Would Brussels Fall for Russia’s Trick of Obfuscated Political Reality in Georgia?

While Europeans saw the failure of the attempt to depose the Georgian president as “a victory for Georgia’s European future”, Jaba Devdariani shows, with facts to back it up, that it was in fact a maneuver by the Georgian government to conceal an otherwise serious affair of collusion by the ruling Georgian Dream party with the FSB. At the same time, the government wanted to appear pro-European, and accused the opposition of scuttling Georgia’s bid to join the EU. In this context, Georgia’s bid to join the EU has become the Kremlin’s Trojan horse.

“A victory for common sense, victory for the Georgian constitution, and a victory for Georgia’s European future” — this was the reaction of an MEP Miriam Lexmann (EPP), Georgia’s friend and supporter at the European Parliament, to the failure of the ruling Georgian Dream party to impeach President Salome Zurabishvili. Most Georgians — irrespective of their attitude to rather controversial political persona of Zurabishvili — agree that impeaching her for visiting the European capitals without the cabinet’s express permission would have meant inflicting an irreparable self-damage, just as the country holds its breath before the European Commission’s report on the chances of its EU candidacy, expected for November 8.

But it would be naïve to assume that the failure to impeach was an act of political resilience of sorts. In fact, the Georgian Dream went through the impeachment process — application to the Constitutional Court, subsequent hearings and the favorable decision to the ruling party — knowing full well, that the final vote would fail. GD toxic chair, Irakli Kobakhidze said the process itself was of more importance. And at least for this one time, he did not lie.

Georgia’s European friends — politicians, journalists and analysts alike — follow their natural, professional habit of fixing their attention on politically significant acts. Yet, in a country whose institutions have been captured by the financial interests of a single oligarch, institutions are a mere façade and their acts — a farce. Yes, the imitation of the political process has little bearing on the outcomes. Yet, it serves an important purpose — that of communication. By their acts and words, the party gonzo, talking heads and media, all loyal to the constituency of one, are trying to prepare the ground for certain, upcoming acts, and to obfuscate the actions that are taking place.

Take the impeachment saga. While it has certainly captured attention abroad and grabbed the social and mainstream media headlines, by going through these motions the ruling party has managed to neutralize the sting of a far deeper and more damaging story.

Otar Partskhaladze, a henchmen of Bidzina Ivanishvili’s family, was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury and accused by the State Department to act upon the remit of the Russian FSB. What’s more, the ruling party has responded by revising the banking regulations to shield Partskahaldze, and the National Bank’s qualified managers quit in protest. To manage the fallout, the Bank has been blowing through the national reserves. Let that sink in — the National Bank’s reputation was hit and public coffers are being emptied to shield the alleged FSB contact point, which is apparently close to top-level decision-making. President Zurabishvili’s impeachment story was of course a “lucky” decoy to keep that story off the first pages.

Zourabichvili with Ivanishvili // Mtavari, screenshot

There is more. Salome Zurabishvili can be many things, but she is clearly not the product of the Soviet and post-Soviet system, as she was intent to point out during the parliamentary impeachment hearing. Granddaughter of the political immigrants from Georgia’s First Republic (1918-1921) she was born and bred in France, and molded by the likes of SciencesPo Paris and ENA, before reaching ambassadorship at Quai d’Orsay. And even though some of her Georgian-language musings would have raised eyebrows at those respected institutions, she is neatly fitting the European discourse when she speaks in French, or English. Zurabishvili and Georgia she incarnates is welcome in Brussels, while PM Irakli Garibashvili and Bidzina Ivanishvili’s other thuggish or caricatural cronies have been giving Eurocrats a persistent nausea.

Yes, Zurabishvili, formally running as an independent, was elected on the Georgian Dream ticket. The GD Chair has reminded her during the impeachment hearings, that having lost the first round of the vote to the opposition candidate, she had to be dragged into the office on Bidzina Ivanishvili’s coattails, who literally replaced her on campaign posters. But that was when the Georgian Dream was looking for some European legitimacy. Those days are now gone.

