The United States slapped sanctions on four Georgian judges in an unprecedented display of Washington's frustration with the democratic stagnation in the nation once hailed as the poster child of Western-style reforms in the Caucasus. The move caps a year of increasingly cantankerous exchanges between Washington and Tbilisi.
Leveling accusations of corruption, Washington barred three controversial Georgian judges, Mikheil Chinchaladze, Levan Murusidze, and Irakli Shengelia, plus former judge Valerian Tsertsvadze, and their immediate family members from entering the U.S. "These individuals abused their position as court Chairmen and members of Georgia's High Council of Justice, undermining the rule of law and the public's faith in Georgia's judicial system," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement on April 5.
U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Kelly Degnan further spelled out the move's intent in a recorded statement. "The State Department determined, based on credible and corroborated evidence, that these individuals abused their public positions by engaging in significant corrupt activity," Degnan said, adding that the four men coerced judges to pass politically motivated verdicts and manipulated judicial appointments to their benefit.
The ambassador said that the move is aimed at helping Georgia build "a legal system where cases are decided fairly and impartially, based on fact, evidence of law, not because of intimidation, bribe or a late phone call."
Levan Murusidze, one of the sanctioned judges and perhaps the most controversial figure on the High Council of Justice, initially said that sanctions were not going to kill him. "My grandfather was not moseying around the U.S. and E.U., and he was fine, living an honest life," he said on April 5.
But the following day, the judge claimed that the U.S. indeed might try to kill him. "They are not going to stop there. I believe they may make an attempt on my life," Murusidze said at an April 6 press conference. He further asserted that the U.S. Embassy wants to take over Georgian courts and make judiciary decisions.
The sanctions hit a nerve in Georgia's governing party, Georgian Dream. The party's hard-line chairman Irakli Kobakhidze responded on the night of April 5 with his own accusations of corruption.
"I'm afraid I have to make a harsh assessment of the statement [by Blinken]," Kobakhidze told Imedi, a pro-government TV channel. "Corrupt machinations stand behind this statement and, as you know, corruption is not necessarily about money. The most disconcerting part is this statement tarnished the name of Secretary of State Blinken."
Suggesting that Blinken check his sources, Kobakhidze took a thinly veiled swipe at Ambassador Degnan. "We all know that Anthony Blinken does not spend his days thinking about Georgia," he said. "He has bigger things to do. That he is provided with such crude reports suggests a corrupt process, which is what caused all of this."
The following day, the Georgian Foreign Ministry called the move "totally incomprehensible and unacceptable." In an open letter to his counterpart, Georgian Foreign Minister Ilia Darchiashvili listed the government's democratic accomplishments and leaned on the Georgian Dream's usual PR strategy of describing the party's record of correcting the wrongs of its predecessor United National Movement, which has been out of power for nearly 11 years.
"We remain hopeful that the State Department will either present appropriate evidence or take back its decision," Darchiashvili wrote. "Otherwise, the decision will be perceived by the Georgian state and Georgian people as pressure on the independent courts of a sovereign state and crude interference with their work."
Independent rule-of-law watchdogs long maintained that the Georgian judiciary system is dominated by a clan with fealties toward the ruling Georgian Dream. Along with systemic issues, the judiciary clique had been accused of helping uphold questionable charges against government critics.
In one notable case, the director-general of an opposition-minded TV and anti-government gadfly Nika Gvaramia was handed a sentence of three years in jail for reaping personal benefits from sales of airtime. The Georgian Public Defender's Office found the charges unsubstantiated and the sentence incongruously harsh.
Georgia's other strategic ally, the European Union, also has been concerned with the state of Georgian courts and cited the lack of judiciary independence as among the key stumbling blocks on Georgia's path toward getting candidate status for membership in the bloc.
In their recent evaluation of Georgia's progress regarding Brussels' 12-point checklist for earning candidate status, European observers singled out the "need for the reform of the judiciary with a view of ensuring its role as a genuinely independent and impartial arbiter." The reporters from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), the continent's top body for human rights and democracy, specifically focused on Georgia's High Council of Justice, saying that it remains saddled with corporatism, opaque decision-making processes and undue control over the justice system.
The U.S. ambassador underscored that the sanctions are also meant to nudge Georgia toward completing the EU-assigned homework and making headway toward membership in the bloc.
Relations between Tbilisi and its big Western benefactors, the U.S. and EU have grown increasingly strained following the launch of Russia's war on Ukraine. Georgia has been responding to Western criticisms of its faltering democratic record with accusations of the U.S. and E.U. plotting to drag Georgia into a war with Russia.