As the United States and its NATO allies are focused on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, Russia’s efforts to bring another country into its orbit has gone largely unnoticed. Like many countries that were once part of the Soviet Union, Georgia has a population that is largely pro-EU and pro-NATO, an orientation that has only been strengthened in the years since Moscow’s 2008 invasion of the country, which left Russia occupying some 20 percent of its territory. Yet Georgia’s current leaders have not only failed to support Ukraine in its own struggle against Russian aggression. They have also ramped up anti-Western propaganda efforts, earned praise from Moscow for not joining Western sanctions and trade restrictions on Russia, and emulated a Russian-style crackdown on Georgia’s vibrant civil society. In March, they even attempted to pass a law designating pro-Western and pro-democratic civil society organizations as “agents of foreign influence.” With support and encouragement from Moscow, the Georgian government is building an authoritarian state in Russia’s image.
Tbilisi’s slide into authoritarianism is all the more concerning in that it has largely been driven by one man: the reclusive billionaire, party boss, and kingmaker Bidzina Ivanishvili. Although he was briefly prime minister in 2012–13, Ivanishvili no longer holds any official position in government. But as the founder and former chairman of Georgian Dream, an increasingly pro-Russian, populist party that has gained pervasive control over Georgia’s state institutions, he has been ruling the country through proxies for much of the past decade. Ivanishvili, who made his original fortune in Russia, fears that efforts to meet the democratic criteria needed for Georgia’s integration into the EU could threaten his grip on Georgian institutions and government and therefore fiercely opposes closer ties with Europe in favor of a growing entente with Moscow. Unlike oligarchs in Ukraine, who have had to vie for political influence, Ivanishvili has had little competition in Georgia, allowing him to buy votes and gradually put his followers in positions of power in the legislature, courts, and executive branch. As with the ruling parties in Hungary and Russia, Georgian Dream has used these institutions to keep and expand its power through successive elections. It has also used this control to strengthen ties with Moscow. To loosen Russia’s hold over Georgia, the United States and its allies should support Georgia’s democratic opposition and take action against Ivanishvili and any Georgian companies that are helping Russia evade sanctions. It is time for the United States and its allies to sanction members of Georgia’s government.
Two decades ago, Georgia appeared to be a model for how former Soviet republics could transition to democracy. Following the Rose Revolution in 2003—the series of demonstrations over disputed parliamentary elections that led to the ouster of Georgia’s kleptocratic government—Georgia’s third president, Mikheil Saakashvili, undertook a set of remarkable reforms. For the first time, the government began to provide timely services to its people, as the new government opened the economy and dramatically reduced corruption. After several years in office, however, Saakashvili began to overstep democratic norms. His critics accused him of abuses of power, including allowing the mistreatment of prisoners. This provoked a domestic reaction that eventually led to the rise of Georgian Dream, which was founded in 2012. Initially composed of various opposition forces united under Ivanishvili, Georgian Dream has since pushed out all the pro-Western partners that were once part of its coalition. Ever since the party and Ivanishvili took power in 2012, the country’s institutions have been eroding, and Tbilisi has mimicked much of Moscow’s behavior.
In fact, the rise of Georgian Dream has closely coincided with Moscow’s attempts to bring Georgia and Ukraine back into its sphere of influence. These efforts first gained steam in 2008, when both Georgia and Ukraine were aligning themselves with the West by seeking to join the EU and NATO. For Moscow, these moves posed a direct threat, and it set out to block them at all costs. Along with its invasions of Georgia in 2008 and eastern Ukraine in 2014, the Russian government cultivated the Georgian Dream party as its cat’s paw in Tbilisi. Then, in 2022, it launched its full-scale assault on Ukraine. After more than a year of war, Moscow’s plan has backfired. Instead of a rapid and decisive victory, in which Kyiv was brought definitively into the Russian fold, the conflict has anchored Ukraine firmly in the West with no end to the war in sight. Meanwhile, Finland has joined NATO, with Sweden planning to follow suit, and Ukraine and Moldova have appealed for expedited EU membership.
Tbilisi has mimicked much of Moscow’s behavior.
Yet because of Georgian Dream’s increasingly pro-Russian orientation, Tbilisi has been an exception to this trend. Whereas other countries on Russia’s periphery have been desperate to join Western institutions, Georgia has not. And European leaders have been concerned about Georgian Dream’s increasingly anti-Western rhetoric and policies. Although Georgia’s constitution enshrines a commitment to joining the EU and NATO, Georgian Dream has tried to torpedo the country’s membership bids to Western institutions. In 2022, as the EU was deciding whether to grant candidate status to Georgia, the country’s authorities imprisoned Nika Gvaramia, the CEO of an independent Georgian media outlet, for embezzlement and abusing his position at a popular television channel—an act that violates the EU’s standards of freedom of the media. Organizations including Amnesty International have called the charges politically motivated. This move effectively ended the country’s EU candidacy, at least in the short run. Furthermore, the Georgian Dream government convicted Saakashvili of abuse of power in absentia and arrested him after he returned to Georgia in 2021. Civil society groups, including Human Rights Watch, have accused the government of denying Saakashvili adequate medical treatment—Saakashvili claimed in 2023 that “Russian agents” had poisoned him in jail—and in February 2023, EU member states expressed concerns about Saakashvili’s deteriorating health. The treatment of Georgia’s former president is another attempt by Georgian Dream to undermine the rule of law and thus hurt Georgia’s chance of integrating with the West.
