The United States Congress may suspend around 15 percent of US financial assistance to Georgia, according to the draft Fiscal Year 2021 State and Foreign Operations Funding bill recently approved by the US House Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs. The funding will be restored when “the Georgian government takes significant steps to strengthen democratic institutions, the rule of law in the private sector, and to fight corruption,” the Subcommittee said in a statement (Civil.ge, July 6).
The amount of money the US lawmakers froze is part of a $132 million funding package allocated to Georgia that was signed into law in December of last year (Agenda.ge, December 24, 2019). The de facto sanctions are supposed to last until “the actions of the Georgian government show that [Washington’s] recommendations have been taken into account.” At the same time, the bill emphasizes that the Congressional decision will not concern programs aimed at democratic development, the rule of law, development of the civil sector or the media, as well as programs designed to address the prevention of gender-based violence and the protection of vulnerable groups (Civil.ge, July 6, 2020).
On June 11, 2020, thirteen Republican members of the US House of Representatives drafted a report on combating global threats. Part of the document was devoted to the need to extend sanctions against Russia until the end of the year. According to the lawmakers, the sanctions to date have not had a significant impact on the foreign policy of the Kremlin, and President Vladimir Putin’s associates continue to undermine the sovereignty of other former Soviet republics. Moreover, the report specifically argued that billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who leads the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party, is a close ally of Putin and is involved in destabilizing the situation in the South Caucasus country in favor of Russia (Civil.ge, June 11).
Georgian opposition leaders contend that the rhetoric and policies coming out of the US Congress should be interpreted as the “final warning” to the Georgian government. A member of parliament from former president Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) party, Salome Samadashvili, told this author, on July 9, that imposing sanctions against Georgia could be the “last straw” for the political process in the country on the eve of the decisive parliamentary elections on October 31. Samadashvili, who previously served as Georgian ambassador to the European Union, noted, “In the last 15 years of US-Georgian relations, we do not remember such strong language or a cut to the financial aid allocated for Georgia. I think this is a signal [from Washington] that the level of democracy in our country has reached a historic low.”
According to the UNM deputy, “Congress is very clear in its concerns: the informal rule of oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili; politicized prosecutions and political pressure on opposition figures and the media as well as NGOs [non-governmental organizations]; the complete absence of rule of law, with courts under total control of Ivanishvili and his government.” Samadashvili posited that the US concern “is great because the United States has invested a large amount in strengthening Georgian democracy. But we have shown no progress: during the last several years, the country has been moving backwards. This signal just ahead of the historical elections in October is extremely important because we know that the 2016 elections received very critical reviews from international [election monitoring] organizations; and the signal is clear: the 2020 elections must be different from the previous ones,” she emphasized (Author’s interview, July 9).
Green Party (a ruling coalition partner) parliamentarian George Gachechiladze vehemently disagrees, calling all such statements by UNM about US sanctions against Georgia an “illusion.” In an interview with this author, on July 15, Gachechiladze asserted, “This is wishful thinking: the decision of the subcommittee is not a decision of the [US] Congress, and even less the decision of the State Department. Georgia does not face any sanctions from the United States, even if some American congressmen require it.”
Washington’s warning came after GD fulfilled only part of its obligations under the March 8 agreement with the opposition. In this settlement, reached with the active mediation of the US ambassador to Georgia, Kelly C. Degnan, the ruling party promised to reform the country’s electoral law and free all political prisoners. However, the owner of the pro-opposition television network Main Channel, George Rurua, remains behind bars (see EDM, June 11).
That said, on June 29, the Georgian parliament finally adopted a package of constitutional amendments (117 for and 3 against) to modify the country’s electoral system. As a result, the parliamentary elections on October 31, 2020, will be held according to a predominantly proportional system: Georgian citizens will elect 120 deputies via party lists and only 30 in single-member majoritarian districts. Until now, since the first multi-party elections, held on October 28, 1990, the national legislature was elected according to a more equally mixed proportional/single-member-majoritarian system that tended to overly favor the ruling party. Out of 150 members of parliament, 77 were elected via party lists and 73 in majoritarian single-member districts.
Crucially, a 1 percent electoral barrier for political parties will operate during the autumn elections. This amendment guarantees that a wide spectrum of opposition parties will be represented in the next national legislature. At the same time, that extra-low threshold may dilute Georgian Dream’s share of the vote enough to force the party—while still considered the favorite in the upcoming elections—to seek out other political forces with which to form a ruling coalition.
Almost certainly, such a new parliamentary majority will not include Saakashvili’s UNM nor European Georgia, headed by former speaker of parliament David Bakradze. Both factions have declared that, under no circumstances, would they enter into a coalition with Ivanishvili.
In the four months remaining ahead of the parliamentary elections, the alignment of forces making up Georgia’s political landscape may change dramatically and unpredictably. In contrast, the message from US lawmakers to Georgian authorities regarding the October elections is crystal clear: Washington will closely monitor just how free and fair those elections will be.