Thousands of Georgians took to the streets recently to protest the passage of the “Foreign Agent Draft Law” by the Georgian parliament. Georgians protested the bill, originating from the Russian Foreign Agent Law, that intended to undermine democratic freedoms in the country while quashing Georgia’s efforts to integrate into Euro-Atlantic institutions.
What Is the Bill That Caused So Much Trouble?
This proposed bill has been widely viewed as an attempt by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, the puppet master of the Georgian Dream ruling party, to strengthen his oligarchic regime in Georgia, undermine democratic processes in the country, and distance it from the West while demonstrating his loyalty to the Kremlin. The draft legislation encouraged leaders from Brussels and Washington to support protesters while Moscow threw its weight behind its vassal regime in Tbilisi.
Time for Sanctions Against Georgian Anti-democratic Oligarch
For this and other transgressions against individual liberties and democracy, the United States and the European Union must sanction Ivanishvili and his inner circle, including those who voted for the Foreign Agent Draft Law. This will help bring Georgia back on its democratic and Euro-Atlantic path. Both sides of the Atlantic have extensive experience in successfully imposing sanctions on individuals in Ukraine, Moldova, and Russia who have done the Kremlin’s bidding. These rogues have tried to disrupt democratic processes in their respective countries. The punitive measures will weaken the oligarch’s political clout, decrease Russian influence in the country, and diminish Moscow’s chances of circumventing its own western sanctions. The sanctions imposed on Bidzina Ivanishvili’s oligarchy will encourage democratic forces in the country to revive and accelerate Georgia’s democratic development and its Euro-Atlantic integration process.
Sanctions Can Be Effective
The global hunt for Russian oligarchs and their ill-gained assets in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shown that the potential for oligarchs to enter into corrupt and illegal deals is growing. From the United States to the European Union, and the Indo-Pacific, governments have taken bold and unprecedented steps to sanction, freeze, and seize assets owned by Russian oligarchs linked to the Kremlin. Ivanishvili’s quarrel with Credit Suisse Bank could mean that Georgia’ informal ruler may not be an exception to these measures after all.
Ivanishvili Runs Everything
Many oligarchs influence political, economic, and financial decisions. They own colossal mansions, exotic yachts, expensive football teams, or entire businesses sectors inside or outside of their countries. However, Bidzina Ivanishvili owns the whole country. He exerts total control over Georgia’s judicial, legislative, and executive branches as well as its financial and economic structures. No major political, economic, or strategic decision is made in Tbilisi without his approval.
Georgia Has Entered Russia’s Orbit
Since ascending to power in 2012, Ivanishvili has been cozying up to the Kremlin while subverting Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic orientation. After officially leaving politics in 2013, he gradually managed to hide his Russia-friendly policies. By incorporating pro-western political parties into his political coalition and promising to embrace pro-western policies, he gained the West’s blessing for voting out President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government and garnered sizable public support in Georgia. As Ivanishvili consolidated political power, he dumped his pro-western partners, alienated Georgia’s long-standing friends in the West, and deepened his ties with Moscow, while undermining Georgia’s integration process into the western institutions.
Georgian Oligarch Is Crafty
The global context has also played into the hands of the oligarch as he advanced his personal and narrow party interests domestically. The combination of factors such as Europe’s internal divisions, America’s strategic recalibration to the Indo-Pacific, and the West’s non-existent policy toward the region gave Ivanishvili ample opportunity to increase his grip on power. As he failed to deliver on his promise of democratic transformation and economic prosperity, he rigged elections; increased pressure on the free media; subjugated the judicial system; pushed out western investments; and imprisoned political opponents.
Waging Information Warfare
In parallel, with his intention to shape public opinion, he has heavily relied on covert social media operations, using Georgian Dream troll factories to discredit the West, shaping perceptions and attitudes in favor of Moscow’s interests. In 2020, the Atlantic Council reported that Facebook had removed 511 pages, 191 accounts, 122 groups, and 56 Instagram pages involved in coordinated activity to discredit pro-western opposition politicians in Georgia while guiding users towards pro-Russian and anti-western content.
In less than a decade, the oligarch-backed Georgian Dream transformed the country from being the poster child for democracy to seeking points for partnership and areas for cooperation with Putin’s Russia.
