In recent months, the EU has engaged at a high level in Georgia’s political crisis and sought to break the deadlock there. It has demonstrated that it is strongly invested in Georgia and sees the country’s democratization as a matter of strategic importance for European interests. The EU’s intervention has been shaped around a process of mediation between the ruling and opposition political parties, as the bitterness of their rivalry risks a major unravelling of the country’s democratic reforms. Although the EU’s engagement entails many positive elements, the union will now need to move beyond mediation and ally this to a careful use of democratic leverage to ensure that necessary reforms are implemented in Georgia. Otherwise, the breakthrough it brokered will remain shallow and another political crisis could easily erupt.
Democracy on the Edge
Although elements of crisis have long been present in Georgia, political developments started taking a turn for the worse in mid-2019. The long-lasting feud between the country’s ruling and opposition political parties and the absence of any culture of power sharing set the scene for a major democratic reversal. Since the end of the United National Movement (UNM) government in 2012, a destructive rivalry has emerged between the ruling Georgian Dream party and the UNM. Checks and balances between institutions remain weak and political parties are based on highly personalized clientelism. While UNM and Georgian Dream governments alike have advanced some political reforms, they have also both curtailed democratization in important ways. With Georgian Dream in power for nearly a decade now and its actions increasingly unrestrained, Georgia resembles a dominant-party regime.
While Georgia’s democracy indicators compare favorably with those of other Eastern Partnership (EaP) states, underlying problems such as informal governance, malfunctioning institutions, and political persecution have persisted. The curtailing of civil liberties has contributed further to a decline in the country’s Freedom House democracy score. Although Georgia’s democratic backsliding is primarily caused by internal power struggles, it is also linked to the country’s external political challenges coming from Russia. In June 2019, protests erupted in anger at the presence of the Russian MP Sergei Gavrilov in Georgia’s parliament while Russia still acts in breach of the country’s territorial integrity. The police’s brutal dispersal of demonstrators resulted in more rallies and demands for the prime minister to resign. In an attempt to calm the unrest, Georgian Dream Chairman Bidzina Ivanishvili promised to hold the 2020 parliamentary elections with a system of proportional representation, something that reformers had long pushed as a means of weakening the ruling party’s grip on power.
However, Georgian Dream then failed to adopt constitutional amendments to introduce a fully proportional electoral system. This triggered another wave of street protests and political instability. This is when senior EU and U.S. diplomats emerged as brokers in the political crisis. The EU ambassador to Georgia, Carl Hartzell, sought to facilitate negotiations between the government and opposition parties. Following multiple rounds of official negotiations and numerous informal discussions on the side, the two sides reached an agreement. The opposition managed to secure a fairer electoral system with a more proportional distribution of seats for the October 2020 parliamentary elections, but not a fully proportional system.
The crisis reached a new pitch when opposition parties refused to recognize the results of the 2020 parliamentary elections, which they said were rigged. The elections did little to break the stranglehold of the GD and UNM, despite a low threshold for gaining seats that was supposed to help smaller parties. The opposition’s boycott was accompanied by street protests demanding new elections. The victorious Georgian Dream refused to cede. The tension increased further after the government’s decision to detain the UNM’s leader, Nika Melia, on February 23 in a police operation at the party’s headquarters. The detention followed the controversial return of Irakli Garibashvili as prime minister after Giorgi Gakharia left the post, unhappy with the plan to detain Melia. This was the final straw that caused Western powers to see the need for more committed intervention.
Against this backdrop of political turbulence, the Georgian Dream government announced it would present an application for EU membership in 2024. Just when it was undermining core democratic norms, the party raised the stakes in its long quest to get the EU to offer a membership perspective. Most in the EU saw the timing of this move as unfortunate. The announcement seemed lacking in seriousness and did little to improve the government’s standing in Brussels. For several years Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine have been working together to push the EU to grant an “upgraded” status within the EaP. Now Georgia has broken ranks, and the lack of partners on this defiant path is likely to weaken its already slim chances of attaining a membership perspective.
The EU as Domestic Crisis Broker
The EU’s response to the political crisis in Georgia has been remarkable and impressive on several levels. The union moved quickly to offer itself as mediator. As part of a tour of EaP countries, European Council President Charles Michel visited the country and offered the EU’s help, shaped around a six-point plan that envisaged ambitious electoral and judicial reforms, a solution to the issue of alleged political prisoners, the possibility of new elections, and power-sharing in the parliament. In cooperation with High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell, Michel mandated a personal envoy, Christian Danielsson, to engage in political dialogue.
