TBILISI, GEORGIA — October 2023
While the European Union is set to decide again on whether to grant Georgia the status of a EU membership candidate, ongoing political controversies in the small Caucasus republic — including
government allegations that opposition forces plan to overthrow the elected government in a coup and opposition claims of a pro-Russian government undermining Georgia’s democracy and Western
aspirations — loom large over this coming EU decision. And Georgia’s future.
Georgia’s goal to fully integrate into the European Union (EU) is more than a political slogan. It is not only enshrined in article 78 of the Constitution of Georgia but also manifests itself in government buildings and many citizens in Georgia flying the European flag. According to a poll published in April 2023, a staggering 89% of Georgians are supporting plans to join the EU. As such, the coming months in which the EU will decide on whether to grant Georgia the status of an EU membership candidate will be crucial for the country’s future.
This is all the more the case as the Georgian government has, on 31st of July 2023, entered a «strategic partnership» with China. This surprised observers as a strategic partnership with China potentially conflicts with Georgia’s goal of a full integration into EU and NATO — which means that the upcoming EU-decision could also play a role, whether the Georgian government will continue to align itself with the West or start to look more towards China.
That said, the EU decision is anything but a forgone conclusion, amongst others as opposing political camps in Georgia, all of which state to support the aspired integration into the EU, accuse each other of deliberately sabotaging the ongoing process. The latter goes as far as the State Security Service of Georgia (SSSG) asserting that former officials and civil society activists are plotting a violent overthrow of the current elected government and critics claiming that the government is pro-Russian and ruling by fear.
First Unsuccessful Attempt for EU Candidacy
This is not the first time that the EU is looking at whether or not to grant Georgia EU membership candidate status. Back in June 2022, the European Council decided on EU membership applications of not only Georgia, but also Ukraine and Moldova. The European Council is the EU institution that defines the union’s general political direction and also decides over EU enlargement; it consists of the heads of state or government of the 27 EU member states, the European Council President and the President of the European Commission.
Back then, the European Council granted the status of EU candidate country to Ukraine and Moldova. With respect to Georgia, the Council delayed a final verdict, writing that it is ready to grant the status of candidate country to Georgia once certain issues have been addressed. These issues are:
- De-polarising Georgia’s politics
- Strengthening independence, accountability, and democratic oversight of state institutions and further improving the electoral framework
- Judiciary reforms
- Strengthening the independence of Georgia’s Anti-Corruption Agency
- Strengthening the fight against organised crime
- Undertaking stronger efforts to guarantee media freedom
- Strengthening the protection of human rights of vulnerable groups
- Consolidating efforts to enhance gender equality and fight violence against women
- Ensuring the involvement of civil society in decision-making processes
- Adopting legislation that Georgian courts take into account European Court of Human Rights judgements
- Ensuring an independent Public Defender (Obmudsperson)
In September 2023, the Vice-President of the European Commission and EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, said during a visit to Georgia that Georgia had effectively addressed three of these issues — namely efforts to enhance gender equality; ensuring that Georgian courts take into account European Court of Human Rights judgments; and ensuring an independent Public Defender (Ombudsperson) — but that «on the other nine, quite a lot of work remains to be done». With respect to the latter, Borrell explicitly mentioned «the strong political polarisation» as «one of the main challenges».
The arguably most explosive example of existing political polarisation is that, when the SSSG in September 2023 publicly informed about an alleged plot to violently overthrow the Georgian government, critics decried this as politically motivated and to be aimed at instilling fear.
More specifically, on 18th of September 2023, the SSSG publicly stated that «certain groups in- and outside of Georgia» are conspiring to incite «civil unrest with the ultimate goal of a violent change of power.» The SSSG further asserted that this plan is meant to be executed between October and December 2023, when a potential negative EU decision on Georgia’s aspiration for EU membership candidacy would create a «fertile ground» for such a coup. The statement explicitly mentioned alleged plans to erect a tent city «in a similar scenario as during the Euromaidan in Ukraine in 2014». This is a reference to large-scale protests in Ukraine in late 2013 and early 2014 that led to deadly clashes between protestors and security forces and, eventually, the ousting of the then Ukrainian government. In this context, the SSSG statement went even as far as asserting that the plotters intend to detonate a bomb in the allegedly planned tent city in Georgia in order to spark violent clashes between protestors and security forces.
