Perspectives: It Is Time for Georgia’s Citizens to Decide

The EU needs to send a clear message, argues Prof. Stephen Jones: Brussels should notify Georgia’s government that the country's EU candidacy will be suspended should the foreign agents law pass.

This article was originally published by Eurasianet.

In his April 28 speech before a crowd of state employees and citizens bussed in from Georgian provinces, Bidzina Ivanishvili, the honorary chair of the governing Georgian Dream party, declared war against the Georgian people. It was a venomous address in search of treasonous agents within, and global enemies without. It went far beyond the ostensible reason for the speech — support for the passage of the bill on the transparency of foreign influence (a.k.a. the foreign agents law) designed to increase government control over Georgian NGOs and media organizations.

Ivanishvili’s address echoed the rhetoric of Stalinist speeches of the 1930s with its emphasis on foreign threats (a “global party of war”) and internal enemies (NGOs and “pseudo elites”). The enemy conjured up by Ivanishvili has “no homeland"; this was also a common accusation in the USSR in the 1930s — people without a homeland (which included Jews) were seen as abnormal and consequently dangerous to the integrity of the state. Georgia’s sovereignty, Ivanishvili declared, was under threat from “foreign governance,” and he did not mean Russia, which occupies 20% of Georgia’s territory, but the European Union. He went on to promise punishment for the opposition (in particular anyone associated with the United National Movement), who, he said, “will strictly answer” for all their crimes. 

The performance of the Georgian Dream leadership on April 28 echoed Soviet rituals in other ways. The ruling party, unable to gather a crowd organically for its rally, resorted to bringing in thousands of supporters from outside Tbilisi. This somber multitude (in contrast to the exuberant protesting Tbilisi residents the day before) comprised many members of the state bureaucracy who feared losing their government jobs if they did not show up. Party leaders outdid one another in glorifying Ivanishvili, “an example of selfless patriotism and national work” who had brought “peace and economic progress” to Georgia. 

The rally in Tbilisi was evocative in some respects of those held in Moscow by Russian leader Vladimir Putin. The stage was packed with youthful flag-waving representatives of the nation, dressed in white, representing — like their Soviet Young Pioneer forebears — a virtuous image of the future. Emphasis on family values in contrast to those of transgressive minorities (like the LGBTQ+ community), a fierce anti-intellectualism, and the naming of treacherous enemies — Misha Saakashvili, Giga Bokeria, Vano Merabishvili — added to the menace of Ivanishvili’s speech. 

Talk of treason is in the air and conciliation is no longer seen as a virtue. 

Georgian Dream argued against the imposition of sanctions on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine in 2022 by casting itself as a party of peace. At a speech in Budapest in 2023, former PM Irakli Gharibashvili (prime minister in 2013-15 and 2021-24) quoted the Bible to prove it: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” The Georgian Dream government also claimed it was defending Georgians against the “global party of war” that planned to use Georgia to open “a second front” against Russia. This resonated with many Georgians, who, after the Russian invasion of 2008, had reason to fear war. 

But on April 28, Georgian Dream’s claim to be the party of peace surely came to an end. One day after the Georgian Dream rally, police used stun grenades, water cannon, and tear gas against thousands of peaceful protestors who turned out to express opposition to the foreign agents bill. Georgian Dream has clearly demonstrated that it is willing to employ violent tactics to achieve its goals.

The Georgian Dream rally was a watershed in other ways. It confirmed the government’s abandonment of liberal democratic values. It has replaced Georgian Dream’s liberal-European mask, which included a Georgian Dream-supported constitutional amendment in 2017 promising “full integration” with the EU and NATO, with a Christian and civilizational understanding of Europe. This is the Europe favored by potential Georgian allies Viktor Orban, Giorgia Meloni, and Robert Fico, all of whom pursue versions of illiberal democracy. 

Georgian Dream wants to install its own “party of order” in Georgia, following the European vision that dominated the inter-war period. It is rooted in rural and religious resistance to the modern world and in the ideology of the counter-Enlightenment, focused on the protection of national sovereignty, the promotion of ethnically and historically based cultural values, the church, family, and the diminution of popular control. 