While two initial rounds of EU-mediated talks proved unsuccessful, on April 19 the EU got the government and some opposition parties to agree on “a way ahead for Georgia.” The most difficult negotiations were over the opposition parties’ demands for new elections and the release of alleged political prisoners, which the government pushed back against. After foreign pressure, President Salome Zourabichvili announced she would pardon Giorgi Rurua, a shareholder of the pro-opposition TV station, if opposition political parties took their seats in parliament. The EU proposal envisaged that the issue of alleged political persecution - including Nika Melia - should be solved through an amnesty law or means that would effectively result in the same outcome. The amnesty law was supposed to be the first example of opposition parties and the government working together in the new parliament; the parties continued to be divided, however, on whether the law should cover all violations and convictions stemming from the June 2019 protests, in addition to allowing Melia to leave prison.
While smaller opposition parties signed the agreement, the UNM as well as European Georgia (EG) did not, though former EG chair Davit Bakradze and UNM’s Salome Samadashvili both signed in an individual capacity. These opposition parties were unhappy about Melia’s continued presence in jail and the risk that political persecution would continue. Besides, they objected that the agreement promised new national elections only if GD won less than 43 percent in the upcoming local elections.
The EU-brokered agreement envisages improvements along three key dimensions: de-politicizing the justice system, correcting shortcomings in the electoral system, and strengthening the rule of law. The much-needed reforms of the electoral and judicial systems are to be implemented through parliamentary procedures once government and opposition political parties have taken their seats in the legislature.
The deal stipulates concrete steps for resurrecting Georgia’s democratization process. It sets ambitious homework for the ruling and opposition parties over the rule of law and electoral reforms. Well before the current crisis, members of the EU delegation had been actively engaging in a special working group on electoral reform with representatives from political parties and civil society. This provides a platform for moving forward with different reform options. Detailed opinions of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and the Venice Commission on draft electoral and judicial reforms will also follow the EU-brokered agreement and help ensure its implementation.
An additional platform for further EU engagement could be the Jean Monnet Dialogue format. Once all parties are present in the parliament, this would allow the EU to mediate between them through this well-used instrument of the European Parliament to support inter-party dialogues and build consensus on institutional reform processes. The Jean Monnet Dialogue has been used in Montenegro, Serbia, and Ukraine. The European Parliament’s joint statement on the political climate in Georgia and leading members of the European Parliament urging compromise suggests that the EU’s legislature could be a valuable partner in helping the country’s reconciliation.
Against a backdrop of febrile and brittle, zero-sum politics in Georgia, the EU’s intervention has been a severe test of its leverage over the country and in the wider region. Although its engagement was resolute, the EU did not try to make key political decisions on behalf of Georgia’s political leadership. Its positioning was ostensibly equidistant, pressing both sides to consider concessions in the name of unblocking the crisis through a democratic relaunch.
Although the way ahead for Georgia remains rocky, the EU deserves credit for devising high-level engagement aimed at heading off possible conflict and democratic backsliding. Its intervention corrected some of the shortcomings of its previously low-profile engagements in the Eastern Neighborhood. The speed with which it moved suggested it has learned lessons from events in Belarus, Ukraine, and other EaP states, where it was caught asleep and acted too slowly to prevent major crises. While the EU is often criticized for inaction or ad hoc responses to crisis events, this intervention can be seen as early evidence of the more geopolitical foreign policy that its leaders have promised.
Mediation and Democratic Leverage
While the EU is often condemned for offering merely declaratory diplomacy, in Georgia it was highly practical in operationalizing its key strategic concepts. In December, the European Council agreed a new concept that unveiled an ambition to use mediation in a more proactive and political manner. Crucially, this framed mediation as an essential tool for the EU’s external engagement, promising that it would become a more integral part of its foreign policy. The new mediation concept presents the EU as a value-based actor putting human rights at the core of its engagement. Its stress on inclusiveness and the role of local civil society makes this mediation policy relevant for democracy—and implies it might be relevant to domestic crises rather than for only interstate conflicts. In turn, its Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy 2020–2024 is nominally in line with this new mediation concept to the extent that it envisages a heightened role for EU delegations in fostering dialogues with local authorities and civil society.
