With the United States’s unprecedented sanctioning of four Georgian judges, the tight American-Georgian partnership is coming under its worst strain in many years.
U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken announced on April 5 that the judges were involved in “significant corruption” and as a result would not be allowed visas to enter the U.S.
While American officials have tried to frame the move as a bit of constructive criticism among friends, observers both in Washington and Tbilisi have seen it differently: as a shot across the bow of the ruling Georgian Dream party and what many of Georgia’s partners in the U.S. and Europe fear is its increasingly authoritarian and anti-Western drift.
“It’s certainly a warning to Georgia,” said Paul Stronski, a senior fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington, DC, think tank. The U.S. has traditionally been supportive of whatever government is in power, including the former regime that Georgian Dream ousted more than a decade ago. But that is changing, Stronski told Eurasianet.
“Georgia is no longer the shining star of the Caucasus, or of the former Soviet space, it’s a very troubled, struggling, not fully free democracy,” he said. “Georgia, in theory, has a lot going for it, but some of this entrenched corruption at the highest level is still there.”
Georgian officials have responded to the sanctions defiantly. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili met with senior judges just days after the announcement and said that “any interference in any way with the independent court of a sovereign country is unacceptable and inadmissible.”
Officials also have complained that the U.S. did not present them with any evidence of the judges’ corruption.
“Strategic partnership, relationship and respect implies that when a partner calls our citizen corrupt, he cannot force us to solve a puzzle and make us guess what could be the reason,” Speaker of Parliament Shalva Papuashvili said in an interview with public television. “The Georgian people have shown their partnership in good faith to the American people, including in battle. We have lost more than 30 Georgian soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 20,000 of our soldiers took part in various conflicts, and we had more than 300 wounded. I think that when Georgian and American soldiers fought side by side, this partnership deserves that we should not be forced to solve a puzzle."
The announcement came as a bombshell, in a deeply politically sensitive period. In roughly six months the European Union is scheduled to make a determination on Georgia’s application for candidate status in the body, and judicial reform is one of the key parameters on which Brussels has demanded progress.
It also came just a month after the government forced through laws that would designate foreign-funded media and organizations as “foreign agents,” against urgent pleas from Washington and Brussels and claims that the laws were inspired by the Russian example. The ruling party retreated and abandoned the bills only following large street protests, but the damage to the government’s reputation was done.
Nevertheless, American officials have tried to play down the political nature of the sanctions and their timing.
Shortly after Blinken’s announcement, the American ambassador in Tbilisi, Kelly Degnan, followed up with a slightly more detailed explanation that judicial corruption was harming Georgia’s efforts toward EU accession and that “this action was taken with achieving that goal in mind.”
An American official elaborated that the visa ban was meant to encourage the government into enacting reforms to the judicial system that the EU has demanded.
“There is a hope that the government responds with, ‘let’s institute the reforms that are actually necessary,’ a development towards a positive decision that the European Union is going to make,” the official told Eurasianet, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It should not harm candidate status, in fact it should be a catalyst for the government to take this seriously, and to institute the reforms – which they even have in draft form – and have not instituted.”
The judges in question are part of what is known as a “judicial clan” in Georgia that formed under the previous administration. In the Georgian Dream’s successful election campaign to oust that regime, eliminating judicial corruption was a key plank of the platform; the American official noted that they had even specifically named one of the just-sanctioned judges, Levan Musuridze, who presided over a politically compromised murder case.
Once in power, however, Georgian Dream officials quickly reached an accommodation with the clan. The American official declined to describe the nature of the corruption that they had identified, but pointed to previous media reports and other public research that showed that some of the judges lived in means beyond what would be possible on a Georgian judge’s salary. Other judges have said in public that they were pressured by members of the “clan” to make particular rulings in politically sensitive cases.
The official said that the U.S. had no proof of corruption, but the standard for a visa ban requires only “credible information.”
“There is certainly something worth a stronger look. Nothing that was done by the State Department was akin to a criminal investigation,” the official said. “There is certainly a indication of that [corruption]. Can I say that is true? No, and that is not the standard.”
The official also said the sanctions were something that the State Department has no choice but to impose once enough evidence is presented to it. As to why that evidence has not been gathered on judges in countries with far greater reputations for corruption, the official also pointed to the abundance of those public reports from Georgia.
“It’s a little shocking how personally they [Georgian Dream officials] have taken it,” the American official said. “It’s interesting that many Georgian leaders are seeing this as an attack against Georgia instead of a visa designation against four individuals.”
While the visa ban itself may have been a relatively routine and depoliticized procedure, the more telling factor was the high-profile fashion in which it was announced, Stronski said.
“First of all, these things [visa designations] can be delayed for political reasons,” said Stronski, also a former American diplomat. ”You can also not tell anyone, someone’s visa status is their visa status. When I was a consular officer, if someone was refused a visa or had a red flag, you addressed it with that person but you didn’t necessarily have to go public with it.”
“The fact that Blinken is there, the fact that the ambassador is there, is a sign that relations between the United States and Georgia have deteriorated,” he said.
Still, American officials have sought to emphasize that their relationship with Georgian Dream is not broken. “We’ve worked very well with the Georgian Dream for years on many different issues, and we still do across the board,” Degnan said in an interview with local TV station Mtavari Arkhi, reported Civil.ge.
The American official repeated that assurance.
“This wasn’t, ‘the United States is fed up with Georgian Dream.’ The United States is very interested in working with Georgian Dream, we’re very interested in continuing to work with the government, we’re not turning our back on Georgia, we’re not turning our back on Georgian Dream,” the official said. “We’ll continue to work with everyone, we hope they don’t turn their back on us.”
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.