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Georgians fighting for Europe fear Brussels missing in action

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TBILISI, Georgia — Tens of thousands of Georgians have taken to the streets over the past month, many wrapped in blue and gold EU flags, facing off against riot police armed with shields, batons and water cannon.

Crowds began gathering outside the parliament building in central Tbilisi early Wednesday, just a day after security forces beat back and detained demonstrators protesting the government’s controversial plans to label NGOs, media outlets and campaign groups receiving funding from abroad as “foreign agents.”

Critics say the bill, which was passed by MPs at its third reading on Tuesday, mirrors Russian-style legislation that has been used by the Kremlin to quash dissent and target activists.

With tensions rising as part of a row that could derail the South Caucasus country’s hopes of one day joining the bloc, many fear they have been left to fight for European values virtually on their own.

Now though, criticism is growing over the EU’s failure to find consensus for a tougher line on the crisis.

“With every attempt in Europe to find a common position, be it on Ukraine, Gaza or Georgia, we find less and less coherence,” said Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis in an interview with POLITICO during a visit to Georgia on Wednesday.

“There is a downslide in the European ability to present a political position. But am I worried or surprised? Not really — this is the way Europe operates now.”


The EU has condemned the ruling Georgian Dream party’s plans, warning they are “incompatible” with the decision to grant the country candidate status taken in December. However, its messages to the government have been marred by an apparent lack of unity among member states.

After the bill was passed and police swooped on protesters Tuesday, the European Commission failed to issue a statement for almost 24 hours, despite Washington almost immediately hinting it could sanction top politicians if the bill is made law.

“It’s absolutely shameful that by now the U.S. has put out a strong statement about Georgia complying with EU accession criteria and we can’t manage to put out a single word,” one EU diplomat said at the time. 

Opposition from Hungary, which has itself has imposed civil society restrictions despite criticism from Brussels, effectively blocked a joint statement that had been designed to show a united front from all 27 member states.

In the absence of a clear position from Brussels, EU member states are stepping up to fill the vacuum. | Vano Shlamov/AFP via Getty Images

Hungary’s Commissioner, EU enlargement chief Olivér Várhelyi, also reportedly took issue with the wording of a draft missive, despite efforts to get him to back the statement, one official and one diplomat told POLITICO. 

When a statement finally was issued Wednesday, on behalf of both Várhelyi and the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, it simply reiterated previous calls on Georgian Dream to drop the draft law, and condemned the “intimidation, threats and physical assaults” against activists and opposition politicians. However, shortly after publication, Várhelyi’s name was removed.

A spokeperson for the Commission insisted the updated version reflected broad consensus among the bloc’s leadership — a stance not everyone finds convincing. “What an absolute shitshow,” said an EU diplomat of the incident.

Failure to act

Brussels has repeatedly suggested the passage of the law would effectively freeze Georgia’s EU membership bid. Despite that, the Commission has ignored calls from members of the European Parliament, who have written to Borrell to demand the Commission threaten sanctions against Georgian MPs who back the bill. Brussels requires total unanimity among member states, including Hungary, to impose restrictions on third countries.

“There’s no sign in the EU’s statements about potential action. There’s nothing about sanctions, nothing about any meetings or calls for meetings or other concrete steps,” said Tinatin Akhvlediani, a research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels. “The U.S. is much quicker, much more blunt, and the EU just repeats the same demands, to drop the bill, in every statement, which we know the government will not do.”

Speaking from Tbilisi on Tuesday, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs James O’Brien said the law “could be a turning point in what has been till now a constructive and productive partnership” between the U.S. and Georgia. He hinted Georgian Dream politicians could be personally sanctioned, and said that anti-Western rhetoric from the government, which conspiratorially claims Washington is trying to bring about regime change, is “like a Reddit page came to life.”

“The credibility of the EU is at stake,” said Viola von Cramon-Taubadel. “The discrepancy between the U.S. and the EU is not helpful — there’s a clear message from the U.S. and I expect not just High Representative Borrell but also Commissioner Várhelyi to say something very clearly about where they stand and what the position is of the Commission.”

A Georgian demonstrator wrapped in a European Union (EU) flag gestures sitting on a metal barrier erected in front of the parliament’s main gates. | Giorgi Arjevanidze/AFP via Getty Images

In the absence of a clear position from Brussels, EU member states are stepping up to fill the vacuum. On Wednesday, Landsbergis, along with his counterparts from Estonia and Iceland held talks with government ministers and civil society leaders in Tbilisi, forming what the Lithuanian foreign minister called a “like-minded group” to break the deadlock in Brussels.

A meeting with the president of the Georgian parliament, Shalva Papuashvili, however, descended into farce after the delegations accused him of misrepresenting their warnings as support for the foreign agent bill. “He was lying about our position,” said Estonian Foreign Minister Margus Tsahkna said at a press conference following the discussions, responding to a question from POLITICO. “But we were not well surprised.”

Meanwhile, Michael Roth, the chair of the German Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, flew to Tbilisi earlier this week but says Georgian Dream have refused to meet with him. “Accession negotiations with the EU cannot be conducted on this basis,” he told POLITICO. “Further progress can only be made once the law is withdrawn, the violence against the demonstrators is stopped, and the Georgian government returns to a constructive dialogue with civil society and the opposition.”

Papuashvili has since accused Roth of being a “sleazy politician” and supposedly insulting the Georgian Church.

World is watching

According to Ivana Stradner, an expert on Russian influence operations, the EU’s perceived ineptitude in its own near-abroad could have serious consquences. “The only thing Brussels wants is to keep the status quo, and with their weakness they are helping Moscow accomplish its goals of keeping Georgia in its grasp without a single bullet being fired,” she said.

“Other countries around Eurasia are watching,” Stradner went on. “If Georgian Dreams’ plans succeed, it will be a catalyst for other governments to adopt more authoritarian rules.”

Demonstrators have been gathering outside the Georgian parliament for weeks in opposition to the so-called Russian law. | Gabriel Gavin/POLITICO

The passage of the foreign agent bill through parliament Tuesday paves the way for it to enter into force — an outcome that many civil society figures fear will only worsen the current crackdown on freedom of speech and assembly. While President Salome Zourabichvili has vowed not to sign the bill, her veto can be overridden by a simple majority in parliament, which Georgian Dream has consistently had. While the protesters insist they will continue their fight, there are growing concerns that they don’t have the backing they need from the Europe they want to be part of.

“I think we are slowly getting to a point where Georgians feel let down by the EU,” said Elene Kintsurashvili, a program assistant with the German Marshall Fund. “It’s great to have statements, but it’s time to act now — otherwise we might lose Georgia.”

Gabriel Gavin reported from Tbilisi, Georgia. Jakob Hanke Vela reported from Brussels, Belgium. Rixa Fürsen contributed reporting from Berlin, Germany.

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