Civil.ge | Brief | Ruling party challenges civic space
What is happening?
The “Georgian Dream” decision doubled down on its challenge to the credibility of Georgia-based CSO watchdogs. The radical fringe of the parliamentary majority is behind the conspiracy rhetoric about CSOs serving as destructive ‘foreign agents’.
Driving the news:
On September 13, the chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party, Irakli Kobakhidze personally weighed on broadening criticism of CSOs and asserted that:
- Guard dogs are incompetent but richand “the only thing that differentiates these CSOs [Transparency International – Georgia (TI-Georgia) and ISFED] is wealth, they are richer than others, and are funded from various sources.
- They are act against the state“they receive millions, tens of millions […] directed against the state, against the government, on planning campaigns for ‘technical government'”
- These organizations “to go out with […] political demands and display their political ambition, they have a moral obligation to demonstrate great transparency vis-à-vis the public.
He went on to say that “their budgets are completely opaque, and the public has no information about it.” 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:
President Kobakhidze’s statement culminated the campaign, apparently built around the same keywords of “rich”, “non-transparent”, “political ambitions”:
- September 11, government spokesperson, Imedi TV broadcast report titled “Clan of Rich CSOs” arguing, apparently based on the review of CSO websites, that several key organizations do not transparently account for their funding.
- On September 12, ruling party spokesman MP Mamuka Mdinaradze picked up the Imedi TV report, reused the “wealthy NGO” trope and said that these organizations have “much more funding than most [political] parties”, which he said was used for a “campaign against the state, against the government”.
- On the same day, the Chairman of the Legal Affairs Committee, MP Anri Okhanashvili, argued that there were “question marks” regarding the financial transparency of CSOs, and criticized some of them for being “directly involved in defining the political agenda”.
Are there any practical restrictions?
Yes. The ruling party has restricted the ability of targeted CSOs to participate in working groups designed to develop proposals to meet the European Union’s 12 requirements for granting Georgia’s candidacy.
- August 18: the ruling party has refused the participation of the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED), the main watchdog, in the working group on electoral legislation.
- September 13: President Kobakhidze said “there will be no space [for TI-Georgia and ISFED] in any consultation process.
Context of ruling party discontent
The ruling party’s recent confrontation with CSOs comes against the backdrop of the failed offer to receive EU candidate status. As the European Commission considered Georgia’s application, the ruling party chairman called one of the civil society experts “an extension of the war partyfor a relatively critical report on the government’s efforts to comply with EU criteria.
In view of and following the decision of the Council of the European Union to recognize Georgia’s membership ambition, but to delay the granting of candidate status only after twelve specific recommendations were met, CSOs played a key role in organizing large gatherings in favor of the European future in the capital, Tbilisi, who were very critical of the government.
During the rallies, a proposal was made to create the national unity government with technocratic members to facilitate the implementation of EU recommendations on a highly participatory basis. The ruling party saw this as a direct challenge, and President Kobakhidze said the proposal was an attempt to create “a junta”.
The pretexts for the exclusion of CSOs
The ruling party claims that participating in the organization of pro-EU rallies disqualifies CSOs from the political process because they have assumed a “partisan role” and “violated neutrality”.
- Since the national unity government proposal was put forward by civic activists, ‘Georgian Dream’ argues that watchdogs, such as ISFED, are committed to ‘delegitimising the government’ and therefore cannot claim work as experts.
- The ruling party also paints the error in the tabulation of parallel votes by ISFED in 2020as a deliberate effort to trigger “revolutionary processes” in the country.
- References to being part of the “war party” by the ruling party against TI-Georgia and others indicate that the long-standing position of the “Georgian dream” that many more powerful CSOs are working on behalf of the opposition – namely the United National Movement – to discredit the government and undermine Georgia’s European aspirations.
Link to the conspiracy narrative
The new wave of efforts to limit the space for civic participation is linked to the conspiracy narrative, according to which Georgia’s internal and external enemies are conspiring to drag the country into a military confrontation with Russia. This narrative has been gaining traction in the “Georgian Dream” since the start of the new wave of Russian aggression against Ukraine on February 24.
The story took on its institutional face, after four deputies officially separated from the ruling party, while remaining in the government coalition in parliament. Their claim to “speak freely” amounts to articulating more radical messages than GD, which are nevertheless regularly amplified by the ruling party-influenced media and subsequently selectively endorsed by the Georgian Dream Chairman and Prime Minister.
In this conspiracy narrative, CSOs are described as one of the forces orchestrated by the United States and “standing behind the agenda of radicalization and artificial polarization”, as the four MPs wrote in their Speech of August 26, published on the Parliament’s website. In passing, the four deputies quoted sometimes amplify the messages of the even more radical fringe of Georgian politics. On September 8, their new address on the Parliament’s website, explicitly endorsed reports on fringe websites that the US planted its “agents” through political parties and CSOs. The deputies claimed that “in the 2000s, alongside the network of Russian agents, American agents became a serious threat to [Georgia’s] sovereignty.”