What is happening?
The ruling “Georgian Dream” doubled down on contesting the credibility of Georgia’s established CSO watchdogs. The radical fringe of the parliamentary majority is driving the conspiracy narrative about CSOs serving as destructive “foreign agents”.
Driving the news:
On 13 September chairperson of the ruling “Georgian Dream” Irakli Kobakhidze weighed in personally on expanding criticism of CSOs and claimed that:
- The watchdogs are incompetent but rich, and “the only thing that differentiates these CSOs [Transparency International – Georgia (TI-Georgia) and ISFED] is the riches, they are richer than the others, and are funded from various sources.”
- They are acting against the state: “they receive millions, tens of millions […] directed against the state, against the government, on planning the campaigns for ‘technical government'”
- These organizations “come out with […] political demands and they display their political ambition, they have a particular moral obligation to show a high degree of transparency to the public.”
He went on to say that “their budgets are completely opaque, and the public does not have any information about this”. MP Kobakhidze argued that this alleged lack of transparency creates risks for Georgia as a “small state, [which is] vulnerable to various types of risks.”
A coordinated campaign:
Chairperson Kobakhidze’s statement has culminated the campaign, apparently built around the same keywords of “rich”, “non-transparent”, “political ambitions”:
- On 11 September, ruling mouthpiece, Imedi TV aired report titled “Clan of Rich CSOs” arguing, apparently based on examining CSO websites, that several key organizations do not transparently report about their funding.
- On 12 September, the ruling party spokesperson, MP Mamuka Mdinaradze, picked up on the report of Imedi TV, re-used the trope “rich NGOs” and said that these organizations have “much more funding than most of the [political] parties,” which, he claimed, has been used for a “campaign against the state, against the government.”
- On the same day, Chairperson of the Legal Affairs Committee, MP Anri Okhanashvili argued there are “question marks” regarding the financial transparency of CSOs, and criticized some of them for being “directly engaged in political agenda-setting”.
Are there practical restrictions?
Yes. The ruling party has been restricting the ability of targeted CSOs to participate in working groups designed to elaborate proposals for meeting the European Union’s 12 requirements for granting Georgia the candidacy.
- 18 August: the ruling party refused participation of the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED), the leading watchdog, in the working group on election legislation.
- 13 September: Chairperson Kobakhidze said “there would be no space [for TI-Georgia and ISFED] in any consultative process.”
Context for the ruling party discontent
The recent confrontation of the ruling party with CSOs is inscribed in the context of Georgia’s failed bid to receive the EU candidate status. As the European Commission was reviewing Georgia’s application, the ruling party Chairperson called one of the CSO experts “an extension of the party of war” for a relatively critical report on the government’s efforts to comply with the EU criteria.
In the run-up to, and following the decision of the Council of the European Union to recognize Georgia’s membership ambition, but to delay granting the candidacy status until after twelve specific recommendations were met, CSOs have played the key role in organizing large-scale rallies in support of the European future in the capital, Tbilisi, which were highly critical of the government.
During the rallies, a proposal was voiced to create the National Unity Government with technocratic membership to facilitate the fulfillment of the EU recommendations on a highly participatory basis. The ruling party saw this as a direct challenge, and chairperson Kobakhidze said this proposal was an attempt to create “a junta”.
- Read this: Our Scrapbook | Whether National Unity Government? gives you the timeline regarding the National Unity Government proposal.
Pretexts for CSO exclusion
The ruling party argues that the participation in organizing pro-European rallies disqualifies the CSOs from the policy process, since they took up a “partisan role” and “violated neutrality”.
- Since the National Unity Government proposal was presented by civic activists, “Georgian Dream” argues that the watchdogs, such as ISFED, have engaged in “delegitimizing the government” and thus can not pretend to work in expert capacity.
- The ruling party also paints the error in Parallel Vote Tabulation by ISFED in 2020, as a deliberate effort to trigger “the revolutionary processes” in the country.
- References to being parts of “the party of war” levelled by the ruling party against TI-Georgia and others, point to the long-standing position of the “Georgian Dream” that many stronger CSOs work on behalf of the opposition – namely the United National Movement – to discredit the government and undermine Georgia’s EU aspirations.
Linking to conspiracy narrative
The new wave of efforts to limit civic participation space is linked to the conspiracy narrative, that internal and external enemies of Georgia are conspiring to drag the country into military confrontation with Russia. This narrative has been gaining increasing traction in the “Georgian Dream” since the new wave of Russian aggression against Ukraine started on 24 February.
The narrative got its institutional face, after four MPs formally split from the ruling party, albeit remaining in the governing coalition in the parliament. Their claim to “speak freely” amounts to articulating more radical messages than GD, which nonetheless are regularly amplified by the ruling party-influenced media and subsequently selectively endorsed by the Georgian Dream Chairperson and the Prime Minister.
- GD Split-off MPs: EU Candidacy “Mousetrap” for Government
- Georgian PM Upholds “War Blackmail” Narrative, Backs Dissident MPs, Slams Opposition
- GD Chair Sees Connection Between Joining War, EU Candidacy
- GD Denies it Accused U.S. of Nudging Georgia Towards War
- As Ivanishvili Battles Swiss Bank, GD Hints at U.S. Pushing Georgia into War
In this conspiracy narrative, CSOs are portrayed as one of the forces, which is orchestrated by the U.S. and “standing behind the radicalization agenda and the artificial polarization”, as the four MPs wrote in their 26 August address, published on the Parliament website. Incidentally, the mentioned four MPs sometimes amplify the messages of the even more radical fringe of the Georgian politics. On 8 September, their new address on the Parliament website, explicitly endorsed reports on fringe-nativist websites that the U.S. has implanted its “agents” through political parties and CSOs. MPs claimed that “in 2000s, alongside the Russian agent network, the U.S. agents became a serious threat to [Georgia’s] sovereignty.”