The SSSG namely implied the former Georgian Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Giorgi Lortkipanidze, who went to Ukraine where he is currently serving as deputy chief of Ukraine’s military counter-intelligence service; Mikheil Baturini, a former bodyguard of Georgia’s imprisoned ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili; and Mamuka Mamulashvili, who leads the Georgian Legion, a group of Georgian volunteers who fight on the side of Ukraine in the ongoing war in Ukraine, in the above purported plot.
The statement also directly accuses the organisation CANVAS to prepare youth for the mentioned «revolutionary scenarios». CANVAS stands for Center for Applied Nonviolent Actions and Strategies and is a non-governmental organisation headquartered in Serbia that describes its mission as «advocat[ing] for the use of nonviolent resistance in the promotion of human rights and democracy» by conducting trainings and disseminating «revolutionary ‘know-hows’». CANVAS was founded by former members of Otpor!, a Serbian movement that, around the turn of the millennia, staged protests against the then Serbian government led by Slobodan Milosevic.
Later, on 2nd of October 2023, the SSSG followed up on their earlier communiqué, asserting that three Serbian members of CANVAS had visited the Georgian capital Tbilisi to, between 26th and 29th of September 2023, conduct a training. This training was openly advertised online and, according to the respective announcement, addressed at «civic activists and initiative groups in the field of arts and culture» and meant to teach «nonviolent methods of civic activism, self-organization, and mobilization of supporters». According to the SSSG, the real purpose of the training was, however, to train youth to become the core of the above-mentioned alleged coup plans. The SSSG specifically stated that the training included how to picket, set up protest tents, create traffic jams, how to act if arrested, and how to occupy public buildings as well as disconnect or take over public broadcast services.
To support its claims, the SSSG released a video that was covertly recorded and shows various segments of the training conducted in late September. In this about 8 minutes long edited compilation, the Serbian trainers indeed appear to discuss some of the aforementioned topics.
What makes the SSSG allegations regarding this training even more charged is that it was funded by the USAID Civil Society Engagement Program. Irakli Kobakhidze, the chairman of the ruling party, Georgian Dream, termed this «the most disturbing fact» of the episode, accusing the U.S. aid agency of funding «extremist activities» when it is supposed to support Georgia.
… or Legitimate Civic Activism?
Unsurprisingly, the implied people and organisations rejected the above accusations. Giorgi Lortkipanidze, via his lawyer, told the Georgian outlet Interpressnews that the allegations are «absurd», adding that he has not been in Georgia for 8 years and has no political agenda in Georgia, all the more as he is «24-hours [per day] fighting the Russian Federation» in Ukraine. According to the same outlet, Mikheil Baturini described the allegations as «nonsense», elaborating that he was not surprised by such «Soviet-style» methods of the, in his view, pro-Russian government in Georgia. Mamuka Mamulashvili for his part was cited by Georgian Formula News as having said that the SSSG claims were «directly dictated by Russia» in an attempt to discredit the Georgian Legion fighting Russia in Ukraine. Similarly, a member of the Georgian Legion in Ukraine whom the Swiss Institute of Global Affairs (SIGA) contacted indirectly termed the SSSG accusations «psyops» and «very lame». Given the U.S. funding of the training in question, the U.S. embassy in Georgia also replied to the accusations, stating that they were «false and fundamentally mischaracterize the goals of our assistance to Georgia».
When contacted by SIGA, the CANVAS headquarter in Serbia referred to a press statement, describing the SSSG accusations as «false», «absurd», and «part of a larger smear campaign (…) [meant] to pressure» CANVAS and civil society activists in general. Echoing this, Giorgi Meladze, a member of CANVAS Georgia did further discuss the issue with SIGA. «The video was heavily edited and is taking things out of context. The statements in the videos all refer to past examples of protests turning into revolutions, not to the current situation or any plans in Georgia,» he insisted. «They were discussed in detail in order to teach that, even in the harshest situations, one has to stay non-violent,» Meladze asserted. He also explained that the exact same trainings had been conducted in Georgia in the past and are openly published on CANVAS’ website; something that also the press statement of the CANVAS headquarter mentions. «There have never been any complaints or state reactions to past such trainings,» Meladze added.
