Georgian Dream Leaves the Party of European Socialists: Implications for the Country’s Future
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On 11 May 2023, the Chairman of Georgian Dream (GD), Irakli Kobakhidze, announced that the Political Council of the Ruling Party had decided to depart from the Party of European Socialists due to ideological differences and a lack of support in the international arena. Kobakhidze mentioned that recently, PM Garibashvili participated in the Conservative Political Action (CPAC) annual conference in Budapest. Kobakhidze emphasized that liberal dictatorship and censorship had caused a crisis of identities and values and that European Socialists were transforming into liberals. Therefore, it is important for GD to conserve the traditions and values that brought the country to where it is today. Another reason, according to Kobakhidze, was a lack of support in the European Parliament, as the European Socialists have been supporting resolutions against the Georgian government. Reportedly, GD will observe European political developments and will decide if they want to join any other political party. Until then, they will communicate with the parties of the European Parliament on equal conditions, making yet another step backwards from European politics.
This decision would not be surprising or a big topic in a democratic country. However, we should not forget that Georgia is a hybrid regime, allegedly with informal governance. Therefore, this statement from the chairperson of the ruling party is considered a threat to the freedoms and liberties of society. Also, since Russia waged war in Ukraine, all questions are directed towards GD, whether it plans to maintain power at the expense of Georgia’s westernization and EU integration.
“Second Front” Propaganda
In 2012, Bidzina Ivanishvili, a Georgian tycoon and founder of the Georgian Dream, endorsed social-democratic values, so GD joined the Party of European Socialists. He also promised to build a democracy that would surprise even Europeans. However, ten years after that statement, the EU, the U.S., and other strategic partners are concerned about the backsliding of democracy in Georgia. The opposition has always questioned GD’s intention to lead the country to the path of European integration. But despite minor violations, the elections have demonstrated that Georgian voters still believed in the ruling party’s pro-European stance. The situation changed after the start of the war in Ukraine, as at the session of the Government, PM Garibashvili almost blamed Ukrainians for provoking Russia and not being able to avoid the war..
This statement kicked off a new campaign: “West wants to open the second front,” “Do you want war?” and “we will maintain peace.” This idea was developed by Georgian Dream-associated philosophers and political experts who voiced conspiracy theories that the U.S. is pressuring Swiss Capital (a bank that owes Ivanishvili 500 million USD for the misuse of his funds, but due to the financial crisis, the bank is not available to pay any debts) to freeze Ivanishvili’s assets, so to coerce him to enter the war against Russia. One of the authors of this conspiracy theory is a philosopher named Zaza Shatirishvili, who indicated that the United States is interested in opening a second front with Russia and that Georgia is the perfect target for them.
The ruling party-associated propaganda TV channels Imedi and POS TV have been promoting unproven claims that the European Union plans to grant Georgia candidacy status, despite allegedly, the government trying to achieve the opposite. However, the implementation of EU recommendations has been criticized for its lack of transparency and undemocratic nature, making it difficult for citizens to understand which laws have been amended. Moreover, Georgian politicians have used disrespectful language towards European and U.S. partners, creating a tense environment.
Backsliding Democracy: Rapidly Growing Polarization and Shifting Ideology from Social-Democracy to Conservatism
Another concern is the ruling party’s statements about Georgia becoming a member of the EU with its own conditions and initiated laws in parliament. The recent protests against the “Agents of Foreign Influence” law led to an unequivocal and robust reaction from society, with youth-led demonstrations hitting the streets alongside older citizens, who saw it as an attack on Georgia’s European future. In Georgia, the term “agent” carries a negative connotation as it is associated with membership or close affiliation with the KGB during Soviet times. GD planned to label media and NGO representatives financed by foreign funds as agents, but this caused protests. Although the law was eventually recalled, the ruling party’s Kobakhidze claimed it had fulfilled its purpose by revealing the main foreign agents in Georgia. However, critics from both sides have condemned the decision.
Two TV channels associated with the ruling party, Imedi and POS TV, prepared special programs on this issue, trying to connect dots that cannot be connected and keep up with the conspiracy theorists to disseminate information about the alleged Western decision to open a second front in Georgia. The discussion reached a point where European and U.S. leaders reminded Georgia that NATO and the EU were built to protect and ensure peace. But it did not work, and the ruling party continued with the same rhetoric. Some observers believe that the EU plans to grant Georgia candidacy status (and many politicians, including former PM under GD Giorgi Gakharia, said that their friends from Europe informed them of this), but that the ruling party is trying to prevent it on purpose.
