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The crucial role of the EU elections in Georgia’s battle against authoritarianism

SCRIPTS Blog Post No. 72 by Anastasia Mgaloblishvili

№ 72/2024 from Jun 05, 2024

In the face of ongoing protests in Georgia, SCRIPTS Doctoral Researcher Anastasia Mgaloblishvili analyses the significance of the outcome of the upcoming EU elections for the country's democratic development.

Protests in Tbilisi 2024

Protests in Tbilisi 2024
Image Credit: Jelger Groeneveld / Flickr

In Georgia, the European Union has become a unifying symbol for tens to hundreds of thousands of citizens protesting the Georgian Dream government’s reintroduction of the Russian-style “foreign agents” law. Fearing that the legislation sabotages Georgia’s EU candidate status and establishes a full-on authoritarian rule in their country, Georgians have been waving the EU flag and chanting the EU anthem to reiterate that the EU, and not Russia, is Georgia’s only path to democracy, peace, and security. How much the EU will reciprocate Georgian citizens’ commitment to the Union and serve as a much-needed ally in their decisive battle against authoritarianism will be determined in the upcoming EU Parliament elections. 

On May 28th, the Georgian Dream government voted to override the Presidential veto on the Russian-style ‘foreign-agents’ bill and officially turned it into a law. Mirroring Kremlin’s ‘foreign agents’ legislation, the law requires individuals and organisations receiving more than 20% of their funding from abroad to declare themselves as entities ‘serving foreign interests.’ Putin used the same law to start repressing critical voices in Russia from 2012, and the Venice Commission has warned that the ‘broad and vague’ framing of the law and its abusive financial reporting requirements makes it likely that a similar fate awaits Georgia.[1] Coupled with the Georgian government’s crack-down on and mass-scale intimidation of protesters and growingly anti-Western, conspiracist rhetoric, Georgians rightfully fear that this is the final blow to Georgia’s fragile democracy and European future.

Georgians’ fear of a halted integration

In this decisive period for Georgia’s history, the European Union has become a rallying point for Georgians protesting the controversial legislation. Every day for more than two months, Georgian citizens have mobilised at an unprecedented scale at the “Yes to Europe! No to Russia!” demonstrations to demand the ‘Russian law’ to be withdrawn – with around 200,000 protesters gathering to protest the law on Europe Day. The EU symbolism mainly stems from Georgians’ fear that their newly acquired EU candidate status will be sabotaged by this law. But the EU’s significance extends beyond the fear of halted integration. Amid Russian occupation, economic hardship, and increasingly authoritarian rule, Georgians view the European Union as the path towards lasting democracy, economic growth, and security in their country.[2] As the ongoing protests in Georgia continue to center around the EU and its values, protesters increasingly look to the European Union and the United States to impose targeted sanctions on representatives of the Georgian Dream government and focus their efforts on observing and monitoring Georgia’s decisive parliamentary elections in October 2024.    

To what extent the European Union will be able to live up to the Georgian people’s expectations and act as a reliable ally against authoritarian rule depends on the outcome of the upcoming EU elections. Evidence from EU’s enlargement in Central and Eastern European states demonstrates that EU’s clear and united stance against illiberal politics, combined with credible threats of withholding rewards, decreases the chances that authoritarian actors can exploit the EU for their benefit. This increases the likelihood that citizens will see the governments for who they are and vote them out in upcoming elections. Conversely, a more negative experience from the Western Balkans and Turkey reveals that unclear, ambivalent positions on non-compliant states and failure to enforce conditionality only plays in the hands of autocrats. Currently, the unity and credibility of the EU is already undermined with two member states – Slovakia and Hungary – supporting EU’s illiberal candidate states and blocking the Council’s statements and decisions that require unanimity. For instance, Hungary’s reluctance to criticise the law delayed and possibly weakened the EU Council’s statement on Georgia following the passing of the so-called Russian law. With the Council’s unity already partly compromised, the composition of the European Commission and European Parliament will be crucial in determining the fate of EU’s enlargement policy and the handling of its illiberal candidate states.

