08. 07. 2024
თეონა ზურაბაშვილი

Unveiling Georgian Dream's Withdrawal from EU Aspirations: Well-Planned Game or Sudden Shift to the North?

By Teona Zurabashvili, Research Fellow at Ilia Chavchavadze Center for European Studies and Civic Education, Georgia

Georgia has an unprecedented opportunity for EU membership, aided by Ukraine’s resistance against Russia and the West’s altered geopolitical stance towards Russia’s revisionist policies. However, the ruling Georgian Dream party's introduction of a "foreign agent law" jeopardises this opportunity, raising questions about their motivations and alignment with Russia. The situation in Georgia is not merely a domestic issue but a critical front in the broader struggle against Russian revisionist policies. The international community must support Georgia's democratic aspirations and counteract Russia's influence in the region.

Georgia, a small country with 20 percent of its territories occupied, fragile economics, and an existential threat permanently emanating from the Russian Federation, is situated in a politically turbulent region. Given the key challenges Georgia faces, becoming a member of the EU and NATO and respectively, creating an umbrella of security and prosperity, is an issue of existential survival for the nation, as ensured by Article 78 of the Constitution of Georgia.

Georgia has an unprecedented opportunity now to become a member of the EU. Ukraine’s brave fight against Russia, the West’s changed geopolitical stance towards Russia’s revisionist politics, and Georgian citizens’ demonstrative drive for EU alignment have provided Georgia with a more accessible path to European Union accession.

However, the ruling party, Georgian Dream (GD), has reintroduced the "foreign agent law," an analogue of the 2012 Russian law, despite continuous mass protests and international outcry warning that the law would jeopardise the country's EU integration.

Parliamentary elections will be held in October and 80 percent of the population, including supporters of the GD party, favours joining the EU. Therefore, both within and outside the country, the question often arises: why would the government risk political suicide and fragment even its own voter base by undermining the idea of EU integration just months before the elections, especially given the weakness of the opposition political parties in Georgia?


Is GD policy towards Russia purely pragmatic?

Despite the fact that the government of Georgia neglected fundamental aspects of the 12 recommendations provided by the European Commission last year, the EU still granted Georgia candidate status—a development that was previously beyond its wildest dreams. Instead of seizing this opportunity and working to implement the new nine recommendations to establish democratic principles and move towards EU integration, the ruling party, Georgian Dream supported adoption of the “foreign agent law” at all three readings. The introduction of the "foreign-agent law" signifies Georgian Dream’s retreat from the country’s EU aspirations, as it undermines many of the Copenhagen political criteria necessary to initiate the negotiation process with the EU. This occurred against the backdrop of organised attacks on civil activists and political opponents; the mass arrest and intimidation of critics; and intensified conspiracy-based propaganda against Western partners, declaring the EU and the United States as enemies of Georgia's national interests. It is worth mentioning that only Russian propagandists and government representatives support Georgian Dream’s intention regarding this controversial law.

GD’s anti-Western rhetoric has significantly increased since 2021, intensifying especially after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In light of Russia’s prolonged war in Ukraine, where Western partners have delayed providing essential weaponry to Ukraine, one might think that GD is attempting to avoid the country becoming Russia’s next target. However, there are several noteworthy factors that suggest this relationship with Russia is not just emerging now but is part of a long-planned strategy orchestrated from Russia.


Retrospective analysis

It is necessary to review Georgia's political events in retrospect, including certain actions by GD that unfortunately remained unnoticed for a long time by Western partners and, in many cases, by Georgian politicians and commentators.

After coming to power in 2012, Georgian Dream announced that it planned to pursue a rational and pragmatic policy towards Russia. policy. According to the party's founder, Bidzina Ivanishvili, this meant that "Georgia should not be the subject of a dispute between the West and Russia." Although GD’s approach was initially in harmony with Russia's desire to prevent Western influence on countries that Russia perceived as within its sphere of influence, one might have also argued that this was rational for a small country with dim prospects of joining the EU and facing an existential threat from Russia.

The colour revolutions in the former Soviet Union reduced Russia's influence in these countries and undermined its geopolitical ambitions. In Georgia, following the 2003 Rose Revolution, the government pursued a proactive policy to align the country more closely with the EU and NATO, which resulted in Russia's invasion of Georgia in 2008. The institutional reforms aimed at moving Georgia out of Russia's sphere of influence and closer to the EU and NATO were absolutely unacceptable to Russia. Consequently, subversive actions against the state of Georgia began. The then-United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice famously exposed the intentions of the Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, Sergey Lavrov, to overthrow the Saakashvili government.  Due to the intervention of international partners, Georgia was saved from full occupation. However, Russia later apparently adopted a non-military strategy to change the government - in Vladimir Putin’s words, the aggression in the Tskhinvali region dealt a blow to the Georgian people, for which they would hold the "politicians" responsible. A year before the 2012 parliamentary elections, a new political alternative was created under the leadership of Bidzina Ivanishvili, a Russian-backed oligarch. Ivanishvili could genuinely challenge the incumbents because he had accumulated significant social capital in Georgian society due to his distance from politics and philanthropic activities in previous years.

