Q&A | U.S. Sanctions on Judges: What’s Next?

In early April, the US State Department took an unprecedented decision against Georgia, sanctioning four Georgian judges. We asked experts to assess the consequences of this move and whether they expect it to be have a continuation.

Laura Thornton, Senior Vice President, Democracy, German Marshall Fund:

It is a new decision for Georgia but not an unprecedented action from the State Department. To date, the international community has approached Georgia’s democratic backsliding with buckets of carrots but no sticks. Given the size of the country, Georgia has always received an enormous amount of attention and investment. Much of this has been because of Georgia’s greatest asset – its democracy. In a tricky and undemocratic region, Georgia has been a shining beacon and a trusted ally.

However, in recent years, the government has been squandering this asset. As I and others have written, the Georgian Dream government’s messages, as well as actions, have revealed a move away from both the West and democracy. GD leaders have hurled insults at EU and American leaders and diplomats, served as a sanction-evasion conduit helping Russia, failed to demonstrate minimal support for Ukraine, threatened civil society and the media, failed to reform the judiciary, and abused state resources and security services for electoral control. GD leadership knows well that embracing the democratic reforms required to join the EU family forces them to compete on a more level playing field — thus threatening their power – and therefore is drifting the country into so-called “non-aligned” territory.

The approach of the U.S. has been that of persuasion, investment, and engagement, yet the democratic situation continues to deteriorate. The introduction of the Foreign Agents law was the last straw, and now the U.S. is applying a different kind of pressure through sanctions.

The consequences are unknown. The GD government can dig in and further lash out at the West and attack democratic actors within, causing further backsliding and autocratic consolidation, or it can reevaluate its life choices and take the road to reform. I’m not convinced that sanctions on judges will be enough pressure. The Achilles heel is likely Bidzina Ivanshvili’s wealth. If the sanctions reach him, there could be a directional shift. In the meantime, it is up to the Georgian people to vote for democracy in 2024. That will be more consequential than any sanctions.

Laura Linderman, Atlantic Council

I would say that the sanctions are an accurate reflection of the judges’ complicity in corruption. I would assess this move by the US government as a warning that growing anti-western rhetoric in Georgia will be taken seriously and that these statements do have practical consequences. The move also suggests that American engagement, attention, and aid are not guaranteed or an entitlement.

Tortnike Sharashenidze, Political Scientist

We may expect new sanctions. I don’t see the US sanctioning MPs from the ruling party because they represent a constituency, the Georgian people, let’s say. I would not expect personal sanctions against Ivanishvili, either. That could be viewed as the crossing of an imaginary red line. More importantly, there is a fair chance that such sanctions will not end up in a regime change (if this is the goal the US pursues) or a major compromise on behalf of the ruling party. Instead, it could result in a serious deterioration of bilateral relations. We may expect sanctions against some Georgian businessmen close to the ruling party though. However, it still remains to be seen what the consequences are of sanctioning the judges. Only after that may we make some bold predictions.

Paata Gaprindashvili, Director, Georgia’s Reforms Associates (GRASS)

The decision of the US to sanction four Georgian judges is unfortunately damaging for Georgia’s reputation, albeit it is a logical consequence of the years of developments in Georgia, particularly in its justice system. In its recommendations, Venice Commission highlighted the issue of corporatism in the judiciary and reiterated its position in the most recent opinion concerning the latest planned reforms. According to the Venice Commission, the Supreme Council of Justice should not allow judicial corporatism to serve the personal interests of one group of judges to the detriment of others. The Venice Commission again named the elimination of corporatism in the Supreme Council of Justice as one of the main recommendations that should be included in the comprehensive reform of the Supreme Council of Justice.

The subsequent disinformation campaign claiming that the US is interfering in Georgia’s internal affairs and wants to take control of the Georgian Justice system only aggravates the tense situation in bilateral relations. With the same logic, Venice Commission and other international bodies can also be accused of actions aimed at controlling the Georgian judiciary, and talking of such a global conspiracy is ironic, to say the least. The goal of the US and Georgia’s strategic partners is to strengthen Georgia’s judiciary. Their efforts in this regard are, first and foremost, in the interests of the Georgian people.

Sanctioning Georgian judges has not been the starting point but the unfortunate and logical continuation of calls on the Georgian government to address the issues in the judiciary. Before this decision, Venice Commission underlined the problems existing in the justice system and provided relevant recommendations. The EU Commission also identified those issues and requested reforms in the judiciary as part of the 12 priorities that are essential to achieve EU membership candidate status. Henceforth, if the issue of judicial independence is not properly addressed, there could be further consequences.


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