The impact of the election outcome for the EU’s foreign policy

On the one hand, the new President of the European Commission, who will be elected by the European Parliament, will have an influential role in shaping the legislative agenda and composition of the new European Commission. The more prominently the rule of law and enlargement feature in the legislative agenda, the more likely the Commission will push for measures against non-complying member and candidate states and continue with enlargement when conditions are met. In agreement with the member states, the newly elected President of the European Commission will also play a vital role in the selection of the Commissioners for the Directorates-General of the European Commission. The decision regarding which member states' representatives will oversee key portfolios like Enlargement and External Action will play a critical role in shaping the EU’s foreign policy. As experience from this term’s Hungarian Enlargement Commissioner, Olivér Várhelyi, has demonstrated, assigning key portfolios to representatives of the EU’s illiberal member states can lead to weak and ambivalent positions on illiberalism and democratic backsliding in its candidate states. In the new legislative term, the stakes are especially high, as at least three EU member states currently considered illiberal democracies – Hungary, Slovakia, and Italy – will be sending their Commissioners to the EU.

Together with the European Commission, the composition of the European Parliament will also impact EU’s foreign policy stance given the parliament’s power to greenlight or block the opening of accession talks and push member states and the Commission for restrictive measures against authoritarian governments. Georgian citizens see targeted sanctions and visa bans on the ruling party representatives as the best way to externally weaken government actors who are sabotaging Georgia’s European future while maintaining ties and families in the EU and the US. Although imposing sanctions remains a largely national competence decided on unanimously by member states, the EU Parliament can still have a significant role in pushing the Council and the Commission for the needed sanctions through resolutions. Additionally, the political groups that dominate the Parliament will also determine whether the Parliament as a whole will open or block the accession talks with candidate states and how many MEP’s will be willing to legitimise and meet with members of the Georgian Dream parliament who voted for the ‘Russian law.’

Possible consequences of a growth of right-wing political groups

In case far-right groups surge in the European Union, this will play into Georgian Dream and other illiberal and authoritarian governments’ hands for two main reasons. On the one hand, it will expand Georgian Dream’s network of allies within the EU, enabling them to legitimise their rule and maintain the pro-EU façade that they desire. In the current legislative term, figures like Hungarian Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi have softened the EU Commission’s reports on its illiberal candidate states and provided EU endorsement to authoritarian governments. The increase in the number of allies legitimising Georgian Dream within the European Union may help them reconstruct the pro-EU image that they have lost because of the passing of the “Russian law.”The growth of right-wing actors within the EU may also hinder the EU’s ability to issue strong statements and take specific measures in case the parliamentary elections are rigged. The worry that illiberal actors will help Georgian Dream disregard or down-weigh the potential election fraud in Georgia is already high given that Hungary will be holding the EU Council’s rotating presidency in October 2024. Furthermore, Georgian Dream will easily continue with its whataboutism – or justification of authoritarian policies by stating that the actors in the European Union are doing the same – if undemocratic groups increase in the EU institutions. The more reference points Georgian Dream has to illiberal actors in the EU pushing similar policies as them, the more likely it is to expose the EU for its hypocrisy or claim that there’s nothing wrong and inherently undemocratic with their rule.

At stake: the EU’s image as a global actor

On its part, the United States has already put-forward a bill that envisions targeted sanctions against Georgian Dream representatives to counter authoritarian rule in Georgia and support the Georgian people’s democratic aspirations. Yet the upcoming Presidential elections in the US cast doubt on the sustainability of US support for Georgia. Even in case that Donald Trump loses, however, the EU needs to go beyond issuing “concern” statements if it wants to be regarded as a credible, democratic player globally.

The upcoming EU Parliament elections will therefore demonstrate how likely the EU is to act as a global actor and support democracy in its candidate states. It will also show how realistic Georgians’ perception of the EU as a union embodying freedom and democracy really is.

Anastasia Mgaloblishvili is a Doctoral Researcher at SCRIPTS and a Rethink.CEE fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Her thesis concerns internal contestations of the EU’s liberal script in Georgia.

[1] In fact, Georgian Dream already secretly amended the law in the second reading to include not only organisations but also individuals receiving foreign funding. Even before the legislation has come into effect, one NGO announced that it had to cancel its project to open a free dental clinic for children in Oni, a town in Western Georgia, due to the law’s repercussions.

[2] The desire to join the European Union is shared amongst 89% of the Georgian people, which includes even the more conservative side of the society that highly trusts the Georgian Orthodox Church and holds traditional values. Georgians, perhaps at times more than EU citizens themselves, staunchly believe that the EU is the only way to permanent democracy, peace, and prosperity in their region.