03.11.23 Review

Euromaidan in lieu of Eurointegration? The pro-Russian leanings of the Georgian authorities may become a source of intense conflict surrounding the parliamentary elections in Georgia next year

While 80-90% of Georgia's population supports the country's accession to the European Union, the ruling party and government are increasingly at odds with the EU, seeking closer ties with Moscow and mobilising conservative forces within Georgia. Meanwhile, the protests in March 2023 against the Russian-style 'foreign agents’ law, unveiled a new political force in Georgia — the ‘Gen Z’ youth, for whom the EU represents a genuine ideal of values and politics, while Russia is viewed as a source of humiliation and threat. This polarisation of pro-Russian and pro-European sentiments within Georgia is somewhat reminiscent of the situation in Ukraine in the lead-up to the Euromaidan protests. The 2024 Georgian parliamentary elections, which will see first-time voters from Gen Z, could potentially turn into a field of intense political conflict and street protests. The outcome of these elections will play a significant role in determining Georgia's positioning between Russia and the EU.

By the end of the year, the European Commission is expected to provide recommendations to EU member states on Georgia's candidacy for EU membership. A positive assessment would be a significant step towards full membership. In Tbilisi, the European Union flag has become a common sight, adorning clothing, vehicles, cafes, and even the entrance to the Georgian Parliament. Public opinion surveys continue to show overwhelming support for the country's accession to the EU, with levels reaching as high as 89% in some 2023 polls.

However, tension has been recently rising between the Georgian government and the EU. In the year and a half since applying for EU membership, the government has only fulfilled three out of the twelve necessary requirements. According to a December 2022 survey, 18% of those surveyed believe that the government is doing nothing to draw the country closer to the EU, while 38% think it is not doing enough. Experts argue that Georgia's ruling 'Georgian Dream' party, which has been in power since 2012, is pursuing increasingly authoritarian, pro-Russian, and anti-Western policies. Western funds in Georgia have been accused of training political forces to stage a potential coup, and attacks on the actions and activists of the LGBT community lack proper condemnation from the government and face minimal resistance from the police. The slow pace of pro-European reforms is largely attributed to the Georgian elite's reluctance to upset Russia. The failed attempt by the ruling party to impeach the country's president, Nino Zurabishvili, who was accused of unauthorised trips to European countries, is yet another manifestation of the political tensions within the country. All of these developments stem from Georgian Dream's desire to strengthen its domestic position, particularly through improved relations with Moscow (for more on this see Re:Russia’s report on ‘The “Georgian Dream” Cycle).

The political situation in Georgia is further complicated by the low popularity of opposition parties. In a recent survey, only 13% of respondents said that they trust Georgian political parties 'in principle', while 39% said they 'definitely' do not trust them. Against this backdrop, political analysts have observed a new phenomenon on the Georgian political scene. According to political scientists Nino Samkharadze and Bidzina Lebanidze in their article for PONARS Eurasia, recent protests against the 'foreign agent' law were led by what is known as 'Gen Z', which sidelined the institutional opposition and forced the government to withdraw the proposed law. These protests began as decentralised, leaderless events, more akin to a series of performances. Importantly, the protesters distanced themselves from the institutional opposition and did not allow it to lead the movement.

The supporters and participants of this movement are largely those born in the early or mid-2000s, who are focused on placing non-violent forms of pressure on the government, and are actively engaged in Georgia's digital political space. Their key marker is the European idea, which they see as the only future for Georgia's values, in stark contrast to 'Russification', which they perceive as a threat to these values, particularly in terms of a fundamental regression from democracy toward authoritarianism.

The situation in Georgia bears a resemblance to the events in Ukraine in the early 2010s, which culminated in the Euromaidan protests. With the addition of over 200,000 young voters to the Georgian electorate ahead of the 2024 parliamentary elections, which is a significant number for a country with a population of less than four million, there is a potential for increased political polarisation and the politicisation of this new generation, driven by recent protests. Against this backdrop, the 2024 elections could become a battleground for intense political conflict and further protests, which would have implications not only within Georgia but also in defining Georgia's position between the EU and Russia.