As the new year begins, the world faces a reality that is drastically different from that of 12 months ago.
The major lines are still there -- we are still dealing with a pandemic, democratic institutions around the world are under threat, climate change remains a major challenge for humanity, and Russia is still seeking to destroy international order. And yet, nothing is the same.
With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the world has seen with its own eyes the true brutality of the Kremlin, something we in Georgia had been warning about since 2008. We’ve also seen the strength of the unity and resilience of the Ukrainian people, fighting for its independence and freedom.
The response by the Western world has been one of true unity. Putin sought to divide Europe and instead, the European Union came together and showed that through togetherness, it could meet the most dangerous challenges. In June 2022, the European Council granted Ukraine and Moldova the EU membership candidacy status and this has been one of the most concrete proofs of solidarity and ambition.
Georgia was left out.
In July 2021, when the Presidents of Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova signed a joint declaration pledging for cooperation on the path to European integration under the watch of European Council President Charles Michel, Georgia was largely seen to be at the head of the pack, implementing democratic reforms since 2004. But within a year, Georgia was left behind.
We were given until the end of 2022 to adopt a series of reforms and make steps to fulfill 12 recommendations issued by the European Commission. Among them figured electoral reform to make sure the next elections would be free and fair, judicial reform to put an end to the cabal of centralised decision-makers that threaten Georgian democracy, an end to public corruption, freedom of the media, moves towards depolarisation and deoligarchisation, strengthening civil society involvement in public decisions, and electing a new Public Defender through an independent process.
Instead of these reforms, the Georgian people has witnessed a struggle between the ruling party and the President over selecting a new Chair of the Central Election Commission, the judicial clan gained new powers and its most controversial figures were appointed to higher positions, government-affiliated media and organizations have launched public attacks against civil society organisations, and Parliament failed to elect a new Public Defender.
Meanwhile, Nika Gvaramia, the founder of opposition channel Mtavari Arkhi, remains in prison. His sentence has been condemned by civil society and our Western partners.
The country remains gripped with the fate of former President Mikheil Saakashvili, in prison for more than a year and whose health continues to deteriorate. Recent revelations that traces of arsenic and mercury found in his system may be tied to poisoning have led to nationwide and international calls for his transfer abroad for treatment, calls that have been ignored by the Georgian government. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has joined those calls.
On December 14th, the European Parliament adopted a report calling for the release of Saakashvili, on Georgian leaders to stop its “aggressive verbal attacks” on European politicians, and addressing the many issues where Georgia continues to fail in democratic progress.
Meanwhile, the ruling party has used procedural tactics to strip the parliamentary opposition from its leverage by removing one by one the mandates of elected MPs.
To be clear, the death of Mikheil Saakashvili in prison benefits one and one person only: Vladimir Putin.
And these developments take place at a time when the international community has raised concerns about where Georgia stands in the midst of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Georgia itself suffers from the occupation of 20% of its territories by the Kremlin, regular kidnappings of our citizens, dire violations of human rights in the occupied territories, the “borderization” crisis that sees Russian forces erect barbed wires in the heart of Georgian land to divide Georgian households and villages. But the Prime Minister of Georgia has publicly stated his refusal to join sanctions on Russia, the Georgian economy has become increasingly dependent on the Russian market in 2022. Instead of showing public signs of solidarity towards Ukraine, Georgian government officials continue to refuse to name Russia as an aggressor, spend more time bashing Ukrainian leaders, and have even threatened to strip the citizenship of Georgian volunteers fighting for Ukraine.
Georgia is at a crossroads. The path to European integration has never been as open as it is now for Georgia, yet we keep failing on grabbing this opportunity.
We need to realise that candidacy to the European Union will remain but a desire of the Georgian people as long as the judiciary remains in the hands of one man, the oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, as long as corruption continues to be rampant in the high levels of government, as long as there is no guarantee for the next elections to be held in a free and fair environment, as long as Mikheil Saakashvili and Nika Gvaramia remain in prison, and as long as the Georgian authorities continue to give mixed signals on where its foreign allegiance stands.
Europe should know that it holds a strong friend in the people of Georgia. Polls have continuously shown that 80% of the population wants to be part of the European family. And that support will not end, no matter the rhetoric issued and the steps taken by a misguided government.
Khatia Dekanoidze is a member of the Parliament of Georgia, and the Chairwoman of the Strength is in Unity parliamentary group, the largest opposition group in Parliament. She served as Chief of the National Police of Ukraine in 2015-2016 and as Minister of Education and Science in Georgia in 2012.