Georgia’s Ruling Party Is Tanking Its Own NATO Bid

Accusing the U.S. ambassador of blackmail is just the start.

By , a journalist and editor based in Tbilisi, Georgia, and a former media advisor to the President of Georgia.
A woman waves the European Union and Georgian flags.
A woman waves the European Union and Georgian flags.
A woman waves the European Union and Georgian flags during a rally in support of Georgia joining the EU in Tbilisi, Georgia, on July 3. VANO SHLAMOV/AFP via Getty Images

When the chair of Georgia’s ruling party recently attacked the U.S. and EU ambassadors, it was the latest sign that the country has gone from staunch Western ally to antagonistic pro-Kremlin regime in a matter of months, with its bids to join the European Union and NATO now in doubt.

On Aug. 4, 48 members of Georgia’s Parliament issued a statement condemning the ruling Georgian Dream party’s false claim that Georgia’s strategic allies are attempting to force it into a war with Russia. The parliamentarians appealed to the ruling party to cease its “slanderous and disinformation campaign against Georgia’s strategic partners—the U.S. and EU.”

Experts place the blame for Georgia’s hard turn toward Russia with billionaire oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, who founded Georgian Dream and continues to exert an outsized influence on it. “His recent pro-Russian, Putin-style, anti-democratic actions and his governance through an informal network of unaccountable individuals have confirmed that Ivanishvili is the informal ruler of Georgia and a Russian ally,” Batu Kutelia, a former Georgian ambassador to the United States, said in a message to Foreign Policy. As proof, Kutelia pointed to the fact that all of Georgia’s current ministers “served as his personal aides of some sort and worked in [Ivanishvili’s] Cartu Bank.”

When the chair of Georgia’s ruling party recently attacked the U.S. and EU ambassadors, it was the latest sign that the country has gone from staunch Western ally to antagonistic pro-Kremlin regime in a matter of months, with its bids to join the European Union and NATO now in doubt.

On Aug. 4, 48 members of Georgia’s Parliament issued a statement condemning the ruling Georgian Dream party’s false claim that Georgia’s strategic allies are attempting to force it into a war with Russia. The parliamentarians appealed to the ruling party to cease its “slanderous and disinformation campaign against Georgia’s strategic partners—the U.S. and EU.”

Experts place the blame for Georgia’s hard turn toward Russia with billionaire oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, who founded Georgian Dream and continues to exert an outsized influence on it. “His recent pro-Russian, Putin-style, anti-democratic actions and his governance through an informal network of unaccountable individuals have confirmed that Ivanishvili is the informal ruler of Georgia and a Russian ally,” Batu Kutelia, a former Georgian ambassador to the United States, said in a message to Foreign Policy. As proof, Kutelia pointed to the fact that all of Georgia’s current ministers “served as his personal aides of some sort and worked in [Ivanishvili’s] Cartu Bank.”

During Russia’s privatization in the 1990s, Ivanishvili accumulated businesses and holdings, mostly in metals and banking, which he went on to sell for billions of dollars. He stores much of his wealth in offshore tax havens and makes appearances in the Panama PapersPandora Papers, and Suisse Secrets. In 2012, he founded Georgian Dream, which defeated then-President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement party that same year and has held power since—despite Ivanishvili’s so-called retirement from politics in 2013 and again in 2021.

In contrast to Georgian Dream’s apparent stance on the issue, more than 80 percent of Georgians still want to join the EU, and over 70 percent want in on NATO. Some 120,000 Georgians took to the streets on June 20 to demonstrate their support for EU membership and to demand their government change course. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili vowed to have “no mercy” on the demonstrators, though his party quickly changed its tone when the mass movement became undeniable.

Shortly afterward, the European Commission declined to recommend EU candidate status for Georgia—in contrast to Ukraine and Moldova, which it did recommend—until the country implements a list of 12 reforms, including “de-oligarchisation.”

“It’s not that the Georgian Dream-led government did not do anything to help Georgia to come closer to the Western institutions. They did everything for this to not happen,” said Eto Buziashvili, a research associate for the Caucasus at the Atlantic Council.

“It appears that backsliding of democracy, failed judiciary reforms, political prosecution, assault on free media and pro-democracy activists, and attacks on freedom of speech” were carried out “intentionally to prevent Georgia from becoming part of the Western institutions. And it is what Russia wants to see in Georgia,” Buziashvili said.

The dismantling of democracy by Georgian Dream has been especially notable in the judiciary, whose independence is all but obliterated. According to a 2021 report from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, in the previous two years Georgian Dream “appointed twenty Supreme Court judges to lifetime posts” using methods that lack “integrity, objectivity and credibility.”

One recent ruling triggered the diplomatic fracas that resulted in the government’s attacks on Western ambassadors. On May 16, as EU officials discussed Georgia’s EU candidacy, a Georgian judge sentenced the prominent opposition journalist Nika Gvaramia to three and a half years in prison in “a blatant act of politically motivated prosecution in retaliation of his dissenting views and criticism of the authorities,” according to Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

As a result of this ruling, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for personal sanctions on Ivanishvili, citing his “destructive role” in Georgia’s politics, economy, and the “persecution of journalists and political opponents,” including Saakashvili, who has been imprisoned since last October.

In response, Garibashvili, who has served Ivanishvili in various capacities since 2004 and exhibits a servile devotion to the oligarchclaimed that the resolution, which pointed to Ivanishvili’s connections with the Kremlin, was “saturated with lies.”

