On February 10, the authorities jailed Giorgi “Gigi” Ugulava, the secretary general of the opposition party European Georgia (EG), on charges of allegedly embezzling some $17 million while serving as mayor of Tbilisi (2005–2013). Ugulava’s arrest undermined the planned next round of Western-mediated talks between the government and the united opposition on the aborted electoral reform. This incident provided yet more grist to Western criticism of the ruling party Georgian Dream (GD). The criticism, which has grown more vocal since last December, represents a departure from the typical mode of relations between Tbilisi and its Western partners. Notably, for the first time since the opening of diplomatic relations with the United States, Georgia saw a succession of public letters to the Georgian government from several US lawmakers that were then amplified by successive critical remarks from European Union institutions. This growing pressure from the strategic Western partners has generated mixed responses in the Georgian establishment.
Cumulatively, the response of GD and its supporters to the letters sent by members of Congress ranged from moderate to tough, often depending on the background of the speakers. They admitted to the challenges and problems identified in the letters and pledge to address them. At the same time, however, GD claimed that the major opposition parties—United National Movement (UNM) and EG—must have hired lobbying firms that had a hand in the drafting of these Congressional rebukes (Agenda.ge, February 4). GD argued that the opposition is trying to secure support abroad because it lacks domestic electoral backing. Moreover, the ruling party charged the opposition and its alleged civil-society affiliates with misinforming Georgia’s Western partners.
Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia, to whom the US lawmakers’ letters were addressed, complained about purportedly improper language used in the correspondence and suggested that both sides should “sit down and calmly discuss” the expressed concerns (Civil.ge, January 27). But in the following weeks, the content and tone of the statements by some GD senior officials hardened, depicting the Western criticism as “groundless,” “unfriendly,” “inexpedient” and showing “excessive interference into the affairs of a sovereign country” (Netgazeti.ge, February 12; Imedinews.ge, February 13; Ipress.ge, February 15). The unexpected wave of Western criticism stood in stark contrast with the Georgian Dream’s continuous claims about the improvement of relations with the West under GD rule. It appears that GD now plans to fill this strategic information gap by hiring two lobbying firms in the West (Netgazeti.ge, February 14).
Georgian experts and former GD members who exited the party after its U-turn on introducing proportional elections (see EDM, November 20, 2019), vehemently called for GD to avoid using tough language to respond to Western criticism or to solely blame the opposition for what happened. In turn, some argued that the GD leaders’ bold language was designed to shore up the party’s flagging electorate (Kviris Palitra, February 2; On.ge, February 13).
Meanwhile, the opposition—which does not hide its role in encouraging the latest wave of Western criticism of GD—is now doing its best to capitalize on the interim victory. It has been cultivating the view inside Georgia that the West has turned its back on GD and that its leader, billionaire philanthropist Bidzina Ivanishvili, is allegedly likely to be sanctioned. Consequently, the ruling party must now increasingly justify itself before voters, constantly forced to reemphasize its allegiance to the irreversibility of Georgia’s pro-Western orientation. For its part, GD accuses the opposition of “anti-state moves” for slandering the ruling party in the eyes of Western partners.
In this highly polarized political and media environment, it is becoming ever more difficult for Georgian citizens to identify trustworthy information in the heavy and constant stream of inflated and contradictory news and rhetoric. With only 22 percent of Georgians proficient in English (against 61 percent fluent in Russian), according to a survey conducted in 2019 (Caucasusbarometer.org, accessed February 24, 2020), most of the population is unable to comprehend the original language of the latest Western critiques. As such, these citizens have no other choice than to rely on interpretations delivered by various interest groups.
The disparity of Georgian attitudes regarding the US and EU criticism and the striving of political players to seek political support abroad is apparent among Georgian Facebook users, who totaled 2,737,000 in 2019 (Statista.com, February 14). While some Facebook commenters have welcomed the foreign criticism, others argued that the West is excessively critical of GD even as it remained mostly silent about democratic violations during UNM’s rule. For those who hold such views, the mounting Western condemnation of the GD government is increasingly seen as clandestine support for the Georgian opposition. Pro-Kremlin Russian media has naturally latched on to such interpretations in order to stir up anti-Western sentiments in Georgia (Eadaily.com, January 30).
While encouraging GD to undertake quick corrective actions to neutralize the growing negative perceptions in the West, pundits inside Georgia simultaneously warn that excessive foreign pressure on the government in Tbilisi may make the authorities feel cornered and subsequently fall prey to Russia. Some recommend, therefore, that the West issue safety guarantees for GD leaders if Georgian Dream loses the elections to ensure a fair vote and a peaceful transfer of power (Kviris Palitra, February 2; Interpressnews, February 12).
It remains to be seen what influence this competition for external support will have for the major political players in the intensifying Georgian election campaign; 56 percent of voters are currently undecided (Ndi.org, January 16). Resorting to external support to achieve domestic political goals has historically been deeply rooted in Georgian political culture. Georgia’s Western partners will need to be mindful of this reality going forward, particularly when it comes to framing the right message toward this vulnerable South Caucasus democracy.