I recently returned from a visit to the Republic of Georgia. I was there to teach one of our Leadership Academy for Development courses, and also to participate in an alumni event for the Fisher Family Summer Fellows program (formerly the Draper Hills program) at Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law. We have accumulated well over a hundred Georgian graduates of our various leadership programs over the years, and it was wonderful to return to the country after the long Covid interlude. The host for both events was the Economic Policy Research Center, a think tank in Tbilisi run by the indomitable Nino Evgenidze who has been a staunch supporter of a democratic and European Georgia for many years.
The visit occurred at a critical moment in Georgia’s history. The country is slowly but surely being sucked into Moscow’s orbit, a process that has accelerated since the invasion of Ukraine in February of last year. In contrast to Ukraine, which before the war was plagued with half a dozen oligarchs, Georgia has only one, a gentleman named Bidzina Ivanishvili, who was briefly prime minister in 2012-13 and who since then has been controlling the country through the Georgian Dream party that he founded. He rarely appears publicly, but has put loyalists like his dentist and bodyguard in positions of supreme power.___STEADY_PAYWALL___
The Georgian people remain strongly oriented towards Europe and the West. A recent poll by the International Republican Institute showed 63 percent of respondents asserting that the EU was the country’s most important political partner, with 47 percent saying the same about the United States. Only 8 percent felt that way about Russia, while 87 percent felt Russia constituted the greatest political threat. Russia fought a short war with Georgia in 2008, backing alleged separatist movements in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russian troops now occupy some 20 percent of Georgia’s territory.
Nonetheless, the current Georgian Dream government has been quietly shifting Georgia’s support to Moscow despite public protestations that it is still seeking membership into the EU. This support is visible in a number of ways. Unlike other countries that were formerly parts of the Soviet Union or aligned with it like the Baltic States or Poland, Georgia has declared itself neutral in the current war, and refused to support Western sanctions while allowing full rein to Russia media and propaganda. There is evidence that the government is quietly helping Russia evade EU sanctions, with a huge increase in imports from the EU since the beginning of the invasion that many believe are destined for Russia. At the beginning of the war, there was an influx of Russians into Georgia, followed by another huge wave on the heels of Putin’s declaration of a mobilization last September. The government forced fleeing Russians who are critical of Putin to move on to other countries. Many tens of thousands have stayed, driving up housing costs throughout the country. Those Russians are not necessarily Putin critics; they simply wanted to evade the draft and there are fears that they will start playing a role in Georgian politics as they sink roots there.
The most disturbing acts of the Georgian Dream government are internal ones, however. It has jailed the country’s third president, Mikheil Saakashvili, and is denying him adequate medical care. It also arrested a leader of the country’s remaining independent news outlets, Nika Gvaramia, on totally specious charges. It introduced a law earlier this year on “foreign agents,” who would be forced to declare themselves as such and have their funding restricted. This law was modeled on one passed in Russia several years ago that Putin has used to crack down on regime critics and drive them out of the country. The Georgian bill’s purpose was to marginalize the influence of the country’s powerful NGO sector—organizations like the Economic Policy Research Center or Transparency International Georgia that have been critics of the government’s increasing authoritarian tendencies. The proposed bill triggered a massive series of protests throughout the country, organized by those very same civil society groups that the law was targeting. The government in response withdrew the measure, but could reintroduce it at any time.
As Nino Evgenidze and I argued recently in Foreign Affairs, these acts seem deliberately designed to torpedo Georgia’s chances of getting into the European Union. The Western response should not be to deny Georgia entry, but to set clear conditions for proceeding that would roll back the anti-democratic measures recently taken. At around the time of my visit, the State Department announced that it was sanctioning four Georgian judges who were guilty of gross corruption. These sanctions need to be extended to other members of current government and particularly to the oligarch who controls events from behind a screen. Ivanishvili already has a certain part of his fortune frozen in Switzerland, which he incorrectly believes is the result of American influence. The United States needs to move openly against his other assets, which are being used to undermine Georgian democracy. He has done much more to aid Russia than many of the Russian oligarchs already on the sanctions list.
There will be a new election next year in which Georgian voters will decide whether they want to give Georgian Dream a fourth term in office. The opposition is currently highly fragmented, and the 5 percent threshold means that many of the small liberal parties will waste their voters’ ballots and not get into parliament. The oldest opposition party, Saakashvili’s United National Movement, remains even less popular than Georgian Dream. It is critical for the other pro-European groups to unite around common candidates and a platform that clearly renounces Georgia’s reincorporation into the Russian sphere of influence. Georgians want a European future for their country, and hope to wake up from a dream that has become a nightmare.
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: The Georgian flag. (Flickr: Zura Nurimanishvili)
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