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Occupied by Jelger GroeneveldOp-edsOpinion

Op-Ed | Georgian Dream Deliberately Frustrates Western Friends

By Jelger Groeneveld, Dutch D66 party, Board Member International Cooperation Division


Friday would have marked the 50th day of Mikheil Saakashvili’s hunger strike in state captivity, amidst mounting concerns of his health condition and refusal of government authorities to transfer the former president to a civilian hospital, against all advice. Under pressure, the Georgian authorities gave in on their refusal, by allowing Saakashvili to be transferred to the well-equipped military hospital in Gori. Saakashvili announced an end to his hunger strike.

Apart from the moral appeals to “just do the responsible thing,” as rightfully expressed by former U.S. Ambassador to Georgia, Ian Kelly, there is a legal and political side to it. This case touches on the willingness of the Georgian government to comply unconditionally and intrinsically with the international rules based order and conventions it signed up for. And in a broader sense how it envisions the membership of values-, norms- and rules based frameworks it is member of, but also seeks, such as the EU.

Legally speaking, a refusal to transfer Saakashvili to a hospital that is equipped and skilled to deal with his condition amounts to the neglect of the state’s duty of care to which prisoners are also entitled. Ultimately, this could be considered inhuman and degrading, especially when other aspects are considered such as the video releases with the sole intent of public humiliation.

The Georgian Public Defender and her medical council concluded Saakashvili should be transferred to a civilian clinic as the prison hospital is not equipped nor skilled to provide the care required, for which she was scolded by Georgian Dream leader Kobakhidze. A refusal to transfer Saakashvili to a civilian hospital against these recommendations is at odds with UN and ECHR treaties and a 2013 ECtHR ruling.

In 2013 the European Court of Human Rights established Ukraine violated articles 2 and 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, when it denied a prisoner timely access to the health care level he required, equal to ordinary citizens. It also established the State avoided primary responsibility to ensure the right to health care and protect the life of those in detention, which ultimately amounts to an inhuman and degrading treatment.

Last week, the ECtHR extended an interim measure, recognizing the danger of irreparable damage to Saakashvili’s life and called on the Georgian State to provide “appropriate medical assistance.” This must be seen as a clear warning by the leading human rights body of Europe towards Georgia’s compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Georgian Dream government has been obsessed with persecuting its political rival UNM, and specifically former President Saakashvili after the party and president democratically handed over power in 2012 and 2013 respectively. This obsession seems to blind the government for international law commitments. Only external pressure seems to push this compliance.

The Georgian Dream government has been obsessed with persecuting its political rival UNM…This obsession seems to blind the government for international law commitments.

But that is not everything. Last October, after a critical statement by five Members of the European Parliament, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili lashed out at them, saying “let everyone take care of their own country, nobody can stand in the way of fulfilling the law and justice in this country.”

The problem is that many question whether Georgia is actually doing just that, “fulfilling law and justice,” including the EU which noted “challenges remain with regard to the independence and accountability of the judiciary” in the 2021 Association Implementation Report on Georgia.

Throughout 2021, the Georgian Government has taken a hostile and verbally aggressive stance towards European and American constructively critical remarks. It repeatedly insulted the relentless mediation efforts by EU and U.S. to seek compromise during political crises between ruling and opposition parties.

Throughout 2021, the Georgian Government has taken a hostile and verbally aggressive stance towards European and American constructively critical remarks.

A week is not complete without insulting a European diplomat or politician, so it seems. Last week, Polish MEP Anna Fotyga was refused to visit Saakashvili in prison. Upon her criticism, Georgian Dream party Chair Irakli Kobakhidze literally said she is a lobbyist for criminals, that Georgia should distinct friends from foes of the country, implying critical MEPs are the latter.

This summer, Tbilisi Mayor Kaladze also said “everyone shall mind their own country, and we [Georgians] will somehow manage to implement reforms and [achieve] our country to become a fully-fledged member of the European Union very soon”, when the Estonian president expressed realism on the timeline of Georgia’s EU membership ambitions.

Besides the fact that “somehow implementing reforms” does not sound like having a clear plan and roadmap (because there is no such thing), it is precisely the openness to the feedback loop of European friends that is required to achieve the level of reform needed for EU membership. Especially in the timeframe Georgian Dream is dreaming about.

What we see here is a fundamental shift away from maintaining constructive relationships with its western friends towards deliberately frustrating them. This shift has been going on for a while, but became more explicit when Irakli Garibashvili returned as Prime Minister, and it seemed to have been the reason Giorgi Gakharia quitted.

The EU members have laid out a set of political, moral and legal rules, norms and values enshrined in the EU Treaty. Every single member state has to comply with that and receives judgement when non-compliance or other flaws are identified.

In a partnership like this it is essential members keep each other to that and be frank about it, in order to maintain a reliable and trustworthy partnership. There is no room to unilaterally and selectively withdraw from those norms, values and rules whenever it suits, like Poland or Hungary do. “Everyone shall mind their own country,” as expressed by the Prime Minister effectively denounces the authority of this international values, norms and rules based order.

Within the EU it is every member state’s business what happens in one of the other members on issues that concerns all members, such as the application of the rule of (international) law, and keep each other accountable. This is the core of what membership of the EU means. It is everyone’s business. This is a concept that the Georgian government has chosen to denounce.

Which brings up the question whether the Georgian government is serious about its expressed ambition of EU membership. What kind of country does Georgia want to be, and what kind of member does it aspire to be within the EU?

The signal Georgia sends in 2021 is that it would mirror Poland or Hungary, denouncing the authority of the rules, values and norms based order.

The signal Georgia sends in 2021 is that it would mirror Poland or Hungary, denouncing the authority of the rules, values and norms based order. If one thing is clear in Brussels, they are not interested in such new members. But as good friends, they offer direction, guidance and critical feedback. The hard work however, has to be done in Georgia.

The foes of Georgia are not in Brussels or Washington.

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