This illiberal vision of Europe was endorsed by prime ministers Gharibashvili and Irakli Kobakhidze in 2023 and 2024, respectively, when they addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Budapest. Gharibashvili condemned “the minority's attempts to change with aggressive propaganda the values that the majority of our population considers to be given by God.” Kobakhidze, visiting Budapest in 2024, warned of the threat immigration presented in Europe and, following Putin’s own anti-LGBTQ+ program, promised legislation to combat “so-called liberal ideology and make a significant contribution to the protection of family values and minors.” For Kobakhidze, liberals and Bolsheviks were one and the same, anti-national and equally bad. 

The transformation of Georgian Dream into a party dedicated to the eradication of multiplicity and tolerance is complete. The party, which by 2019 had lost all its original coalition partners, shares the goals of the right-wing ideological wave that today grips Europe and the United States. But Georgian Dream’s turn to authoritarian politics is also rooted in domestic traditions and politics. The repetitive pattern in Georgia over the last three decades is one of revolution, breakthrough, and autocratic rule. 

All of Georgia’s past presidents — Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Eduard Shevardnadze, and Saakashvili — after great popularity and promise, ended up bringing Georgia to a constitutional crisis and revolt. There are many variables influencing Georgia’s political trajectory — Soviet legacies, persistent poverty, corrupt elections, charismatic personalities, Russian interference, secessionist wars, weak political parties — but three things stand out: the inadequacy of Georgia’s institutions, the lack of an independent civil service, and the absence of political accountability. 

Whether in local government, the National Bank, the National Statistics Office, or the judiciary, Georgia’s state employees have no protection from the state. Despite 30 years of political and economic reform, financial support and expert advice from the EU, and millions of U.S. dollars spent on democracy-building programs, nothing has undone the Georgian pattern of state control and resurgent authoritarianism. 

Civil society organizations today constitute just about the only check on government power (which is why Georgian Dream wants to silence them). Parts of the media also perform valuable watchdog functions, exposing government malfeasance. The country’s current president strives to act as a check on excessive power but has limited authority. The only thing that has ever stopped the expansion of government power since the violent overthrow of Gamsakhurdia is the Georgian people peacefully protesting in the street. 

How will all this end, and can democracy be restored in Georgia? New elections scheduled for October may help, but, despite constant tinkering with the electoral law (the latest change occurred this February, when the Georgian Dream majority abolished the post of deputy chair of the Central Election Commission, a position designated for a member of the opposition), elections in Georgia are fundamentally flawed models of citizen power that help fuel the partisanship and polarization underlying the current crisis. 

The population has little faith in the political parties still standing, whether in government or the opposition. Opposition parties have been unable to cooperate and have failed to come up with an effective strategy to check Georgian Dream’s powerful ambitions. And why would Georgian Dream, when everything is at stake, stop using the state’s resources to ensure a corruptly generated electoral victory? 

The EU needs to send a clearer message: Brussels should notify the government that Georgia’s EU candidacy will be suspended should the foreign agents law pass. 

Civic resistance (civil disobedience) remains the most vital tool to check government overreach. If expanded effectively, it could, in the end, dethrone Georgian Dream. Convincing the police that their interests are with the people and not the government should be at the center of any ongoing civil disobedience campaign. 

Even if Georgia gains another opportunity to “reset,” what comes next? What can end the familiar decline into authoritarianism once a new political force enters parliament? The answer lies in a renewed political structure prioritizing citizen participation (and hence political accountability), institutionalizing power-sharing between government and the opposition (providing conditions for consensus), guaranteeing institutional independence and establishing multiple checks on state power. Achieving this will make Georgia a genuine EU candidate, and avoid the awful possibility of a quasi-democratic Georgia falling under Russia’s influence.

This does not mean throwing everything out; things that work should stay. But elections will never be enough without an empowered civil society, a self-governing judiciary, fully autonomous universities, and decentralized governance independent of central government finance. 

The people must decide finally, and that can best be done through a constitutional convention made up of ordinary citizens. The country’s political consciousness is mature enough to make this happen. Georgian citizens deserve this; they have shown extraordinary endurance for over three decades. Georgians should no longer tolerate a political system that allows their representatives to avoid accountability to their electors.

The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author.

Director, Program on Georgian Studies, Harvard University; Professor of Modern Georgian History, Ilia State University, Tbilisi

Stephen Jones is an expert on post-communist societies in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.