Irakli Kobakhidze, the current chair of Georgian Dream, then suggested in an interview that sources “abroad” were preventing the recently sanctioned Ivanishvili from receiving a $600 million court settlement from Credit Suisse.

Soon party officials and pro-government pundits were blaming U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Kelly Degnan, suggesting the held-up payment was an attempt by the United States to coerce Ivanishvili into a war with Russia. Specifically, party officials began to claim that in a meeting between the U.S. ambassador and Ivanishvili, the ambassador attempted to “blackmail” the oligarch by forcing Credit Suisse to withhold his money until he pushed Georgia into war. Degnan denied these accusations. Georgian Dream officials, undaunted, echoed the claim in a litany of accusations directed toward U.S. and EU diplomats.

In an interview with Foreign Policy, former U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Ian Kelly said he could not recall a time when “a friendly government and partner failed to defend a United States ambassador against false accusations.” Reasonable people, Kelly said, “are going to conclude that Georgia is turning its back on the West.”

Kutelia, the former Georgian ambassador, drew a parallel: “Georgian Dream has embarked on a path of U.S. intimidation—Russian-style. The way GD is treating Ambassador Degnan is from the exact same playbook as how Mike McFaul was treated in Moscow.” He was referring to the Kremlin’s incessant personal attacks on McFaul during his tenure as U.S. ambassador to Russia.

Tamar Chugoshvili was a deputy to Georgian Dream chair Kobakhidze when he was speaker of Parliament and resigned from her position, and politics, after the Georgian Dream coalition reneged on a promise to transition to a fully proportional electoral system. “The supreme state institutions of Georgia are being dragged into the private dispute of one man,” said Chugoshvili, adding that Ivanishvili “still dictates the actions of the highest authorities.”

On July 15, Judge Lasha Chkhikvadze, who sentenced Gvaramia and has a track record of imprisoning high-profile opposition figures, announced that he had been pressured by a representative of Degnan who had asked him about the case after his ruling. (Degnan has repeatedly denied any interference in the judicial system.)

Chkhikvadze’s charge of attempted intervention in Georgia’s justice system by the U.S. ambassador was added to the ruling party’s chorus of attacks, causing U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price to announce at a press briefing that “disinformation and personal attacks on Ambassador Degnan or her team are not consistent with how partners communicate with one another.”

On July 18, Garibashvili wrote a letter to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen denying that Ivanishvili is an oligarch and that he informally rules Georgia. Referring to the European Parliament resolution that pointed to Ivanishvili’s “exposed personal and business links to the Kremlin,” the prime minister wrote that it “contains multiple groundless entries and factual inaccuracies.”

Then Garibashvili wrote that Credit Suisse used the resolution “produced by the European Parliament to infringe the lawful right of the former Prime Minister of Georgia, which is discrediting the country as well.”

“Why is the PM writing the EU Pres on behalf of his country’s richest man, ignoring the EU’s other points on needed reforms? If nothing else, it shows that his priority is to put one very rich man’s interests before those of his country,” Kelly, the former U.S. ambassador, tweeted.

The reclusive Ivanishvili emerged from retirement on July 27 to issue a cryptic statement.

He repeated his party’s refrain that “certain forces” are trying to drag Georgia into war. Then the oligarch began to talk about his money problems—hinting that Credit Suisse’s hold on the $600 million was connected to Georgian Dream’s blackmail conspiracy theory: “As for my personal problem, which arose in the relationship with the Swiss bank and is still relevant today, I believe that it has a direct connection with the ongoing processes in Georgia.” He failed to mention that Credit Suisse held his money because the European Parliament issued a resolution calling for personal sanctions on him.

Ivanishvili ended his statement confirming that a meeting had taken place between himself and the U.S. ambassador—at her request. He did not dispel insinuations by party chair Kobakhidze and other ruling party officials that during this meeting the U.S. ambassador blackmailed him to start a war.

“Since Russia launched the war in Ukraine, [Ivanishvili] has no more gray space to maneuver in. Now he is openly blackmailing the West: his fortune and power vs. Western strategic interests,” Kutelia said.

As for Georgia joining the EU and NATO under the leadership of Georgian Dream, there is vanishing chance. According to Chugoshvili, Georgian Dream’s “leadership has been stating repeatedly that the EU has never intended to grant the candidate status to Georgia and no matter what Georgian authorities do, such status will not be granted. This is a great excuse to do nothing.”

Subverting Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic path violates Article 78 of Georgian Constitution. An amendment to Article 78 came into force in 2018 upon the inauguration of President Salome Zourabichvili, to “take all measures … to ensure the full integration of Georgia into the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.”

“Following Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, Russian officials have been threatening Georgia with another war or annexation—and in this way trying to undermine and change the Georgian people’s Euro-Atlantic choice,” said Buziashvili of the Atlantic Council. “And now, we see the same Kremlin narratives employed and echoed by the prime minister and the Georgian Dream-led government.”

As for Georgia’s rapid transformation from a respected U.S. partner into an antagonistic ministate, Kutelia said: “It’s like that line from The Sun Also Rises:

‘How did you go bankrupt?’

‘Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.’”

Will Cathcart is a journalist and editor based in Tbilisi, Georgia, and a former media advisor to the President of Georgia.

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