The European Union and the United States have had to publicly defend their ambassadors in Tbilisi against a campaign of attacks by Georgia’s ruling party.
The unprecedented sparring between Georgia and its Western partners comes at a turning point in the country’s Western integration efforts: The country has been promised candidate status in the European Union as long as it carries out a series of political reforms.
But even as it promises to fulfill the EU’s conditions, Georgia’s ruling party has been sharply criticizing the envoys from the U.S. and the EU to Tbilisi. U.S. Ambassador Kelly Degnan has become embroiled in conspiracy theories about alleged attempts to drag Georgia into the war in Ukraine and accusations of interference in Georgia’s judiciary. And outgoing EU ambassador Carl Hartzell was sharply blamed, on his way out of the country, for not doing enough to help Georgia get into the bloc.
“I don’t remember such a confrontational attitude towards our partners ever,” said Natalie Sabanadze, a former ambassador to the EU who resigned last year. "Today Georgia has a Euroskeptic government which, accordingly, uses Euroskeptic discourse to justify its actions," Sabanadze said in a July 22 interview with local news site Netgazeti.
Hartzell came under attack the day he announced his departure in a farewell tweet.
Irakli Kobakhidze, the chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party, told reporters that Hartzell “played only a negative role in the EU-Georgia relations.” And Nikoloz Samkahradze, the head of the parliament’s foreign affairs committee, added that Hartzell “could have worked better to help Georgia get [EU] candidate status.”
The apparently unprovoked jabs drew a response from Brussels, which had recently extended the deadline for Tbilisi to meet its conditions, from the end of this year to later next year.
“Blaming others for own unfulfilled ambitions only confirms the need to have more time to understand how EU works and that reforms are a homework,” EU external affairs spokesperson Peter Stano tweeted [sic] on July 21.
One particular focus of the ruling party’s campaign has been the recent, still poorly explained troubles that its founder, Bidzina Ivanishvili, has experienced in Europe.
Ivanishvili, a billionaire who founded Georgian Dream before formally retiring from politics last year, is still widely believed to be the country’s informal ruler. Earlier this year his associates reported that he had experienced mysterious obstacles in accessing his assets at the Swiss bank Credit Suisse, as well as in other business dealings in the U.S. and Europe.
These troubles reportedly were exacerbated by a European Parliament resolution of June 9 that recommended considering sanctions against him, citing, among other issues, his alleged links with the Kremlin.
On July 18, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili wrote an open letter to his European Commission counterpart, Ursula von der Leyen, calling on her office to express a “clear position on these ungrounded accusations” in the parliamentary resolution.
The resolution “was directly used by a Swiss bank to put the disbursement of trusted funds back to Bidzina Ivanishvili on hold,” Garibashvili wrote. “Thus, the bank uses the document produced by the European parliament to infringe the lawful right of the former Prime Minister of Georgia, which is discrediting the country as well.”
Ivanishvili also has figured in the attacks against Degnan, the American ambassador.
“A question arises whether there was a meeting between Kelly Degnan and Bidzina Ivanishvili in the wake of the Ukraine war. Was he asked something or is he being blackmailed on these grounds, because this person is out [of politics], is not involved in anything?” deputy Mikheil Kavelashvili told reporters on July 19.
Kavelashvili is one of three members of parliament who recently split from the Georgian Dream majority, citing the need to speak the “truth” more openly. But the trio is widely believed to still be acting on party orders to give voice to more hardline positions and conspiracy theories, notably that the West is somehow trying to drag Georgia into the Ukraine war.
Degnan denied the accusations. “I have not met with Mr. Ivanishvili in quite some time,” she told reporters on July 21, adding that in none of the meetings she had had with him did she try to blackmail him.
Kavelashvili had also voiced the conspiracy theory in a long letter to Degnan earlier in July, criticizing the diplomat for not openly disavowing what he described as "pro-American" or U.S.-supported people "who try to incite and bring about war in Georgia" and those "demanding government resignation"
“That letter was so full of lies and conspiracy theories that I really couldn’t even finish reading it,” Degnan said in response on July 8. “It is very strange to me though – I suppose it shouldn’t be – but this supposedly former GD MPs’ narrative tracks very closely with some of the ruling party leaders who also are repeating disinformation that has been clearly identified as false.”
That occasioned a further riposte from Kobakhidze. “When you accuse a deputy, a member of the Georgian parliament, of lying, this is very sad,” he said.
The U.S. embassy also has come under attack for accusations that it has interfered in Georgia’s judicial processes.
After Nika Gvaramia, an opposition media executive, was convicted on charges widely believed to be politically motivated, the judge who issued the verdict, Lasha Chkhikvadze, reported that the U.S. embassy had revoked an invitation for a U.S.-organized training program. Degnan has repeatedly denied Chkhikvadze’s claim, "Any suggestion that the United States was interfering in the judicial process here is, is simply not true,” she told reporters on July 15.
“We thought she [Degnan] would dismiss the accusation voiced by Judge Chkhikvadze, but we could not hear it, which is very questionable and very concerning,” Kobakhidze told media on July 20.
Ultimately, the State Department weighed in.
“Ambassador Degnan has our full support,” department spokesperson Ned Price said on July 20. “Disinformation and personal attacks on Ambassador Degnan or her team are not consistent with how partners communicate with one another.”
Degnan and Hartzell are no strangers to attacks or accusations from Georgia’s deeply polarized elites, from both government and opposition circles. In 2020, both faced sharp attacks – notably from Gvaramia himself – for failing to question the legitimacy of parliamentary elections that the opposition claimed were fraudulent.
But for many, the current negative campaign against Western diplomats seems unprecedented.
“It is an unimaginable thing that in a matter of two days the U.S. State Department spokesperson and European Commission spokesperson come one after another to defend their ambassadors against an attack from the government of Georgia, a partner country,” Sabanadze said.
It remains unclear where this ever-intensifying campaign is heading. But the most recent remarks of the three former Georgian Dream deputies suggest that Ivanishvili himself may finally emerge from isolation to contribute to the discourse.
“We ask Bidzina Ivanishvili, since the U.S. ambassador did not answer the question about the meeting, to tell the public himself whether a meeting between him and Kelly Degnan took place after February 24 and if yes, who initiated it and what issues were discussed,” they wrote.
As for the support for Degnan from the State Department, it was effectively confirmation that her actions have not been her own personal decisions “but rather the current strategy of America towards Georgia,” the letter writers argued.
Nini Gabritchidze is a Tbilisi-based journalist.