Georgia’s ruling political party on May 11 made another small move in a slow-motion geopolitical about-face, announcing that it was quitting the Party of European Socialists (PES), a European Union umbrella group of socialist and social-democratic forces.
In effect, the Georgian Dream party left the PES alliance before it faced possible expulsion from the group because of the Georgian government’s growing affinity for illiberal actions and rhetoric. The PES is widely represented in the European Parliament and nine members of the European Commission have PES affiliations.
PES representatives first announced they were reevaluating the status of Georgian Dream membership after Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili expressed his intent to participate in Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), an American-led prominent populist forum held in Hungary. The PES reiterated its warning after Garibashvili addressed the event on May 4, during which he railed against “false” freedoms while quoting Biblical verses and making homophobic statements.
Garibashvili’s comments placed him in lock-step with leading lights of illiberalism within the European Union, reinforcing his burgeoning friendship with Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban. At the same time, the speech’s political impact at home highlighted that Garibashvili and his party are out of step with a solid majority of Georgians.
Public opinion polls show that most Georgians strongly favor closer ties with Western institutions, especially the EU. The Georgian Dream’s withdrawal as a PES observer member is the latest in a string of moves that is alienating influential EU constituencies at a time when Georgia is due to receive by this fall a “merit-based” assessment on its accession bid.
“Georgia is governed by a party that isn’t a member of any of the European families and that goes against the choice of the majority of the Georgian public and [the country’s] constitution,” opposition MP Khatuna Samnidze commented on Georgian Dream’s announcement.
Top Georgian Dream officials aren’t trying to cloak their creeping illiberalism in language that might be more acceptable to many in Brussels. The prime minister’s participation and address during CPAC “was the expression of our commitment and firm support for traditional universal values,” Georgian Dream Chairman Irakli Kobakhidze said as he announced the PES withdrawal.
“Each of us should seriously consider the value crisis that has emerged in the modern world and which is deliberately deepened by pseudo-liberals,” Kobakhidze added, echoing the conservative populist rhetoric of his party that has intensified since popular protests thwarted its attempt to adopt foreign agent legislation that could be used to stifle civic activism. Kobakhidze also characterized his party’s membership in the PES as “counterproductive” for promoting Georgia’s EU membership aspirations, saying the organization was moving away from “classical social-democratic ideology and switching to a pseudo-liberal platform.”
The rancor between the Georgian Dream and Brussels comes at a time when Russia is trying to entice Georgia back into its fold. On May 10, Russia lifted a visa ban on Georgia and announced the resumption of direct flights between Tbilisi and Moscow.
Nini Gabritchidze is a Tbilisi-based journalist.