After its successful first steps in Georgia, the EU will now need to build a wider range of leverage and policy tools in the country. While it has positioned itself with some acumen to use mediation as a democracy-support tool and deepen its direct political engagement in Georgia, this is unlikely to be enough in itself. As the EU reaches the limit of what even-handed mediation can achieve, it needs to consider other forms of leverage to ensure lasting stability. It may need to contemplate a modest dose of democracy-related conditionality to ensure an effective and timely implementation of the envisaged reforms. In a joint statement, members of the European Parliament made a clear reference to the possible use of conditionality related to EU macro-financial assistance and budget-support programs.
Unlike in other EaP states, in Georgia the EU has so far not been drawn to using such conditionality. This made sense while the country’s reform process was moving, if slowly, in broadly the right direction and local political partners were using EU funds in a mostly reformist manner. Now, if a low level of reform commitment is evident across the Georgian political spectrum, the EU may need to revisit its purely reward-based “more for more” approach. While it cannot take sides, the union may need to be ready to move toward a more political engagement if and when it becomes clear that mediation alone is no longer serving democracy quite so well.
As Georgia’s major trading partner, the EU is well positioned to exercise leverage over the reform process. The country is going through a major economic and health crisis linked to the COVID-19 pandemic. The EU has released a tailor-made response package for Georgia, worth over €183 million of grants, to deliver concrete support to people. It will provide €75 million in grants to support the government’s Anti-Crisis Economic Plan aimed at socioeconomic recovery. It will also provide a further €150 million of new emergency macro-financial assistance loans on highly favorable terms to cover urgent financing needs. While health-related aid should not be politicized, the EU has leverage to help make the mediated agreement stick.
In parallel with conditionality, the EU needs to ramp up funding for the rule of law and electoral reform to help implement the agreement. It should direct more of its civil society funding to help monitor the political elite in its commitments to the agreement. The Georgian crisis has shown that civil society is essential in holding political actors accountable when it comes to delivering on democratic progress, and that it needs stronger support.
Beyond these very specific policy decisions, the EU will need to step back and draw more general lessons about the role of mediation in its democracy-support strategies, in Georgia and elsewhere. As it still declines to offer the EaP states direct security backing, the EU’s political interventions are set to rely prominently on mediation efforts. This will be an increasingly important way in which it seeks to shape the nexus between democracy and conflict issues. The challenge will be to ensure that mediation contributes to deeper conflict resolution rather than being an end in itself. Mediation is not intrinsically beneficial for democratic reform; its outcomes depend on the features of each local context. This path-dependency needs to be factored into EU strategies. EU crisis engagement needs to helpfully spur the deeper domestic reform commitment and ownership upon which democratization ultimately depends.
Conceptually, the focus on mediation implicitly reflects the EU’s preference for relatively consensual forms of political change. This is a long-standing feature of its democracy support, which has tended to prioritize inclusive or “pacted” transition dynamics over contestation-driven, decisive, or “ruptured” democratic breakthroughs. To the (arguably modest) extent that the EU has a political model in its democracy support, it is one of carefully managed, bounded democratization. In Georgia, this approach surely has much merit, as the country’s rival factions needed to be pulled back toward some kind of agreement on basic rules of the game.
Still, the EU will need to show that mediation does not become a substitute for the widest-ranging democracy support possible. To move decisively beyond its current crisis, Georgia will need elite-centered agreement but also more open-ended liberal pluralism. The EU’s successful mediation will need to be a launchpad for a much broader reform-oriented agenda, as envisaged by the agreement. This will help to ensure that democratization does not depend so heavily on trade-offs between Georgia’s two long-dominant parties. Absent this wider democracy agenda, intra-elite mediation risks simply propping up political actors that society views with increasing disdain. The EU might then inadvertently end up solidifying and reinforcing the very pathologies that caused Georgia’s recent turmoil.
This article is part of the European Democracy Hub initiative run by Carnegie Europe and the European Partnership for Democracy. The authors wish to thank Ana Andguladze, Tinatin Akhvlediani, Laure Delcour, Nita Gegeshidze, and Thomas de Waal for their helpful input.
Elene Panchulidze is an academic assistant at the College of Europe, Bruges, and an affiliated analyst at the Georgian Institute of Politics.