After Russia brutally invaded Ukraine, Bidzina Ivanishvili’s incentive structure was laid bare. He is much more vulnerable to a polonium tea or a defenestration from an inadvertently open window of his palace, and much more likely to benefit from helping his Moscow buddies evade financial sanctions, than he is receptive to scolding from the West or exhortations from Kyiv. The two real fears from the West that Ivanishvili has exhibited — through reactions of the state-controlled media, his court “analysts,” and party leadership — are the fears of civil society-led protest and financial sanctions. The attempt in March 2023 to pass the “foreign agents” law modelled at Russia and aimed at silencing free media and civil society actors was a clear indication of this fear. But it failed, due largely to a sudden and unexpected — even to civil society — mobilization of the citizens, and, especially, youths.

From that point onward, the Georgian Dream has redoubled efforts to construct the conspiracy theory, in which the Western-inspired coalition of the national actors — opposition, CSOs, media — are concerting in the effort to drag Georgia into war with Russia. They call this the “global party of war” a terminology borrowed from Hungary’s maverick adept of “sovereign democracy” Victor Orban and aimed to trigger and exploit the natural human fear of war and unrest to the benefit of the ruling class descending rapidly into authoritarianism.

Just as the impeachment procedures were capturing the headlines, the Georgian Dream administration, through politically controlled security services, has advanced the accusations of USAID-funded coup and dragged civic activists, artists, writers and painters to questionings. Since the investigation is “classified” they are bound by non-disclosure agreements and cannot divulge the contents, which helpfully keeps the public guessing, while the party-affiliated pundits supply helpful, sordid hints. The accusations have amplified and now spread to the EU, with Parliament Speaker making wide-ranging allegations and demands answers to the counterfactual questions. The idea of public protest — even occasionally violent one — being a normal occurrence in a democracy is being portrayed as seditious and “anti-European.”

Tying Zurabishvili into this story was thus almost irresistibly tempting as a public relations spin: the Western-born President makes an ideal “foreign agent”, aligned with the “global party of war” and dragging Georgia into devastating conflict, at the behest of Brussels or Washington D.C. The Georgian ruling party is thus fabricating a self-fulfilling prophecy: it is talking about impending street protests while eradicating any other institutional way to challenge their authority, it is preaching Europeanness while stamping out dissent. Such modelling the political reality is only possible once the checks and balances of democracy are gone, the courts are tame and the media — largely under control. No wonder, that Hungary’s Orban and Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliev are now Tbilisi’s best friends.

The deputy chair of the Georgian Dream, Kakha Kaladze said he was “100% certain” that Georgia is going to get the EU candidacy. PM Garibashvili is meeting Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi in Brussels who has a reputation for sweetening the EU path to less-than-palatable regimes, like those in Banja Luka or Belgrade.

Georgia’s opposition and civil society are now held hostage by a simplest trick in the gangster’s book: if they speak of the damage that Georgian Dream has done an is doing to country’s institutions, they are accused of undermining Georgia’s European future. The Georgian Dream wants to have it both ways: if the candidacy is granted, it would take the credit for advancing on the European path, while continuing to denigrate the western partners. If it is denied — “the global party of war” would be blamed and the lurch towards authoritarianism would become a slide, lubricated by the toxic notions of Europe rejecting Georgian identity and traditions.

Brussels should be well advised to see through and call that bluff: Georgia’s current regime is clearly and wantonly failing the Copenhagen criteria and any progress on merit is only possible once this changes.

Read in French.

Jaba Devdariani is a co-founder (in 2001) and editor-in-chief of Civil.ge, Georgia's information and analysis magazine. He worked as an international civil servant in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia from 2003 to 2011 and consults with governments and international institutions on risk management and conflict resolution. He is a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

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