Under the tightening grip of Georgian Dream, Tbilisi has grown closer to Moscow. After the invasion of Ukraine, in February 2022, Georgia refused to support Western sanctions against Moscow, and in fact boasted that it saw new opportunities to increase exports to Russia. There is also growing evidence that the Georgian Dream government is helping Russia evade Western sanctions. Ukrainian intelligence services have publicly accused the Georgian government of negotiating with Moscow to smuggle Western civilian and military goods into Russia. And Georgia’s imports from the EU have increased dramatically since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, reinforcing suspicions that Georgia is being used as a conduit to evade sanctions. In January 2023, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov publicly praised the Georgian government for not joining sanctions against Russia and for “resisting pressure from the West.” In March 2022, Grigory Karasin, the Kremlin’s negotiator for informal dialogue with Tbilisi, stated that Georgia’s “balanced” stance on sanctions would “not go unnoticed” in Moscow.
Amid the ruling party’s growing relations with Moscow, the government’s announcement in early March 2023 of its plans to pass a “foreign agent” law brought tensions with Georgia’s democratic opposition to a crisis point. Taking aim at independent Georgian civil society groups that are critical of Georgian Dream, the proposed legislation was directly modeled on a law the Russian government passed at the start of the Ukraine invasion, and it would have led to the arrest or exile of many critics of Georgian Dream. If enacted, moreover, the law would also foreclose eventual EU membership for Georgia. Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said the law was “incompatible with EU values and standards.”
Although the political opposition to Georgian Dream has been divided and weak—because of years of illegal surveillance and blackmail and pervasive government control of the media—many Georgians reacted strongly to the announcement of the proposed law and began a series of massive demonstrations throughout the country that succeeded in capturing the attention of Western media.
Russian propaganda channels and the Georgian government have likened the protests against the foreign agent law to the 2014 Maidan protests in Ukraine, in which Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was forced to leave office after refusing to sign an association deal with the EU. The Georgian Dream party has reminded Georgians that Yanukovych’s ouster triggered Russia’s 2014 invasion of eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, in an attempt to scare Georgians into believing that Russia could invade Georgia again, if the country were to move in an overtly Western direction. Georgian Dream leaders have suggested that as long as the party remains in power, the country will be safe. This message resonates with some Georgians who are not necessarily pro-Russian but worry about their security and fear that the Ukraine war will spill into their country.
CALLING GEORGIA IN
The United States and its European allies must prevent Georgia from sliding further into Russia’s camp. As long as Ivanishvili and his party rule Georgia, EU membership is unthinkable. But any Western efforts to punish the Georgian Dream party by cutting off the country’s hope for eventual EU membership will only play into Ivanishvili’s hands, since he has tried to block EU accession himself by violating the rule of law. Rather than punishing the country as a whole, a better strategy would be to go after Ivanishvili and his wealth by adding him to the Western sanctions list. On April 5, 2023, the State Department sanctioned four Georgian judges for corruption—a move that is rare in U.S.-Georgian relations and likely serves as a warning to Ivanishvili and other Georgian Dream officials that they could be next. Ivanishvili continues to have strong personal economic ties with Russia, but many of his assets are in Western countries. It doesn’t make sense to target a wide variety of Russian oligarchs and yet let off the hook a Georgian billionaire who is politically closer to Putin than even they are. The United States and its allies should also apply secondary sanctions to Georgian companies and entities that are helping Russia evade sanctions.
Confronted by enormous protests against the foreign agent law, Georgian Dream has dropped the legislation for now. But it can be reintroduced at any time, and the government has likely calculated that it can slowly wear down the opposition and get its way. Georgian civil society remains ferociously dedicated to a Euro-Atlantic future, and with adequate support from the West, it could help resist further encroachment by Moscow. After all, Georgians were the original victims of Russia’s post-Soviet imperialism—canaries in the coal mine whose warnings back in 2008 went unheeded. This time, their warnings must be heard, unless the West is prepared to let Russia fully capture this deeply threatened democracy.
By Francis Fukuyama and Nino Evgenidze. Article first time published on the Foreign Affairs web page.
Cover photo: Protesters are sprayed with a water canon during clashes with riot police near the Georgian parliament in Tbilisi / AFP / South China Morning Post