Less than a year ago, Georgia followed Ukraine and Moldova on to the path of EU accession. The European Commission, after an initial delay, offered the country in the South Caucasus candidate status, the first step on the road to membership of the region bloc of twenty-seven member states. The government billed it as triumph for the country’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations. Yet months later, the Georgian people have once again found themselves on the streets fighting to defend this vision of the future.

Over the last two weeks, tens of thousands of ordinary Georgians have flooded the streets in front of parliament, and on to Liberty Square in central Tbilisi, to protest against the re-emergence of what they describe as a threat to their democracy. This threat is the Foreign Agents Act, a bill introduced for the second time – protests last year halted the governments first attempts to pass it – that would see all organisations that receive foreign funding forced to register with the government and subjected to arbitrary inspections by government officials. The bill is seen as a major problem for the democratic process in Georgia, as it will disproportionately affect those NGOs that are fighting for Georgia’s place in the EU and NATO.

Protestors have nicknamed the draft legislation the “Russian Law”, as it is almost a word for word copy of legislation introduced by the Kremlin in 2012 that all but ended the ability for organisations like Radio Free Europe, the National Endowment for Democracy, and USAID from operating in the country. It resulted in the unlawful arrest of dozens of think tank staff and journalists who had been working towards the democratisation of Russia.

Civil society groups in Georgia, ranging from those working on investigating the crimes committed during the country’s communist past, to those providing legal advice to vulnerable women risk being shuttered by the new law.

Yet this behaviour by the Georgian Dream-led government should be anything but a surprise, the country has for many years been backsliding away from its democratic path. Opposition politicians have been openly physically attacked in the streets, protestors arrested without due process – detained for months without trail under the country’s soviet era judicial practices, and minority groups have seen their rights under the law shrink.

A decade ago, Georgia was seen as something of a success story when it came to the South Caucasus. Under the leadership of President Saakashvili, the country looked as though it was moving closer to the West – with the army taking part in NATO training programmes, and government departments undergoing reforms to bring them in line with European practices. Even the police received an overhaul, with a transition away from the militarised Soviet style to a brand new civilian police force, housed in glass offices for the sake of symbolic transparency. Even an invasion from Russia in 2008 seemed not to shake the Georgian people’s desire to return to the West, but rather emboldened them.

It has therefore come as something of a surprise to those who do not follow the region’s politics that Georgia has regressed. A large part of the problem, according to Georgians, is that they feel the West allowed itself to become complacent and distracted. Whilst Georgia had been a first order country that had attracted the support of the US, EU, and UK in the early years of its restored independence, over the years attentions have drifted. It has sunk from a high priority country to a low one.

As such less resources have been given to support its democratisation, and fewer politicians speak up about affairs inside the nation. Even the arrest of former reforming President Saakashvili drew little response from the Foreign Office or State Department.

This complacency has come to serve the ruling Georgian Dream party well. A lack of attention has allowed them to push through autocratic and oligarchic changes to the country’s tax code, legal system, and constitution – effectively cementing the party’s grasp on power. Most recently the billionaire de-facto leader of Georgian Dream, Bidzina Ivanishvili, has used his party to amend the tax code to allow him to repatriate his assets ahead of expected sanctions.

Equally, the Georgian Dream Party has mastered the art of saying one thing to the West and another at home. Whilst it presents itself abroad and online (in English) as a progressive pro-European force, at home it peddles disinformation about the war in Ukraine, about shadowy foreign support for civil society and has even attempted to rehabilitate the image of Joseph Stalin.

This ability to spread disinformation is made all the easier by the fact that the six largest media outlets in the country are controlled by oligarchs linked the ruling party, and that funds provided by the UK and EU have been used to pay for social media troll farms. A study by Meta last year found that the within Georgia, the Georgian government itself was the number one source for Russian disinformation.

Some in the West may ask what the point in worrying about backsliding and oligarchy in a country like Georgia might be – but the reality is that the country sits on an important strategic crossroads. Positioned between the Black Sea and Azerbaijan, Georgia may yet become an important transiting country for oil and natural gas from the Caspian Sea. In 2023, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen flew to Baku to negotiate with the Azeri government on the establishment of a new strategic gas line from the country to the Balkans.

The principle aim of the new agreement is to pipe natural gas from Azerbaijan and Central Asia to Europe, through Georgia and Turkey, as a means of ending the EU’s dangerous dependence on Russian gas. The so called “Middle Corridor” would pave the way for the diversification of Europe’s energy supply. However, a pro-Russian regime in Georgia would pose a strategic threat to the plan, especially if they decided not to allow resources to transit the country.

At the same time, Georgia’s path towards EU accession has long been seen as a way of encouraging other countries in the region towards a more democratic path. Since late 2023, Armenia has slowly but surely been hinting at its own desire to join the European Union and NATO, as a means of moving away from Russia’s hold over the country. However, should Georgia backslide towards the Russian sphere, Armenia too will be damned to remain within its orbit as well. 

Write to us with your comments to be considered for publication at letters@reaction.life