Presented with a to-do list of issues to address before they can get status as an EU candidate, Georgians have begun to mull over what the demands from Brussels mean and how the country can fulfill them.
On June 23, the European Union promised to grant Georgia the status of candidate for membership – but only after Tbilisi shows progress on key democratic reforms. The list of 12 conditions included several concrete reforms, but it is two vaguer demands from Europe which have become particularly controversial in Georgian political circles.
One demand is for Georgia to “address the issue of political polarisation, through ensuring cooperation across political parties.” Another is to “implement the commitment to ‘de-oligarchisation’ by eliminating the excessive influence of vested interests in economic, political, and public life.”
The two conditions from Europe have themselves become an issue of controversy in Georgia’s polarized political environment.
The political opposition and anti-government activist groups have seized on the deoligarchization demand, given that it evidently refers to Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party and the man widely considered to be the country’s informal leader.
Georgian Dream, meanwhile, has focused on the depolarization requirement, arguing that it is the country’s obstreperous opposition that is mostly to blame for the country’s dysfunctional politics.
“It might be even better for us that we did not receive the [candidacy] gift first and to fulfill the conditions only later,” Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili told reporters on June 24. “Let us admit: after receiving the gift, there would be less motivation to end polarization, something which is not only up to us but also up to the opposition.”
In demanding depolarization, the EU was speaking in part from its own bitter experience. The European Commission recommendation specifically mentioned “the spirit of the April 19 agreement.” That was a reference to the EU-brokered agreement reached last year between Georgian Dream and the opposition to end a government crisis that had erupted after opposition parties refused to recognize the outcome of parliamentary elections. Opposition deputies boycotted parliament, in defiance of appeals by Georgia’s European and American allies to take up their seats.
The deal achieved its immediate goal of getting the opposition deputies to take up their seats in parliament. But the further reforms it called for, on the electoral and judiciary systems, have stalled as both Georgian Dream and the United National Movement, the main opposition party, failed to commit to the deal.
Now, there is fierce debate again about how to depolarize – and who should start.
In the immediate wake of the news that Georgia would not get candidate status right away – and the disappointment of coming behind Ukraine and Moldova, which were offered candidate status immediately – Georgian Dream officials continued to blame the opposition, though they soon began to soften their rhetoric and have in recent days adopted an uncharacteristically conciliatory tone.
Opposition leaders and government critics, meanwhile, blamed Georgian Dream for the democratic backsliding that the country has seen in recent years. At a pro-EU rally on June 23, organizers called for the government to resign and be replaced by a technocratic government that would be picked “through a national accord.” While opposition party officials steered clear of the rally, some of them have shared those demands, while others have gone even farther and see getting rid of Georgian Dream entirely as the only solution.
“In our reality, in the Georgian language, deoligarchization means dismantling Ivanishvili’s regime, removing Ivanishvili and his circle – and not solely Garibashvili – from power,” Giga Bokeria, chairman of the opposition European Georgia party told TV Pirveli on June 27.
While Georgian Dream, as ruling party, has taken more of the blame, the opposition has “no less share [of the responsibility] for public polarization and political radicalization,” said Bidzina Lebanidze, a Georgian analyst.
“The largest opposition party refusing to sign [the EU-brokered] agreement at the critical moment is incomprehensible for the West and it frustrated Europeans,” he told Eurasianet.
“For a country to become a member of NATO or the EU, it needs to be a predictable partner, the country needs stability,” Kornely Kakachia, director of the Georgian Institute of Politics, a Tbilisi-based think tank, told Eurasianet. Georgia’s form of polarization is unlike that in many other countries in that it revolves around personalities rather than political ideologies, he said.
“It becomes impossible to reach a consensus over important issues … and this, overall, stands in the way of reforms, economic progress,” Kakachia said.
While Georgian opposition circles have long described Ivanishvili as an “oligarch,” EU institutions have refrained from using the term in the Georgian context until recently.
It was the European Parliament, the EU’s legislative body, that first crossed that line when it described, in a June 9 parliamentary resolution, Ivanishvili as Georgia’s “sole oligarch,” accusing him of “Kremlin links” and calling on the EU to consider sanctions against him.
While Ivanishvili did make his billions in the privatization chaos of Russia in the 1990s – like many of the post-Soviet figures more traditionally considered to be “oligarchs” – it’s less clear whether he entered politics in order to protect his business interests, and his real motivation for power remains obscure.
Georgian Dream leaders have fiercely denied that the deoligarchization clause has anything to do with their leader. They instead claim, improbably, that the EU had in mind former UNM officials including former president Mikheil Saakashvili. They argue that figures from that government, which lost power in 2012, better fit the criteria of using their rule to enrich themselves and now use that money for political and media influence.
Saakashvili, in fact, was one of the first in Georgia to advocate for de-oligarchization laws. In February, while in prison on abuse-of-power charges stemming from his time as president, he presented an economic vision for the country that included a law to restrict anyone with a fortune greater than 5 percent of the country’s gross domestic product from participation in politics.
Ivanishvili’s current net worth is estimated at $5 billion, amounting to fully a quarter of the country’s 2021 GDP.
Saakashvili’s proposal mirrored similar laws passed in 2021 in Ukraine, where the law has been praised by the EU, but also has faced criticism for the risks of selective application – something that seems like no less a risk in Georgia.
Georgian law may need to change in order to meet the EU’s demands, but the country could use more direction on what to do given the deeply polarized interpretations of deoligarchization, Kakachia said.
“The Georgian authorities and the opposition seem to understand deoligarchization differently,” he said. “While, in fact, it is about parties agreeing on legislation which would limit the influence of persons with big finances on political processes.”
Citing similar challenges faced by other countries in the region, including Ukraine and Moldova, Lebanidze suggested that Ukraine’s deoligarchization law could be a good model for Georgia.
“Georgia can copy other countries’ practices to combat this problem,” he said. “The Ukrainian law is quite balanced, it does not state that oligarchs need to be burned at the stake.”
Nini Gabritchidze is a Tbilisi-based journalist.