After Mikheil Saakashvili met members of the European parliament last month, they urged the former Georgian president turned exiled oppositionist not to return to a country where he faced arrest and risked inflaming already febrile political tensions.
Saakashvili went anyway on the eve of local elections, smuggled inside a milk truck, and now he languishes in a Tbilisi prison on hunger strike — the latest in a long line of Georgian politicians ignoring advice from Brussels in recent years.
The Black Sea country was once held up as an example of how the EU could export its liberal, western principles to its neighbours, including in the former Soviet Union.
But it has fallen sharply from grace, beset by allegations of democratic backsliding and creeping authoritarianism of the ruling Georgian Dream party that have given its western benefactors pause for thought. This month’s vote was marred by irregularities that unnerved many in the EU and US who fear Georgia is drifting from the pro-western orbit.
“The continued blurring of the line between state and party resources is deeply disturbing,” the US state department said of the ballot. “This type of abuse has occurred too often in Georgian elections and is wholly incompatible with Georgia’s democratic and Euro-Atlantic ideals.”
Yet the west is in no position to turn its back on Tbilisi. Its highly strategic location between Russia and Turkey, key role in the transit of oil and gas from the Caspian Sea to Europe and unique position as a pro-EU parliamentary democracy in a region of strongman-led autocracies complicate the geopolitical calculus.
“Georgia is a really important [EU] partner . . . I do sincerely think they want to bridge the gap to Europe,” said Katalin Cseh, an MEP who took part in the EU’s election observation mission. “But internal divisions and recent political events have deepened that distance.”
Relations with Brussels began to deteriorate in 2019 as the country was gripped by sustained anti-government rallies. Citizens waved EU flags in protest against what they said was pro-Russian moves by Georgian Dream, founded by Russian-made billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, and a failure to deliver promised electoral reform.
After Georgian Dream’s withdrawal from that accord a few months later prompted an EU warning that it may cut off a financial aid package, Tbilisi responded by saying it did not want the cash anyway.
“When the Georgian Dream government said preemptively that we don’t want that assistance, I think that was a slap in the EU’s face and basically saying: ‘you don’t really have power over us’,” said Salome Samadashvili, an opposition MP and former ambassador to the EU.
“Even though of course it’s completely crazy. They need all the money they can get with the economic crisis here.”
There are numerous other flashpoints. Files published last month in local media alleged that Georgia’s secret services had spied on the EU envoy to the country and US diplomats. And Saakashvili’s arrest, under existing convictions for abuse of power while in office, presents another irritant: he is still lauded in Brussels for his efforts as president to shift the country towards the west, and claims the charges are politically motivated.
Temuri Yakobashvili, deputy prime minister under Saakashvili, said that having a political prisoner had exacerbated the “already seriously undermined democratic credentials of the current government”.
That “is harmful for Georgian democracy, it’s harmful for Georgian political process . . . and it definitely harms relations” with the west, he added.
Relations with Nato appear stronger. The military alliance sent a delegation to Tbilisi this month that its senior official said showed its “unwavering commitment to Georgia”. Ties with the western defence community are viewed as integral to Tbilisi since a short 2008 war with Russia that resulted in the country losing about a fifth of its territory to pro-Russian separatists.
Nikoloz Samkharadze, a member of Georgian Dream who chairs the foreign policy committee in the country’s parliament, denied that western ties had soured, asserting that relations with the EU and Nato were “progressing and very good”.
He added: “Unfortunately, some political forces, including opposition, and also some MEPs in the European parliament, have politicised this issue further. I should say that this does not serve the Georgian nation and neither the interest of the EU.”
Opinion polls show a majority of Georgians are in favour of the EU and Nato. And despite a growing sense of pessimism in western capitals about the country’s direction, most would judge that the geopolitical implications of downgrading ties with Tbilisi were more important, said Zach Witlin, a senior analyst at risk consultancy Eurasia Group.
“There’s obviously a national security priority for the west,” he said. “[But] the impetus is on Georgian Dream regarding the pace of restoring the relationship.”
For as relations drift, pro-European Georgians fear the ultimate beneficiary is Moscow.
“The Russians are of course very happy with this government, because Georgia has not really had any progress on the EU or Nato integration front,” said Samadashvili.
“Yes, we don’t have expectations that we’ll join the EU tomorrow. But in this kind of geopolitical context, losing Georgia means giving the winning hand to the Russians one more time.”