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Save Georgia's Democracy

Save Georgia's Democracy

Democracy in the Republic of Georgia is in imminent peril, and the United States and Europe must act quickly to save it. Francis Fukuyama's latest.

Francis Fukuyama

Democracy in the Republic of Georgia is in imminent peril, and the United States and Europe must act quickly to save it. The United States cutoff of aid to Ukraine over the past several months has allowed Russia to make significant military gains there, and this apparent momentum has had terrible knock-on effects in countries around Moscow’s periphery like Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia. 

Governments that previously sought to maintain some distance from Russia have felt emboldened to express their pro-Moscow sympathies more openly, and one of these is Georgia.

For much of the past decade, Georgia has been governed by the Georgian Dream Party. This party was the creation of the country’s one oligarch, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia and remains close to the leadership in the Kremlin. He served briefly as Prime Minister but found that he could wield influence more effectively by giving up his formal office and operating behind the scenes. The party he bankrolls claims to continue to want Georgia to join the European Union, but in fact it has been serving the Kremlin’s interests. It failed to join the European sanctions regimes at the outset of the full-scale war against Ukraine, and has become a major conduit for sanctions evasion. 

When I was in the country last year and drove up to Kazbegi in the Caucasus Mountains on the Russian border, there was an endless line of trucks, mostly from Armenia, headed towards Russia with sanctioned goods from EU countries. This is despite the fact that a very large percentage of Georgia’s population remains pro-European and sharply critical of the Russian attack on Ukraine. 

The situation has suddenly gotten worse in the past three weeks. The Georgian Dream government re-introduced a bill first tabled last year that pro-Western Georgians call the “Russian” NGO bill. The bill would force all NGOs receiving money from outside Russia to declare their sources of income, the same type of legislation that Russia itself used to shut down its NGO sector and opposition parties. Last year, the introduction of the bill provoked massive demonstrations that went on for weeks until the government finally withdrew it. This year, there have been even larger protests, which have not deterred the government from passing the bill on its first two readings. The third reading is scheduled for the coming week, and once it passes, there will be open season on all of the pro-democracy groups in the country.

Our Georgian friends tell us that the government has rapidly escalated its pressure on pro-Western groups even before final passage of the legislation. This time around, demonstrators have been beaten by pro-government mobs, prominent individuals targeted, and activists have been placed on growing blacklists. The government clearly does not fear Western pushback; if this derails Georgia’s candidate status with the EU, all the better from their standpoint.

Our Georgian friends are united on what they hope the Western response should be: targeted sanctions against those Georgian Dream legislators who voted for the Russian law, as well as select officials in the Georgian government. In earlier years, Georgia was granted visa-free travel to the European Union, and many elite Georgians still prize their ability to travel there freely. Forcing them to apply for visas would impose real costs on them. Blanket sanctions like an end to visa-free status would end up punishing everyone including pro-Western citizens, and is not at this point desirable.

The United States and Europe have to wake up to the fact that perceived weakness in Washington has given encouragement to anti-democratic actors not just in Ukraine, but all over the world.  Our attention is being distracted by porn stars and controversies closer to home, but we need to remember that our democratic friends around the world need our support and help.

Francis Fukuyama is chairman of the editorial board of American Purpose and Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow and director of the Ford Dorsey Master’s in International Policy program at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

Image: Flag of the Republic of Georgia. (Unsplash: Zurabi)

AuthoritarianismDemocracyEastern EuropeEuropeU.S. Foreign PolicyRussia