By Vakshuti Menabde and Teona Lavrelashvili
The lack of visionaries in Georgian politics increases the European Union’s responsibility to make sure that the country gets out of its current crisis, write Vakshuti Menabde and Teona Lavrelashvili.
By Vakhushti Menabde is director of Program of Support for Democratic Institutions at the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association. Teona Lavrelashvili is a project manager at the European Party Monitor, KU Leuven. Previously she worked as a policy officer at the European Commission, DG NEAR.
Georgia’s political crisis has entered a dangerous phase. The second attempt by the European Council President Charles Michel’s personal envoy to mediate talks has failed badly. That’s because the negotiations shed light on an ill-fated characteristic of Georgian politics – it’s always a zero sum game, with no room for compromise. So the question is – does this mediation actually make sense?
EU diplomats thought that they were dealing with a healthy mediation process. During his first visit on 12 March, Christian Danielsson made clear that he was just facilitating the talks and relying on the ability of the political actors to engage in dialogue. Yet he left the country empty handed on 19 March. His tone during the press conference sounded so discouraged that many doubted whether these mediation efforts could continue.
The gravity of the situation did not go unnoticed among Georgia’s Western partners. On 23 March, the US Senate subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation held a debate on Georgia, calling on both sides to put short-term political interests aside. Meanwhile, domestic Georgian civil society organizations (CSOs) tried to play a constructive part in the process and urged the political actors to find a compromise.
The CSOs also pro-actively presented their views to the personal envoy who returned to Georgia on 30 March. However, this time his strategy had changed. His mediation tone and efforts became more initiative driven. After tireless bilateral and multilateral talks with all actors, he presented a proposal.
This politically balanced 5-point proposal outlined a way ahead for Georgia and included addressing perceptions of politicized justice, electoral and judicial reform and power-sharing in parliament. Thus it called on the opposition parties to take up their mandates and participate in 2021 local elections under the new electoral reform. No party accepted the proposal – a huge blow to the EU mediation efforts.
The real story behind these negotiations is the fact that the key political forces do not want an agreement. Both sides are well aware that if the negotiations continue tiptoeing around the red lines of snap elections and releasing political prisoners, they will be always destined to failure.
In fact, existing institutional arrangements, with the logic of the winner takes all, benefit the political actors’ narrow interests. The current system lacks power-sharing instruments, the ruling party benefits from governing without constraints, while the main part of the opposition hopes to use the same system upon regaining power.
What’s next? – It seems the political actors have chosen a strategy of wait and see. Wait for the mistakes the other side will make and see how Georgian citizens and international partners react.
The opposition is leaning towards further radicalization of the process, including continuing to boycott parliament and calling for mass demonstrations set for 15 May. The opposition believes that this scenario could provoke mistakes from the ruling elites, giving rise to more protests that would eventually end up in scheduling snap parliamentary elections.
On the other hand, the ruling party hopes that an opposition without the parliamentary tribune will end up politically bankrupt, which will facilitate an overwhelming victory of the ruling party in the 2024 parliamentary elections.
Neither scenario sounds healthy for the country. Georgia needs stability instead of quasi-revolutions, but it also needs healthy political competition with an opposition able to participate in a power-sharing instead of a system dominated by one party.
While the behaviour of the political actors remains guided by their entrenched narrow views, ordinary Georgian citizens are growing increasingly disillusioned with politics. Suffering economic hardships further aggravated by the pandemic, their hopes of a better quality of life are dimming.
Polarization has become the only game in town. It is almost impossible to find a political figure that does not sow division. This narrative that portrays the ruling party or the opposition as enemies of people is pure populism that one day may end up leading the country into a dangerous trap.
And what should the EU do? – It’s hard, but it’s important that Georgian parties should not be left to talk among themselves. Their political myopia leaves little chance of a compromise. The lack of visionaries in Georgian politics unfortunately increases the EU’s responsibility to make sure that the country emerges from this crisis.
In that spirit, some leading MEPs released a statement blaming both sides but giving special responsibility to a party in government for having failed in the negotiations. The European Parliament “will call for consequences in terms of EU financial assistance, including both a suspension of further disbursements and an increase in conditionality,” the letter warned.
So, is this the right strategy? Yes and no. Yes, because conditionality is necessary at all stages of EU integration. But also no, because it runs the risk of painting the EU as a bad taskmaster reaching for the last resort, the stick, raising questions about the value-based relationship.
Instead, the EU should ramp up its engagement. It is high time that the European Parliament, the European Commission, the European Council and the EEAS present a joint political and institutional view on Georgia’s future.
This strategic document (that could be initiated by an EP resolution) should outline the EU’s hybrid approach. It must clearly demonstrate to Georgian citizens that beyond the difficult road lies the perspective of a European Georgia if the country commits to irreversible democratic reforms.
It’s clear current developments will negatively impact Georgia’s path towards the EU. If this crisis is not solved immediately, Georgia’s quest for reinforced sectoral integration and application for EU membership will appear increasingly far-fetched.