The ruling party’s strategy was easy: dominate the media with scandalous and provocative statements to increase polarization. Any criticism towards GD, even from independent scholars, experts, or citizens, was translated as provocation from the main opposition party, United National Movement (UNM). But now, the UNM is demoralized with its founder and former president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, imprisoned for over a year. Moreover, the party’s most independent and influential chairman, Nika Melia, was replaced by Levan Khabeishvili, who lacks the education or experience to lead the main opposition party. Public opinion polls indicate that their rating is decreasing and varies from 5% to 10%, according to different surveys.
Informal Watchmen of GD: Radical Conservative Movements
Now, GD is using a proactive anti-liberal campaign to fight the opposition and further polarize society. Since 2012, Georgian society has seen violence in the name of conservatism, traditions, or religion. Pseudo-conservative movements like Georgian March, ERI (Nation in Georgian) and Alt-info have terrorized liberal-minded youth for years. In July 2021, they even used extreme violence against journalists reporting on a possible confrontation between conservatives and LGBTQ+ pride participants.
There are plans to introduce a new law targeting the freedom of assembly and expression of the LGBTQ+ community. The proposed law aims to prohibit them from organizing prides, rallies, and other events deemed to be promoting propaganda. Adopting this law seems to be a much easier task than the aforementioned Law of Agents. However, regarding LGBTQ+ issues, the conservative-minded majority in Georgia is less likely to protest against discriminatory laws. This law has the perspective to become a game-changer in preventing EU candidacy, as GD could suggest that the EU wanted to legalize gay marriage in Georgia and refused candidacy for a conservative stance.
Following its departure from the Party of European Socialists, GD has shifted its stance to “alternative conservative values,” commonly used in illiberal democracies like Hungary. It appears that GD’s leaders have copied Orban’s playbook on maintaining power by utilizing various political technologies. Bidzina Ivanishvili and his entourage realized that introducing liberal policies into their agenda would not garner sufficient support. Instead, they built their strategy as a reaction to the policies promoted by the West.
Anti-liberal politicians and activists in Georgia do not criticize the country’s foreign policy. Instead, they criticize liberalism itself as a tool of the West to remove homogenous, traditional societies. This perspective is well incorporated from Russian philosopher Dugin’s Global Revolutionary Alliance (Manifesto). Dugin talks about opposing the liberal dictatorship from the islands of freedom (such as Russia), where societies are still developing genuinely without the interference of the West. His ideas have been popular among ultra-right-wing activists and parties in post-Soviet and post-Communist countries, and Europe. For instance, some may argue that French politician Marine Le Pen’s political agenda and Dugin’s manifesto have big reciprocity.
What’s next for Georgia on the EU Integration Path?
British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), while criticizing “democracy,” called it the tyranny of many. GD’s actions can be described with this perspective—using pseudo-conservative values to get societal legitimacy. This is a very dangerous game for GD, not only for them but for Georgia too. Polls show that support for EU and NATO integration has steadily grown among Georgians over the years. If Georgia is not granted EU membership candidacy status this December, Georgian society will blame GD, despite attempts to put the responsibility on the opposition. If this happens, they will need a plan B where anti-European policy is justified among at least a substantive part of society.
The ruling party is probably miscalculating the situation. Since Shevardnadze, every Georgian leader has pushed towards becoming a member of the European family. The PM’s statement at the World Government Summit in Dubai that Georgia has a “true multidimensional approach that is ensuring overall stability, sustainability, and predictability for the Georgian people” raised alarms in the pro-Western society of Georgia, as Georgia had previously only linked its future with the EU and NATO. Initially, the change of rhetoric was not followed by policy change.
It was believed that GD, in the end, would not jeopardize Georgia’s EU perspective. This idea was popular as the majority of the society thought that Ivanishvili primary intention was to maintain power. Citizens were sure that their rights would be protected if they did not confront the government, but this perception changed after the law on “Agents of Foreign Influence” was registered. The problem between GD and society is that they no longer understand each other. Therefore, they seek other opportunities to maintain so-called façade democracy and declaratively continue EU integration. It is worth remembering that parliamentary elections are in 18 months, and even if the opposition is demoralized and not popular, failing to secure EU candidacy might end GD’s reign. From today’s perspective, these hopes are fading away along with the ratings of Georgian Dream.
The opinions expressed in this publication are of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the organizations and institutions listed in the credentials.