Detention of Mikheil Saakashvili further complicates Georgia-EU relations

After Mikheil Saakashvili met members of the European Parliament last month, they urged the former Georgian president turned opponent in exile not to return to a country where he was at risk of arrest and risked fueling political tensions already. feverish.

Saakashvili went anyway on the eve of local elections, smuggled into a milk truck, and now he is languishing in a hunger strike Tbilisi prison – the latest in a long line of Georgian politicians ignoring advice from Brussels these last years.

The Black Sea country was once cited as an example of how the EU could export its Western liberal principles to its neighbors, including the former Soviet Union.

But he has fallen heavily out of favor, plagued by claims of democratic retreat and creeping authoritarianism by the ruling Georgian Dream party that made his Western benefactors think twice. This month’s vote was marred by irregularities that have pissed off many members of the EU and the United States who fear Georgia is moving away from the pro-Western orbit.

“The continued blurring of the line between state and party resources is deeply troubling,” the US State Department said of the poll. “This type of abuse has happened too often in Georgian elections and is totally incompatible with Georgia’s democratic and Euro-Atlantic ideals.

Yet the West is not in a position to turn its back on Tbilisi. Its highly strategic location between Russia and Turkey, its key role in the transit of oil and gas from the Caspian Sea to Europe, and its unique position as a pro-EU parliamentary democracy in a region of autocracies ruled by strong men complicate the geopolitical calculation.

“Georgia is a very important country [EU] partner . . . I sincerely think they want to bridge the gap with Europe, ”said Katalin Cseh, an MEP who participated in the EU election observation mission. “But internal divisions and recent political events have deepened this distance. “

Relations with Brussels began to deteriorate in 2019, as the country was plagued by sustained anti-government rallies. Citizens waved EU flags in protest against what they called pro-Russian measures by Georgian Dream, founded by Russian-born billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, and against the failure of the promised electoral reform.

Popular unrest returned in February when police arrested the country’s opposition leader for his role in the protests, prompting the EU to intervene and negotiate a deal between the two sides.

After Georgian Dream’s withdrawal from the deal a few months later prompted the EU to warn it could cut financial aid, Tbilisi responded by saying it didn’t want the money anyway.

“When the Georgian dream government said as a precaution that we didn’t want this help, I think it was a slap in the face of the EU and basically said: ‘you don’t really have power over us, “” said Salome Samadashvili, an opponent MP and former ambassador to the EU.

“Even if of course, it’s completely crazy. They need all the money they can get with the economic crisis here. “

There are many other flash points. Files published in local media last month alleged that the Georgian secret service had spied on the EU envoy to the country and US diplomats. And Saakashvili’s arrest, under existing convictions for abuse of power during his tenure, presents another irritant: he is still praised in Brussels for his efforts as president to move the country west, and claims that the charges are politically motivated.

Temuri Yakobashvili, deputy prime minister under Saakashvili, said having a political prisoner had exacerbated “the current government’s already seriously compromised democratic criteria”.

This “is harmful for Georgian democracy, it is harmful for the Georgian political process. . . and that definitely harms relations ”with the West, he added.

Relations with NATO seem more solid. The military alliance sent a delegation to Tbilisi this month which its senior official said showed its “unwavering commitment to Georgia.” Ties with the Western defense community have been seen as an integral part of Tbilisi since a 2008 short war with Russia that caused the country to lose about a fifth of its territory to pro-Russian separatists.

Nikoloz Samkharadze, a Georgian Dream member who chairs the country’s parliament’s foreign policy committee, denied that Western relations had deteriorated, saying relations with the EU and NATO were “on the rise and very good”.

He added: “Unfortunately, some political forces, including the opposition, as well as some MEPs in the European Parliament, have further politicized this issue. I must say that it does not serve the Georgian nation or the interests of the EU. “

Opinion polls show that a majority of Georgians are in favor of the EU and NATO. And despite a growing sense of pessimism in Western capitals about the country’s direction, most would consider the geopolitical implications of the deterioration of ties with Tbilisi to be greater, said Zach Witlin, senior analyst at Eurasia Group.

“There is obviously a national security priority for the West,” he said. “[But] the impetus is on Georgian Dream regarding the pace of relationship restoration.

Because while relations drift, pro-European Georgians fear that the ultimate beneficiary will be Moscow.

“The Russians are of course very satisfied with this government, because Georgia has not really made progress on the front of integration into the EU or NATO,” Samadashvili said.

“Yes, we don’t expect to join the EU tomorrow. But in this kind of geopolitical context, losing Georgia is giving the Russians back the winning hand. ”

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