Oligarch Turns Georgia Away from the West
Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine turned the tide against Ivanishvili. The sanctions on the Russian oligarchic class brought Georgia’s informal ruler into the loop of the international community as the punitive measures narrowed the room for him to maneuver, forcing him to unveil that his loyalty lies toward the Kremlin. Consequently, under his directives, the ruling party not only refused to join the western sanctions but began a robust anti-western propaganda campaign, accusing the West of meddling in Georgia’s domestic affairs and blaming both the EU and the U.S. for opening a new war front in Georgia. By openly lashing out at the West, the ruling party confirmed its pro-Kremlin bias while laying the groundwork for the passage of the Foreign Agent Law, a tool for political repression and, ultimately, a change of Georgia’s strategic orientation.
Georgia Copies Russian Law
In attempting to pass the Foreign Agent Law, the Georgian Dream intended to suppress Georgia’s civil society, independent media, western-funded NGOs, journalists, bloggers, human rights activists, and other remnants of the Georgian democracy while damaging Georgia’s prospects for Euro-Atlantic integration. By labeling them as foreign agents, reminiscent of the “enemies of people” in the Soviet Union, the ruling party would stigmatize, demonize, investigate, imprison, and silence those the regime felt were threatening.
Although the legislation failed to go forward, due to the widespread protests and the western criticism, the government’s reversal on the bill seems to be temporary, and a tactical setback rather than the final decision. The Georgia Dream’s recent statement that as the “emotional background subsides,” it would revisit the issue. This indicates that the party retreated not because they changed their minds about the draft law, but because they were caught unprepared to cope with the public and international pressure the legislature provoked.
It Is Time to Act
The recent events have shown that the Ivanishvili regime threatens not only Georgia’s democratic development and country’s western future, but the West’s current policy toward Russia. Ivanishvili’s informal rule and his recent steps will pose a serious challenge to the western attempts to isolate Russia politically, economically, and financially.
As the sanctions against Russia start biting, Moscow will invest more in utilizing Georgian seaports, airspace, and land routes to restock its military machine with the revenues from the sales of sanctioned products such as oil, natural gas, coal, and gold. Furthermore, the Kremlin-Georgian Dream cooperation will assist Russia to replenish its economy with banned goods essential for the survival of Russia’s economic and military structure.
Create a New Path for Georgia
The United States can’t afford to lose Georgia and see Tbilisi helping Moscow avoid sanctions while deviating from its democratic and Euro-Atlantic path.
The United States must send a clear message to Bidzina Ivanishvili that there will be consequences for his actions that undermine Georgia’s democratic development and its Euro-Atlantic integration while helping Russia circumvent western sanctions.
The United States should either authorize the Global Magnitsky Sanctions program or extend its Russia sanction package to Ivanishvili, his inner circle, and those who voted for the legislation. In this regard, Washington must employ concrete forms of punishment by focusing on specific entities, transactions, and individuals. For example, the U.S. sanctions package used against the Moldovan oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc could be an excellent tool. The sanctions should include travel restrictions, asset freezes, financial transactions, and other forms of restrictive measures.
Assisting Georgia to blunt the powers of Ivanishvili, return to its democratic track, and avoid being part of Russia’s sanctions evasion, requires quick, coordinated, and well-thought-out action. It is time for the U.S. and the EU to move quickly. The sanctions will degrade the key instruments of Bidzina Ivanishvili’s power, and impose acute and immediate harm on his financial empire while holding him and his henchmen accountable. Hence, Georgia’s swift mitigation efforts against oligarchs will deal a great blow to the Russian efforts to put in place sanction evasion schemes in Georgia. This means Georgia could stop its democratic backsliding while getting Tbilisi back on track toward capacity building and Euro-Atlantic integration.
Mirian Popkhadze is a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia Program. He was the Georgian Ministry of Defense Representative to the United Nations from 2015 to 2019. Prior to this assignment, he served as the Assistant Defense Attaché at the Embassy of Georgia to the United States in Washington, DC. Popkhadze was a non-resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council of Georgia in Tbilisi.
Serving as 19FortyFive’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.