Shortly after Bidzina Ivanishvili and his then-opposition party, the Georgian Dream party appeared on the political scene, it became clear that the resolution of Russian-Georgian relations was one of GD’s key pre-election promises, similarly, using a negative campaign that blamed the previous government for provoking Russia in the 2008 war.

Immediately after GD came to power, they acted in ways that aligned with Russia's revanchist policies and helped bring the country closer to Russia. From a foreign policy perspective, despite the GD government's official goal of joining Western institutions, their so-called “rational policy with Russia” and the absence of a proactive Western policy led to the country's gradual withdrawal from discussions of joining NATO and the EU.

In addition, GD halted the large-scale construction of a deep-water port in the city of Anaklia, which according to local and international estimates, would have had significant geopolitical implications not only for Georgia but for the entire region. The port would have facilitated a constant influx of large volumes of cargo and investment, enhancing the region's connectivity with the West. Additionally, according to the former government, the port would have played an important role in the de-occupation process by providing employment opportunities and contributing to the restoration of relations with the population living in the occupied territories. In short, despite signing a trade agreement with the EU, the GD government failed to leverage these mechanisms and instead tied Georgia more closely to the Russian market. Additionally, GD released Russian agents classified as political prisoners, and most participants in counter-terrorist operations against Russia passed away under often controversial circumstances.


The global context: What factors should the West take into account?

The West made mistakes in the past that not only facilitated the growth of Russian influence in Georgia but also activated Russia's revisionist policies on the European continent. The decision made at the 2008 Bucharest Summit effectively gave Russia a green light to invade Georgia. Following its invasion, the West's inadequate response and continuation of "business as usual" relations with Russia significantly increased Russia's ambitions. This was first evident in the occupation of Crimea in 2014 and later in the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which currently poses a serious security challenge to Europe as a whole.

The current events in Georgia should be viewed within the broader framework of Russia's vision for the European security architecture and its revisionist policies in the region. This perspective sheds light on why GD made a politically risky move prior to the elections. By signaling the start of accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova and granting candidate status to Georgia, the EU signaled its refusal to acknowledge Russia's spheres of influence. Additionally, the EU has expressed interest in Armenia, a former ally of Russia, becoming a member of the EU.  

These developments have motivated Russia to accelerate its efforts to revise its control and prevent further EU expansion. It is no coincidence that the reintroduction of the Russian law by GD coincided with increased pro-Russian activities in countries where Russia seeks to regain influence. This can be viewed as part of Russia's hybrid warfare against the West. The initiation of similar laws in Georgia, occupied Abkhazia, Kyrgyzstan, Serbia, and Republika Srpska may be orchestrated by Russia as a declaration of loyalty from these nations’ pro-Russian forces which it has supported. In Armenia, pro-Russian forces started opposing a Pashinyan pro-Western government and the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov has openly threatened war against Moldova which is entering negotiations to join the EU. The current escalation in Armenia and Moldova mirrors those tactics that were previously successful in Georgia.

The events unfolding in Georgia are not merely a domestic struggle for freedom and democracy. They represent a key part of Russia's revisionist agenda. Consequently, the victory of pro-Russian forces in Georgia could have a far-reaching effect not only on the entire region, but also on the EU. In the short term, losing a country in which the EU has heavily invested undermines the EU’s image as a capable foreign actor against Russia. In the long run, this could lead to Russia attempting to expand its influence over EU territory. These factors reinforce the importance of understanding and addressing the broader geopolitical implications of this situation.


Georgia: A non-military battlefield between the West and Russia

The current political developments in Georgia cannot be viewed in isolation but must be understood within the broader context of Russia's ambitions and strategies. The reintroduction of the "foreign agent law" by GD represents a significant departure from Georgia's EU aspirations, aligning more closely with Russian interests. This shift is not a recent development but part of a long-term strategy orchestrated by Russia to regain influence over the region. GD's actions, including halting the Anaklia port project and releasing Russian agents, demonstrate a pattern of decisions that weaken Georgia's ties with the West while strengthening connections with Russia. The West must recognise these maneuvers as part of Russia's hybrid warfare efforts, aimed at destabilising pro-Western governments and preventing further EU expansion.

For these reasons, the situation in Georgia is not merely a domestic issue but a critical front in the broader struggle against Russian revisionist policies. Interference in Georgia's internal affairs is a significant part of Russia's strategy to alter the world order. This raises the question: to what extent will the West allow such actions? The international community must respond with a comprehensive strategy to support Georgia's democratic aspirations and counteract Russia's influence in the region.


This paper was originally published as a Strategic Insight for the Ireland think tank, the Azure Forum for Contemporary Security Strategy: