side during the implementation process. However, without giving Georgia an EU membership perspective, it is obvious that Brussels has difficulty in exerting conditionality.

Additionally, it seems that the EU has no capacity or strategy for operating in a context of active resistance to political reforms from a recipient country. The EU lacks new ideas on how to strengthen good governance and the rule of law, how to foster reform of the judiciary and how to fight corruption, while encouraging public participation in the decision-making process in the EaP countries. It is also not clear how Brussels intends to strengthen the resilience of society and the state without stressing the need for democratic reforms. Democracy promotion has been replaced by “flexibility” and “stabilization”.

In this way, the EU has opted for preserving the status quo rather than promoting democratic transformation. This coincides with the EU’s changed approach towards its neighbours. To be specific, in 2016, the EU Global Strategy announced that “principled pragmatism [would] guide the EU’s foreign and security policy in its neighbourhood”.[14] The document seemed to indicate that in the future considerations of realpolitik would have greater influence in shaping the EU’s policies than the Union’s normative requirements, such as promoting democracy.

Thinking in terms of realpolitik, Brussels understands perfectly well that democratically advanced Georgia could ask it for a membership perspective with more vigour. But given that the EU will not be in a position to offer Georgia a membership perspective in the short or medium term, it has no rush and no interest to see the AA and DCFTA implemented in the short run. Until the problems in good governance, rule of law and judiciary, freedom of mass media and respect for human rights remain, the EU will continue to have the much needed excuse for not offering Georgia a membership perspective.

Of course, it is the EU’s right to play its own game in the Eastern Neighbourhood and not to feel responsible for democracy development in Georgia. However, what it is responsible for are the 610-746 million Euros[15] of European taxpayers that the EU (within European Neighbourhood Instrument in the period of 2014-2020) is spending in Georgia in the name of assistance to a successful democracy transition. Accountability toward EU citizens should make the EU (and especially the EU delegation in Georgia) raise its voice against the state capture and the growing signs of authoritarianism in Georgia and make active use of conditionality, at least with a “less for less” approach, in order to ensure minimal progress in political reforms.

Meanwhile, let us hope that the change in leadership of EU institutions will revive the Union’s commitment to promote and uphold democratic norms in the countries of the Eastern Partnership.

[1] EU-Georgia Association Agreement, Official Journal of the European Union, Volume 57, 30 August 2014.

[2] Democracy Index 2018: Me too? Political participation, protest and democracy, https://www.eiu.com/public/topical_report.aspx?campaignid=Democracy2018.

[3] Georgia, Freedom in the World 2019, Freedom House, 2019, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2019/georgia.

[4] Local CSOs Concerned by ‘disproportionate use of force by the police’, civil.ge. 21 June 2019, https://civil.ge/archives/309749

[5] Georgia: Heavy-handed police response calls for urgent investigation, Amnesty International, 21 June 2019, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2019/06/georgia-heavy-handed-police-response-calls-for-urgent-investigation/?fbclid=IwAR1MSsvuTA1nnE9KZNCskxG19NFY1VM3y_6cGRj9LG_SGZtheyK6i9mGSYo. See also: Georgia: Police Use Teargas, Rubber Bullets Against Protesters: Authorities Should Investigate the Use of Force in Protest Outside Parliament, Human Rights Watch, 21 June 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/06/21/georgia-police-use-teargas-rubber-bullets-against-protesters.

[6] Prosecution says TBC Chief’s Proof Against Interior Minister Impossible to Verify, 6 March 2019, https://civil.ge/archives/278472.

[7] Ibidem.

[8] Shortcomings abound following changes to the nomination and appointment of Supreme Court Judges in Georgia, ODIHR report finds, OSCE, 10 September 2019, https://www.osce.org/odihr/429572.

[9] “CSOs Concerned by Charges against Father of TV Pirveli Founder”, Civi.ge, 23 August 2019, https://civil.ge/archives/317683.

[10] “Georgia’s Anti-Corruption Policy fails to fulfil Association Agreement and Association Agenda”, Transparency International, 11 June 2019, https://www.transparency.ge/en/blog/georgias-anti-corruption-policy-fails-fulfill-association-agreement-and-association-agenda.

[11] Laura Delcour, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink’: the EU’s and Russia’s intersecting conditionalities and domestic responses in Georgia and Moldova”, European Politics and Society, 2018, Vol. 19, No. 4, 490-505.

[12] Donald Tusk: I feel that Georgia has a very good and promising future, First Channel, 11 July 2019, https://1tv.ge/en/news/donald-tusk-i-feel-that-georgia-has-a-very-good-and-promising-future-photo-video/.

[13] EU Enlargement Commissioner on Georgia’s Judiciary Reform, ‘Borderization’, Civil.ge, 17 September 2019, https://civil.ge/archives/320493.

[14] EU Global Strategy: Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe, 2016, http://eeas.europa.eu/archives/docs/top_stories/pdf/eugs_review_web.pdf.

[15] The European Neighbourhood Instrument (ENI): EU and Neighbours: Evolving Relations, https://www.euneighbours.eu/en/policy/european-neighbourhood-instrument-eni.