By David Kramer, Ian Kelly and Alina Inayeh
Georgia’s path to democracy has been nothing but sinuous. Since the Rose Revolution in 2003, which marked the end of the Soviet era, the country has seen major progress, intertwined with concerning setbacks. Protests and political negotiations following the October 2020 parliamentary elections reveal a political system that remains captured by individuals, is still plagued by corruption, and hardly represents the interests of Georgian citizens. This state of affairs impacts Georgia’s relation with the West, integration with which its people still solidly aspire. It particularly affects its relations with the United States, not long ago a staunch ally of the country.
Georgia was a success story for the first few years of Mikheil Saakashvili’s presidency and, as a result of this promising start, became a darling of U.S. policy in the region. Russia’s invasion in 2008 has kept the country high on the transatlantic agenda. So has Georgia’s insistence to join NATO, one way or another, sooner better than later. It is for the country’s strategic importance as a Western ally in a troubled and Russia-dominated neighborhood that the United States needs to continue its close relation with Georgia, tailoring its policies to help advance democracy there and contain backsliding.
This very timely report thoroughly substantiates the efforts Georgia has made toward democracy as well as its repeated setbacks, identifying the factors that contribute to its current decline as well as the best policy actions that the United States should take toward the country.
As the authors explain, in addition to internal factors—a political sphere tightly controlled by a few people, corruption, and attempts to control the media, among others—there are external ones that test Georgia’s fragile democracy. First and foremost is the country’s neighbor to the north, Russia, which takes any and all steps to ensure an illiberal periphery that insulates it from the democratic world. From invading the country to infiltrating its political life, Russia has used an entire arsenal to keep Georgia as little democratic as possible and away from the West.
Just like in the other countries in Russia’s neighborhood, it is the strong will of citizens to have their country aligned to Western values and institutions that is the most serious obstacle to Russia-promoted illiberalism. Georgians remain deeply committed to European and transatlantic institutions, despite the strong Russian propaganda decrying alleged Western decay.
It is the strong belief of Georgians in Western values that merit a better, more efficient policy of the West toward the country. The United States could do little to help Georgia if it acted alone. Close cooperation with the EU is not only desirable but necessary. To its merit, the EU has taken a strong stance on latest developments in Georgia—the imperfect elections, the arrest of the opposition leader Nika Melia, and the failure of repeated negotiations between government and opposition on new elections. It called out violations of democratic norms and urged the Georgian political parties to reach “a wide consensus” ahead of the Eu-Georgia Association Council meeting this week.
The urgency of events in Georgia should trigger a more determined response from the United States and the EU. We should not get Georgia off our minds just yet.
Director, Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation