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Georgia Turns Its Back on the West

The ruling Georgian Dream party is taking Tbilisi into Moscow’s orbit while eroding democratic institutions.

By , a U.S. ambassador to Georgia from 2015 to 2018, and , a senior fellow at Florida International University’s Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs.
Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili takes off his protective facemask before delivering a speech at the Georgian Parliament, in Tbilisi, on Feb. 22.
Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili takes off his protective facemask before delivering a speech at the Georgian Parliament, in Tbilisi, on Feb. 22. VANO SHLAMOV/AFP via Getty Images

This month marks the 13th anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Georgia, a country of 3.7 million people wedged between Russia and Turkey. For decades, Georgia has been the most pro-Western and pro-American country in the region. Its top foreign-policy priority is to join the European Union and NATO, and it has answered nearly every call from both organizations to serve in peacekeeping and combat missions.

Several dozen Georgians made the ultimate sacrifice while serving side by side with U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition to serving as a security asset for the United States, Georgia is strategically important as the Black Sea outlet of the only economically viable East-West trade route that does not transit Russia or Iran.

Keen to join the Euro-Atlantic community, Georgia has also stood out in its region for having made the most progress toward democracy. That progress is now threatened by the ruling party, Georgian Dream, which seems more intent on seizing all reins of power than on meeting Western standards of governance. It also appears to be strengthening its ties to Russia and even Belarus.

This month marks the 13th anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Georgia, a country of 3.7 million people wedged between Russia and Turkey. For decades, Georgia has been the most pro-Western and pro-American country in the region. Its top foreign-policy priority is to join the European Union and NATO, and it has answered nearly every call from both organizations to serve in peacekeeping and combat missions.

Several dozen Georgians made the ultimate sacrifice while serving side by side with U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition to serving as a security asset for the United States, Georgia is strategically important as the Black Sea outlet of the only economically viable East-West trade route that does not transit Russia or Iran.

Keen to join the Euro-Atlantic community, Georgia has also stood out in its region for having made the most progress toward democracy. That progress is now threatened by the ruling party, Georgian Dream, which seems more intent on seizing all reins of power than on meeting Western standards of governance. It also appears to be strengthening its ties to Russia and even Belarus.

In 2019, Georgian Dream leaders invited a Russian lawmaker to address the Georgian legislature, leading to outrage and unrest in the streets.

In 2019, Georgian Dream leaders invited a Russian lawmaker to address the Georgian legislature, leading to outrage and unrest in the streets. It torpedoed two projects that would have increased Georgia’s independence from Russia, one a deep-water port on the Black Sea and the other a new East-West corridor of fiber optic cable.

Some in Georgian Dream are carrying out what amounts to state capture, concentrating power and wealth in the hands of a small group of elites, at a time when the coronavirus pandemic is raging in the country  and hurting the economy, with GDP dropping by 6.2 percent last year. Georgia has recorded a half million cases and more than 6,500 dead, a positivity rate of 10.4 percent, and only seven percent of the population is fully vaccinated.

Borrowing a page from the playbook of illiberal regimes like those in Moscow and Minsk, Tbilisi has also begun lashing out at the West. In late 2019, Facebook removed fake accounts, all traced to Georgian Dream, that expressed anti-Western sentiments, some of which were specifically anti-American. More recently, websites and social media accounts linked to Georgian Dream have launched unprecedented attacks on the U.S. ambassador in Tbilisi and her European colleagues any time they have voiced criticism of Georgian Dream or the government, in an effort to silence such criticism.


Georgia’s political crisis came to a head last fall, when opposition parties challenged parliamentary elections, alleging the Georgian Dream government engaged in voter manipulation and fraud. While there is little doubt that Georgian Dream received more votes than any other party, many have questioned whether it got enough—40 percent—to form a government without having to form a coalition. While most international observers called the fall elections competitive, most analysts agree that Georgian Dream has been seeking to marginalize opposition forces, monopolize power, and control the judiciary.

The opposition’s decision to boycott the parliament sparked a political crisis that the government then made worse in February by arresting and jailing Nika Melia, the leader of United National Movement, the main opposition party. Many in the opposition also charged that the prosecution of Giorgi Rurua, the majority owner of pro-opposition TV channel Mtavari Arkhi, was politically motivated.

In early July, right-wing demonstrators ran amok on the day of a planned LGBTQ Pride rally, attacking journalists and civil society offices.

In April, the European Union intervened to strike an agreement defusing the political crisis, at least temporarily, and leading to Melia’s release. In addition to calling for amnesty for “political prisoners,” the agreement called for early parliamentary elections if Georgian Dream failed to secure 43 percent of the vote in upcoming local elections. But then, in early July, right-wing demonstrators ran amok on the day of a planned LGBTQ Pride rally, attacking journalists and civil society offices. Some of the demonstrators had links to Moscow, and they were encouraged by the Georgian Orthodox Church, which maintains ties to its Russian counterpart.

More than 50 journalists were injured, and one died several days after being brutally beaten. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili blamed the “radical opposition” for instigating the clash. His failure to prevent and condemn the violence contributed to ongoing tensions between supporters of the Pride March and journalists on one side and counter-demonstrators on the other. The U.S. Ambassador in Tbilisi slammed Garibashvili for lack of “forceful leadership” in handling the homophobic and anti-media violence.

Tapping into the less tolerant parts of Georgian society and playing up to the Orthodox Church, Garibashvili described the Pride march as “unacceptable for a large segment of Georgian society” and “organized by revanchist forces such as radical opposition.” The organizers of the March—who were, in fact, the victims of the violence—were, in Garibashvili’s view, being “unreasonable” and risking “civil confrontation.” So far there have been no arrests of the organizers of the attacks and violence.

Political use of the judiciary, intimidation of the media, and accumulation of power by the executive are hardly without precedent in Georgian politics. In 2007, the United National Movement-led government of Mikheil Saakashvili used force against anti-government protesters, declared a state of emergency, and pulled the main opposition channel, Imedi TV, off the air. What is unprecedented, however, is Georgian Dream’s announcement that it would withdraw from the EU-brokered agreement, a move that has reopened the political crisis and signals Georgian Dream’s latest break from the West and toward the model of illiberal regimes.

The agreement had a number of power-sharing elements, but perhaps most important was the commitment to hold new parliamentary elections if Georgian Dream fails to gain more than 43 percent in October’s local elections. A recent poll by the International Republican Institute shows Georgian Dream well short of that threshold.

And in news stunning even by Georgian standards, an interstate agreement on cooperation between the State Security Committee of Belarus and the Georgian State Security Service reportedly entered into force this month. Originally signed in 2016, the agreement binds the Georgian government with one of the most abusive regimes in the world, and Belarus’s KGB service and Russia’s FSB have very close ties.

To abrogate an agreement with the EU while affirming an agreement with the dictatorial regime in Minsk is not a good look for Georgia.

So far, Georgian officials have not denied the existence of the agreement; instead, they have criticized reports about it. To abrogate an agreement with the EU while affirming an agreement with the dictatorial regime in Minsk is not a good look for Georgia, to say the least, and heightens concerns about current Georgian authorities’ commitment to a Western orientation and democratic values.

Opinion polls consistently show over two-thirds of Georgians support Euro-Atlantic integration. While the Georgian Dream government professes to seek deeper integration with the EU and NATO, recent events have shown it has opted for one-party rule and appeasement of Moscow. It is undermining all the hard work done over the years toward integration with the Euro-Atlantic community, and some Europeans are now pushing back. Garibashvili had to cancel a planned trip to the Baltic states when leaders there did not want him visiting in light of recent developments in Georgia.

In the face of such democratic backsliding, there are steps Washington can—and should—take.


The United States has significant influence and leverage in Georgia based on close, long-standing ties over many years. The Biden administration and Congress, which has demonstrated strong bipartisan support for Georgia, should call for Georgian Dream to return to implementing the terms of the EU agreement. They also should push for international monitoring of the October local elections (the pandemic situation permitting).

Should Georgian Dream fail to return to the agreement, or refuse to abrogate its agreement with the Belarusian regime, or engage in election shenanigans, the Biden administration should impose targeted penalties on the leadership of the Georgian Dream party. While the United States has never imposed such measures in Georgia, they are likely the only way to get the current tailspin to stop.

The United States owes this to the overwhelming majority of the Georgian people who want their country to stay on a Western path. It is also in Washington’s interest to help the most pro-American country in the region and to protect U.S. interests there.

Ian Kelly was U.S. ambassador to Georgia from 2015 to 2018 and is ambassador in residence at Northwestern University.

David J. Kramer, a former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, is a senior fellow at Florida International University’s Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs.

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