The U.S. Needs to Hold Georgia’s Shadow Boss Accountable
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In an ideal world, the U.S. president would take a few minutes to express his grave concerns about the accelerating slide into authoritarianism of the Republic of Georgia, previously a reliable ally of the West.
The world and the U.S. president are not ideal, of course. So for the moment, this important task has been left to Congress. In the last two months, the prime minister of Georgia, Giorgi Gakharia, has received three letters from U.S. lawmakers expressing alarm about the persecution of his political opponents and his reversal on a promise to enact electoral reforms. Reports that Gakharia intends to pack Georgia’s high court with new justices that will rule in his party’s favor have also earned the notice of these lawmakers, who were visited in December by a delegation of Georgian opposition leaders that called for the U.S. to vigorously protest some of the ruling party’s recent actions.
The latest and most important letter comes from Senators James Risch and Jeanne Shaheen, the Republican chairman and a Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. They wrote last week that the “political targeting of opposition leaders” is “further evidence of Georgia’s democratic backsliding.” The targeting has taken a few forms. Some members of the opposition have been physically assaulted by goons loyal to the ruling party--standard stuff for pseudo-republics and police states. Also, some judges have reopened years-old cases against opposition leaders, such as former national security adviser, Giga Bokeria.
These are real threats to what remains of Georgia’s democracy. But the biggest problem right now for Georgia is that its wealthiest citizen, Bidzina Ivanishvili, is the country’s de facto ruler. He founded and chairs the ruling party, Georgian Dream. And Gakharia serves at his pleasure.
Before becoming prime minister, Gakharia was the interior minister who ordered security forces to violently disperse Georgians protesting a symbolic affront to Georgian sovereignty: The ruling party had invited members of the Russian Duma for a parliamentary dialogue in Tbilisi. Since 2008, Russia has occupied Georgian territory in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, an understandably sore spot for Georgians. After the protests, the ruling party agreed to a series of reforms, but with the appointment of Gakharia in September, those promises have been unfulfilled.
Gakharia’s appointment is an important symbol for the current crisis. Unlike most of Georgia’s political class, he was barely in the country until recently. He only relinquished his Russian citizenship in 2013, nearly two decades after Georgia’s independence from the Soviet Union.
In light of these factors, Congress and the Trump administration would be more effective if they shared their concerns directly with Ivanishvili. One Congressional staff member who works on Georgia policy told me that members of Congress, as a rule, do not write official correspondence with private citizens.
Normally, that is a prudent practice. In the case of Georgia though, it helps reinforce the illusion that Gakharia is really in control, as opposed to Ivanishvili. Today, Ivanishvili gets a free ride. He is able to pull strings from behind the scenes without facing accountability from Georgian voters or the country’s important western allies.
As I wrote last year, the U.S. ought to consider raising the prospect that Ivanishvili himself could find his estimated $5 billion fortune, some of which is invested in the U.S., scrutinized if his party continues the slide into authoritarianism. But even if that is a step too far at the moment, it’s past time to hold Georgia’s real power broker responsible for his minions’ actions.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.