EED partners discuss the political climate in Georgia, the impact of the war and Georgia’s European perspective
EED partners in Georgia talk about the impact of the war in Ukraine, political polarisation, Georgia’s European perspective, and how the increase in civic mobilisation experienced this year can be channelled into long-term demands for reform.
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has affected Georgia politically as well as psychologically, reviving fears of a new attack by Russia on the country.
The war comes at a time when civil society and representatives and critical media in Georgia are increasingly vulnerable and are subject to frequent verbal attacks by the authorities. In September, a group of civil society organisations released a joint statement condemning the campaign of accusations against Georgia’s leading CSOs by party officials and urging them to stop the attacks and harassment of non-governmental organizations.
Georgian Dream has also pushed through a controversial surveillance law, despite a veto by the president and a Venice Commission recommendation, which as stated by Carl Hartzell, former Ambassador of the EU to Georgia, “significantly reduces Georgian citizen’s rights to privacy.” The parliament also passed a controversial bill modifying the rule for nominating the next Public Ombudsman, widely perceived as a further attack on independent institutions following the abolishment of the State Inspector’s Office in 2021.
The media environment has also deteriorated in 2022. Most media are aligned either to the ruling party or the opposition, and anti-West propaganda has increased during the war, with Russian-backed agents circulating information that the West expected Georgia to go to war against Russia in exchange for EU candidate status. The Georgian parliament has recently adoptde a ‘De-oligarchisation law’ which might further stifle critical media, while some former Georgian Dream MPs who split off from the party are now preparing a draft law to limit foreign funding for NGOs.
Earlier this year, on the run-up to the European Council meeting to discuss the EU membership candidate status for Georgia, the City Court of Tbilisi convicted Nika Gvaramia, Director General of the critical media channel Mtavari TV, on charges of abuse of power while serving as director of another broadcaster. The international community denounced the ruling as a politically motivated attempt to silence critical voices and the European Parliament adopted a resolution in response to Gvaramia’s detention and the deteriorating media environment in the country. Furthermore, opposition channel Formula TV might be forced to go off air if the government wins the legal battle that it is waging against its owner, David Kezerashvili.
In recent weeks, EED spoke to partners in Georgia to discuss the impact of the war in Ukraine, political polarisation, Georgia’s European perspective, and whether the increase in civic mobilisation experienced this year can be channelled into a long-term demand for reform.
Russia’s invasion in Ukraine and Georgia’s European perspective
Sergi Kapanadze, co-founder of Georgia’s Reform Associates (GRASS), believes that the government’s approach to the war is a major issue. “It's hard to know for sure whether the government s following Moscow’s orders; but what is certain is that their political choices are benefitting Russia. Their only goal is maintaining their power, and they will do anything they can to do so. They are even ready to sacrifice the EU candidate status to maintain power and not implement reforms. The perception of Georgia becoming pro-Russian is a serious blow to our national security," he says.
For Gogi Zoidze of Governance Monitoring Centre, the government is facing a dilemma: “They want to stay in power after the 2024 elections, but to gain votes they have to show some degree of progress towards the EU’s 12 priorities. And some of these priorities require relinquishing some degree of control towards the media and the judiciary.”
Kapanadze and Zoidze both believe that the government will try to implement some minor reforms to show the electorate and EU officials some results, but without carrying out significant changes. According to Kapanadze, the government will try also to argue that the EU has a geopolitical interest in granting Georgia candidate status, and therefore reforms and democracy should take a back seat.
An increasingly difficult environment for independent media and civic activists
EED media partners in Georgia agree that the space for them to operate freely is shrinking: “We are working in an increasingly hostile environment,” explains Lika Zakashvili, Editor-in-Chief of Publika.ge. “There is almost no room to ask any critical questions. Independent, critical media outlets do not receive responses from public institutions and they organize press conferences without informing us.”
For Natia Karchiladze of Mautskebeli, the role of independent media as a watchdog is more important than ever. “Most mainstream media are either affiliated to the government or to the main opposition party, the United National Movement. They are led by political agendas and are not letting the voices of the people be heard. It is our job to fight disinformation and to hold institutions accountable.”
The issue of trust is also a major obstacle for journalists in Georgia. “Citizens do not feel any connection or trust towards civil society and the media,” says Gvatnsa Doluashvili, director of Radio Mosaic. “Nobody respects journalists, and government-led smear campaigns are a big reason why this happens.”
Government trying to discredit civil society and independent media
According to EED partners, the Georgian government is increasingly working to undermine the credibility of civil society and independent media, particularly those associated with foreign funding.
“Once fake allegations spread – for example about misuse of funds – it’s extremely difficult for pro-democracy actors to regain the trust of the public,” says Zakashvili. “I expect many will start hiding their sources of funding.”
“There is now even a Facebook page sponsored by the ruling party where they take statements from civil activists out of context to falsely expose them as lies, inciting hate speech,” adds Zoidze.
“Factcheck.ge is frequently victimg of attacks by the ruling party, as the website often exposes the lies and propaganda spearheaded by the government," explains Kapanadze.
From civic mobilisation to structural change
In this context, EED partners are unsure whether the enthusiasm Georgian people have shown this year in supporting Ukraine and the EU might translate into a stronger demand for structural reforms.
“The government is hoping that its smear campaigns against civil society will work, and push citizens to vote for them again in 2024,” says Kapanadze. “It’s also hard for CSOs to play a positive role for change when the government has a ‘us vs. them’ mentality and refuses to engage in dialogue. For the Government everybody seems to be an enemy – opposition, free media, NGOs and even the West.”
“I actually think that soon more people will feel ready to fight for change, even though many others are adopting a very nihilist attitude towards participatory democracy,” says Doluashvili. “It’s important for us independent media and civil society to get out of our bubble and make connections with the general population, so we can all strive for change.”
“It’s hard to obtain immediate results in our field,” concludes Zakashvili. “But our day-to-day work in engaging with the public will have a gradual impact on society and democracy in Georgia.”
This article reflects the views of the grantee featured and does not necessarily represent the official opinion of the European Endowment for Democracy, the European Commission or any other European State or other contributors to EED.