This commentary first appeared in the 6 April 2023 edition of our newsletter Caucasus Concise. If you would like to subscribe to Caucasus Concise, or any other of our newsletters, please click here.
The imposition of US sanctions against four Georgian judges now makes the rift between the US and Georgian governments formal, writes commonspace.eu in this commentary. "It will have consequences, and both sides have much to lose. The GD government may decide to drift further away from the US. Given that any relations with Moscow remain, in Georgian domestic political terms, toxic, its room for manoeuvre is limited. That does not mean that most Georgians want their country to become a US client state either."
On Wednesday, 5 April the US State Department posted a terse statement by Secretary of State, Antony Blinken:
"Today, the U.S. Department of State is publicly designating Mikheil Chinchaladze, Levan Murusidze, Irakli Shengelia, and Valerian Tsertsvadze under Section 7031(c) visa restriction authorities, due to their involvement in significant corruption.
These individuals abused their positions as court Chairmen and members of Georgia’s High Council of Justice, undermining the rule of law and the public’s faith in Georgia’s judicial system.
The United States continues to stand with all Georgians in support of democracy and the rule of law and will continue to promote accountability for those who abuse public power for personal gain. We stand with all judges who have the integrity and courage to act impartially and independently.
Officials designated under Section 7031(c) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2023 (Div. K, P.L. 117-328) (“Section 7031(c)”) and their immediate family members are ineligible for entry into the United States."
In many ways this is the mildest form of sanction against four Georgians who are hardly household names, either in Georgia or outside. Yet the fact that the United States decided to use the tool of sanctions against four Georgian judiciary officials for the first time, sent shock waves through Tbilisi. Many saw it as a warning shot across the bows of the Georgian Dream government, and a warning to its patron, Bidzina Ivanishvili. Jittery Georgian Dream leaders were clearly upset, and promised a re-evaluation of relations. The opposition claimed victory and said that this was only the start of what was to come.
Georgia and the US have had three decades of flourishing relations
Georgia-US relations have endured and flourished over the last three decades, and appear to be deep rooted. Georgia remains the pivot of US relations with the South Caucasus region; for Georgia, relations with the US were always seen as a counterweight to Russian pressures and shenanigans.
When Georgia regained its independence in 1991 the Gamsakhurdia government had few international contacts, but that all changed in March 1992 when Eduard Shevardnadze became the country’s leader during a time of civil war and chaos. Shevardnadze was known and respected in the United States for his role as Foreign Minister of the USSR in the Gorbachov era, and as one of the architects of the end of the cold war. The US quickly opened an embassy in Tbilisi, and explored how to help Georgia, although it took it four or five years to determine a strategy for doing so.
When Mikheil Saakashvili took over in 2004 relations developed dramatically, including at the military-security level. Washington saw Georgia as a beacon for change and reform in the post-Soviet space. President George W. Bush visited Tbilisi with a message of support, and assistance followed.
Since around 1996 the US support has been largely based on two pillars: on the one hand support for reforms mainly through civil society organisations and NGOs flourished, and became hugely influential; the second pillar was support for the military-security apparatus. It started modestly enough with the training of a core group within the State Protection Service to provide security for Eduard Shevardnadze, who was the target of several assassination attempts. It soon developed into other areas including the Armed Forces and the Security Services. The US supported a root and branch reform of the Georgian army and thousands of Georgian troops served in US led missions in Afghanistan and elsewhere. A strong bond developed between the militaries of the two countries.
US concerns about rule-of-law and democratic back-sliding
When Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream came to power in 2012 this was seen to be in many ways a vindication of US policy. Here you had for the first time a transition of power in a post-Soviet Republic, done peacefully through the ballot box. It seemed that Georgian democracy was consolidating.
Relations between Georgian Dream and the US were initially very good, and in many respects remain so. But Georgian Dream itself has in the last decade gone through various metamorphoses. First it stopped ruling through a coalition of diverse parties and personalities. Ivanishvili formally left politics after serving for a year as prime minister, then returned again to lead a purge within the party, and then left formal politics again, although no-one in Georgia believes that he is not informally still the leader of GD.
The US government started getting worried about some of the processes going on in the country, especially in areas of governance and rule of law. US officials publicly expressed concern about back-sliding, and sought to keep the GD government on the straight and narrow. But after the 2020 parliamentary elections which saw GD returning to power with a solid majority, things deteriorated leading to the introduction (and subsequent withdrawal) of the “foreign agents law” last month. That triggered the departure/expulsion from GD ranks of some of the last supporters of the strategic relationship with the US.
Imposition of sanctions will have consequences, but the storm may blow away
The imposition of sanctions now makes the rift formal. It will have consequences, and both sides have much to lose. The GD government may decide to drift further away from the US. Given that any relations with Moscow remain, in Georgian domestic political terms, toxic, its room for manoeuvre is limited. That does not mean that most Georgians want their country to become a US client state either. But it is unlikely that Georgian nationalist sensibilities are going to be disturbed by the fact that Judge Maisuradze and company cannot travel to the US. But there are always things the GD government can do, some without too much attention in the public eye, to further erode US influence. Weakening the two pillars of US engagement with Georgia is now likely to become a GD priority.
But there is also the possibility that this storm will blow away. Rumours abounded in Tbilisi over the last months about a possible restructuring of the GD government. Ivanishvili is a pragmatist and a survivor. As a shrewd and successful businessman he knows when to invest, and when to cut his losses. He understands that many Georgians think good relations with the US are essential for Georgia’s survival as a state, and they want to see a government that is able to cultivate these relations.
source: commonspace.eu editorial team
photo: Georgia Today
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