Georgia at a Crossroad: Implementing an EU-Brokered Agreement
In April 2021, European Council President Charles Michel facilitated a solution to a months-long political deadlock in Georgia by brokering an agreement between the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party and opposition leaders. The political crisis began after the October 2020 parliamentary elections, when the opposition started to boycott the election results following GD’s win. An alliance of eight opposition parties declared the vote fraudulent and unjust. They refused to form the parliament, instead taking to the streets demanding snap elections and the release of jailed opposition figures.
The European Union (EU) has played an important mediating role as the situation grew more tense. After Michel’s initial visit in March 2021, EU officials and U.S. diplomats spearheaded negotiations through which the parties were eventually able to arrive at a consensus, now referred to as Michel’s Agreement. The deal included ambitious electoral and judicial reforms, a parliament power-sharing agreement, and, contingent on release of jailed political figures, effectively ended the opposition’s boycott. Michel’s Agreement laid out a roadmap to address two major grievances for Georgian civil society and political opposition: GD’s refusal to transition to fully proportional parliamentary elections despite numerous previous promises, and the continuation of Supreme Court appointments despite severe criticism concerning lack of transparency and accountability in the process. The agreement also laid out a proposal for snap parliamentary elections in 2022 if GD fails to secure more than 43 percent of proportional votes in the upcoming local elections this fall.
The deal was celebrated both domestically and abroad, and hailed as a “truly European way of resolving the crisis” – a welcome sentiment amidst the growing sense that Georgia is experiencing slow but steady democratic backsliding. In a country whose people have time and time again shown their desire for a pro-European route, the government’s persecution of political opposition, attacks on freedom of the press, and campaigns to discredit civil society have already attracted concerns from the international community.
In a conversation with signatories in April 2021, Michel noted that “this agreement is the starting point for your work towards consolidating Georgia’s democracy and taking Georgia forward on its Euro-Atlantic future.” Yet in the months that followed, implementation of the agreement framework by GD stalled and, at times, even reversed. The ruling party has aggressively pursued nominations, walking back their initial commitment to refrain from appointing Supreme Court judges until electoral and judicial reforms are implemented. At the same time, GD has disregarded its obligation to provide a safe, just, and equitable environment for the Georgian people. During the street violence on July 5 in response to a proposed Pride march, the government failed to protect its constituents’ rights and safety and stood by as violent right-wing groups attacked journalists and human rights activists. Outrage against the government’s refusal to contain right-wing groups that indiscriminately assaulted civilians in the streets of Tbilisi led to a fresh wave of protests.
Against this backdrop, on July 12, six lifetime nominees to the Georgian Supreme Court were approved by the parliament in a process that, according to the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), fell significantlyshort of international standards. The judicial approvals caused an uproar, prompting the U.S. Embassy to issue a warning that failure to comply with Michel’s Agreement will further undermine the public and international community’s confidence in Georgia’s democratic institutions. Responses from the U.S. Congress were also immediate – among many others Senator Risch (R-ID), a longtime advocate of U.S.-Georgia relations, expressed disappointment that, despite its many promises, GD seems intent to follow in the previous governments’ footsteps of consolidating executive power. In a jarring response to international concern, GD accused a foreign official – assumed, though not confirmed, to be U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Kelly Degnan – of misrepresenting the situation on the ground to Georgia’s foreign partners.
The unfolding situation plays straight into Russia’s hands. Moscow has long sought to push Western partners out of Georgia and capitalized on right-wing groups to spread anti-West propaganda. Destabilizing the EU’s image as a successful political mediator and ally will allow Moscow to gain a deeper foothold in Georgia. On July 19, over 50 Georgian media and civil society organizations addressed President Michel in an open letter during his visit to Georgia, urging him to continue his “close engagement with Georgia’s leadership and speak publicly against democratic setbacks [in Georgia], and work with Georgia’s civil society to ensure the country’s progress on the path to the Euro-Atlantic integration.”
President Michel’s most recent visit should serve as an important reminder to the Georgian government that implementation of the April 19 deal, specifically the judicial reforms, is a precondition for disbursement of significant EU aid to Georgia. By backtracking on the agreement, GD undermines the international community’s shaky confidence in Georgia’s pro-Western path and threatens the country’s democratic development, fostering an environment that enables increasing homophobic violence and repression of the free press.
Image Source: Vano Shlamov