Georgia’s Western allies scrambled to restore negotiations between the government and opposition on a new electoral system after the harsh sentencing of an opposition leader.
The newest round of Georgia’s escalating political crisis erupted on February 10, when Georgia’s Supreme Court sentenced Gigi Ugulava, the head of the opposition European Georgia party, to more than three years in prison on embezzlement charges. Opposition leaders accused the court of acting on orders from the government and responded by calling off talks they had been conducting with the ruling party over a key reform of the election system ahead of parliamentary elections this fall.
“No matter what decisions will be made on other cases, all of them will be politically motivated,” said Ugulava’s lawyer, Beka Basilaia. “Final decisions are made in the glass palace and not here, in court rooms,” Basilaia said, referring to the Bond-villain-style mansion of Bidzina Ivanishvili, the leader of the ruling Georgian Dream party.
“After the detention on political grounds, all doors for negotiations are closed,” said David Bakradze, another European Georgia leader.
Those negotiations have been mediated by several Western embassies in Tbilisi, as they try to keep the crisis – and Georgia’s political stability – from spiraling out of control. Following the sentencing and the opposition’s dropping out of the talks, the embassies tried to conduct damage control.
EU Ambassador Carl Hartzell, asked by journalists how the negotiations could continue, said the EU intended to keep trying. "We will continue bilateral discussions to see how to advance,” he said shortly after the sentencing. “It is still too early for me to make an assessment. I’ve listened to statements made by the members of the opposition; I also had a possibility to talk to some leaders of the opposition this evening. We will continue our discussions with the different sides to see how to continue … We carefully follow and study the case of Gigi Ugulava because of its high interest. This is what I can say at the moment.” As of the end of the day February 11, the EU had not issued a formal statement.
A statement issued February 11 by the U.S. embassy took a “both sides” approach: “The U.S. Embassy supports the political dialogue between Georgia’s governing party and opposition representatives aimed at reaching agreement on an election system that best serves the Georgian people. The U.S. Embassy is disappointed that the timing and context of the conviction and sentencing of an opposition leader last night has put the dialogue at risk,” the statement said.
“An environment conducive to the successful continuation of the dialogue requires an independent, transparent judicial system free of political influence. We call on all sides to remain committed to the political dialogue, as well as further refinements to the electoral code, as the best way to create the conditions for free and fair elections.”
Some voices from Washington put the blame more squarely on the government.
“I’m disappointed Georgia has chosen to increase its politically motivated abuse of opposition politicians,” tweeted Jim Risch, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “[T]he collapse of judicial independence & persecution of the opposition is unacceptable behavior.”
“Gigi Ugulava, leader of European Georgia, was arrested today and sentenced to 38 months in prison for an old crime he’s already served time over. To say this is disturbing would be an understatement. Using courts as a weapon is NOT democracy,” tweeted Adam Kinzinger, a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
Georgia depends heavily on its Western allies, in particular the U.S., and both sides have been pleading their case in Washington, Brussels, and elsewhere. In January, Georgian Dream signed a new, $75,000-per-month deal with DC lobbying firm Hogan Lovells.
The talks over the electoral law were already stalled before this latest episode and opposition members said that their only recourse now was the street. Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili said he and other opposition figures were starting “preparations for large-scale street protests throughout Georgia.”
The government’s promise to carry out reforms of the electoral system, which currently give a leg up to the ruling party, was itself a concession following street protests last summer. The ruling party brazenly broke that promise in November, leading to a modest renewal of the protests. The demonstrations have failed to gain much traction, though, and it’s unclear whether the opposition – less popular even than the very unpopular government – will be able to mobilize much resistance.