May 4-5 CPAC Speakers’ Position on Russia and on War in Ukraine

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvilil addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Budapest, which gathers ultra-conservative politicians. Launched in 1974, the Conservative Political Action Conference is the largest and most influential gathering of conservatives that brings together activists and politicians in the U.S. For the second time this year, the conference takes place in Budapest. Last year’s conference was centered around the values of “God, Homeland, and Family.” Irakli Garibashvili is the only Prime Minister participating in the event, apart from the host, Viktor Orban. The Hungarian Prime Minister has used the war in Ukraine to pursue his own political game, choosing a “non-aligned” position. His actions have largely been aimed at weakening the EU’s response and support for Ukraine. Moreover, he has successfully used Hungary’s “non-aligned” position to extract funding from the EU.

This year’s conference, as announced by the organizers, “will concentrate on the liberals’ nightmare: the international convergence of national forces.”

Many of the speakers featured in the May 4-5 event agenda have had a history of pro-Russian stance, at best downplaying the Russian aggression against Ukraine and, at worst, resisting the pro-Ukrainian efforts in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war.

The conservative American ultra-right has had a complicated record when assessing Russian aggression against Ukraine. Let’s recall the infamous tweet by CPAC in September 2022, which called on Democrats to “end the gift-giving to Ukraine”, while featuring a fluttering Russian flag and calling the Ukrainian territories where Russia held sham referenda as “Ukraine-occupied territories”.

The tweet was taken down after several hours, following the public criticism, with CPAC Chairman Matt Schlapp, saying the tweet did not clear the normal approval process as he was traveling for a conference in Australia. Shlapp is one of the speakers at the CPAC in Budapest this year.

Another prominent speaker featured at the conference is Herbert Kickl, the leader of the radical right Freedom Party of Austria since 2021. The party supports those EU actors who challenge the Union’s common foreign policy toward Russia, notably the Hungarian leader Viktor Orban. Although the party does not outright defend Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, it criticizes Brussels and Washington’s sanctions against Russia, highlighting their impact on the Austrian economy and suggesting that the true goal of the sanctions is to weaken Russia and make Europe more dependent on Washington. The West’s actions are portrayed as ineffective and counterproductive and are blamed for escalating the conflict.

One more CPAC speaker is the former Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš who notoriously raised eyebrows among neighbors and NATO Allies by saying during the last presidential debates that he would not send troops to defend NATO allies Poland and the Baltics if they were attacked by Russia. Asked whether he would send troops if Russia attacked Poland or Baltic states, he said: “Of course not. I think we need to talk about peace”. Babiš played the fear or war card as part of his election campaign.

Another speaker at this week’s CPAC event is far-right Republican Paul Gosar, who has criticized the US support to Ukraine since the very start of the Russian invasion. He famously twitted that “Ukraine is not our friend, and Russia is not our enemy” prior to President Biden’s first trip to the war-torn nation. He also criticized President Biden for visiting Kyiv. In another of his tweets, he called US’s support for Ukraine “immoral,” writing that “the deaths continue and Ukraine (in addition to comprising Nazi regiments) has become an authoritarian regime not worthy of any support”. He wrote: “I support peace talks, not death and destruction.” He then offered to Zelensky and Putin to come to Phoenix, Arizona for peace talks.

Why this is important

Irakli Garibashvili and the ruling Georgian Dream party that he is representing have been largely criticized for having at best ambivalent policy vis-à-vis Russia and, at worst, a pro-Russian foreign policy. At the very beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, he is known to have said that sanctions against Russia don’t work and are useless, and nobody can stop Russia.

This stance has been praised by the Kremlin on several occasions. He has announced that Georgia will not join sanctions against Russia and never once visited Kyiv, in spite of the fact that Georgian Dream high-level figures often stress that Georgia was the first victim of Russia’s aggression in 2008 and understands what Ukraine is going through. For many in and outside the country, such behavior, especially when compared with Ukraine’s positioning during the 2008 Russo-Georgia war and President Viktor Yuschenko’s arrival in the midst of the 2008 war in Tbilisi to show support, is treacherous and unacceptable.

Georgia’s positioning regarding Russia’s war against Ukraine has become a pronounced concern for Georgia’s international partners. Coupled with the autocratic tendencies, divisive and inflammatory rhetoric, the dissolution of the so-called Charles-Michel agreement in 2021, pogroms against journalists of July 5, 2021, crack-down on civil society (including the recent attempt at adopting the “Foreign Agents law”), cozying up to ultra-conservative groups within and outside the country, and finally the lack of reforms and regress in democratization, have significantly damaged the reputation of the ruling party.

Participation in the CPAC event further highlights the ultra-conservative and authoritarian leaning of the PM and his government. This has become the cause of concern for the Party of European Socialists/PES in which the Georgian Dream holds observer status. At the meeting earlier this week, the PES Executive Secretary General Giacomo Filibeck said: “If a Prime Minister from a PES Observer member party wants to share values with Viktor Orbán and the American Conservative Political Action Conference, then we need to discuss the status of this party officially.” This is not the first time that PES expressed its concern about Georgian Dream’s political alignment and values; the issue was earlier raised by PES President Stefan Löfven at the previous presidency meeting in March this year. It is expected that the issue of Georgian Dream’s membership in the party will be discussed in June this year at the next PES meeting. Not surprisingly, Garibashvili’s participation in CPAC has been decried and criticized by European politicians and Members of the European Parliament.

According to the latest IRI polls, only 19% of respondents would vote for the Georgian Dream as their first choice in the elections, which is an all-time low for the party. Now it seems that GD’s popularity is rapidly declining not only at home but abroad as well.

This post is also available in: ქართული (Georgian) Русский (Russian)

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