For Meladze, who was, like the Serbian trainers, interrogated by the SSSG, the coup allegations are part of a «massive campaign of fear» that the Georgian government started to wage. According to Meladze, it all began earlier in 2023, when the Georgian government wanted to introduce a legislation that would have required foreign-funded organisations and persons in Georgia to register as foreign agents. The law resembled a Russian law that was introduced in the wake of protests against Vladimir Putin’s rule in Russia after he was re-elected as Russian president in 2012. In Georgia, the government was eventually forced to withdraw the controversial law after mass protests in early March 2023. «This was a defeat for the government,» Meladze claimed, adding that «they could not figure out, where these protests came from. And this then created hysteria inside the government.» Meladze claims that this is why the Georgian government now attempts to intimidate people to prevent the reoccurrence of such protests.
The notion that a training that mentions things like:
- «Moldovans, Egyptians, and Ukrainians» having received the same training and highlighting that «they made up revolutions»;
- «with your action you can convert people, you can coerce them, and you can destroy them»;
- an example of how protestors entered a tv station and cut the public broadcast; and
- «how many people are ready to risk to be arrested»
do sound militant, could be perceived as inciting to overthrow the government, and are set to trigger reactions of state authorities tasked with upholding order, is rejected by Meladze. He reiterated, that the training in question was only teaching legitimate and non-violent activism. «After all that happened, I am even more feeling that we are doing the right thing,» he concluded.
Confronted with the above, the SSSG told SIGA on 16th of October 2023 that counter-claims alleging that the statements in the released video segments were taken out of context were made «to mislead the public». The SSSG furthermore again underscored its view, according to which the officially and openly stated purpose of the training did differ from the actual content of the training that, the SSSG said, was «teaching of tactics to topple the government».
The SSSG also confirmed that, as of 16th of October 2023, no person or organisation was formally investigated as a suspect or indicted and that the trainers and participants of the training who were interrogated were only interrogated as witnesses or respondents. Asked why, given the various specific and serious accusations, the three Serbian trainers were not prevented from leaving Georgia, the SSSG told SIGA that there had been «no need» for this, adding that the investigation and efforts to disrupt the alleged plot are ongoing.
In view of the almost always polemic discussions of the topic — Georgia’s Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili, for example, described the alleged plotters as «lowlife, destructive, radical forces» while critics often generally accuse the ruling party of being authoritarian pro-Russian oligarchs — the fact that, at its very core, the SSSG and civil society activists do barely disagree about what happened in the training, but on the difficult question on where to draw the necessary line between legal exercise of civic activism and illegal disruption of public order, is hardly ever addressed.
And when it is, it usually just ends up in other polemics. For example, in early October 2023, shortly after the above coup allegations, members of parliament introduced amendments of the law on assemblies and manifestations which meant to prohibit the erection of «temporary structures» under certain circumstances. While clearly aimed to prevent the erection of tents such as mentioned in the purported coup plans and arguably politically motivated, the fact that freedom of assembly is not unlimited and has to be weighed against other legitimate interests, especially the upholding of public safety and order, was seldom discussed. To the contrary, opposition parties resorted swiftly to label the amendments «another Russian law», while Mamuka Mdinaradze, a member of parliament of the ruling party, stated that opposing the new amendments «means supporting and being an accomplice to executing revolutionary plans with human life at stake». In any event, while the so-called «tents law» was passed by parliament in an accelerated procedure, Georgian president Salome Zurabishvili eventually vetoed it on 17th of October 2023.
The day after, on 18th of October 2023, President Zurabishvili survived an impeachment vote that was held after members of parliament of the ruling party had formally accused the president of having violated the Georgian constitution by, in late August and early September 2023, travelling to European countries and meeting with European officials without the consent of the government. Also this was another example of politicking overshadowing existing legal concerns. Reactions to the impeachment were largely grand political accusations and counter-accusations. The fact that, soberly viewed, the wording of cited constitutional articles quite strongly supports the government’s and ruling party’s position and that, conversely, counter-arguments in favour of the president consisted of multi-layered interpretations of very general constitutional provisions, meaning that her visits were constitutionally indeed questionable, hardly registered in the public and political discourse.
In view of all this, Georgia is looking at a politically hot end of 2023 — which is far from a conducive environment for the upcoming EU decision on whether to grant the Caucasus republic EU membership candidate status and could also have an impact on whether Georgia’s government will reorient itself more towards the East in the future.
Franz J. Marty