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Reflection of the Altered Foreign Policy Orientation in the Discourse of the Ruling Party

Lia Tsuladze

Executive Director at the Center of Social Sciences

Associated Professor at Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University

Consistent efforts in its quest for Europeanization have never been as important as today, when Georgia has landed a historic opportunity for securing its democratic development by pursuing greater approximation with the EU. Scholars distinguish three aspects of Europeanization: normative, discursive and behavioural (Schimmelfenning & Sedelmeier 2005, 8). Normative aspect implies the harmonisation of the EU legislation with that of an aspirant country. Discursive aspect deals with the declared support and adherence to the EU values while behavioural aspect envisions the internalisation of EU norms at a behavioural level. The experience of the Eastern enlargement countries suggests that internalisation of the EU norms might remain a challenge even when the process of Europeanization is under way at a normative and discursive levels (ibid). If one looks at the Georgian case from this angle, it will become evident that Georgia has been making efforts to approximate its legislation with that of the EU since the signing of the Association Agreement in 2014. At a rhetorical level, authorities pursued pro-European course with the Georgian Dream routinely stressing their achievements on the European integration journey including the granting of candidate status to Georgia. As for the transfer of the EU norms to a behavioural level, achievements were less tangible in the Georgian reality since, in most cases, laws remained on paper having little implication on daily life. This is well exemplified by the anti-discrimination legislation, adopted some 10 years ago. However, rights of ethnic, religious and sexual minorities are being openly violated.

Until recently, the Georgian Dream used every opportunity to show off their achievement in the quest for European integration and scold their political nemesis (the United National Movement) for the latter’s failure to secure tangible advancement towards European integration. However, recent few years have seen drastic changes in this regard. More specifically, since July 2021, when the Georgian Dream left an agreement mediated by Charles Michel amidst criticism from the EU (it was for the first time that the EU expressed its concern for Georgian authorities deviating from the European course), the discourse of the ruling party towards the EU has become increasingly hostile (Tsuladze et al. 2023). Initially, the ruling party’s criticism towards the EU was relatively moderate and resembled more of defence (the Georgian Dream would constantly stress that Georgia was in the process of transitioning into a European state). However, since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, criticism of the Georgian Dream has increasingly become harsher and acquired an ‘offensive’ nature (ibid). More specifically, by refusing to join the EU’s sanctions against Russia, Georgian authorities first started to play the role of a ‘peacekeeper’ and labelled every local whistle-blower exposing Russia’s imperialistic intentions as ‘war party’. The Georgian Dream soon moved on to accusing the country’s strategic partners of ‘attempting to lure Georgia into the war’. Escalation in the discourse of the authorities became particularly striking in June 2022 when the EU refused to grant Georgia candidate status. As a response, Georgian authorities complained that EU was doing little but laying down conditions only to refrain from awarding a prize. Later on, at the GLOBSEC summit held in Bratislava in May 2023, prime minister Irakli Garibashvili openly stated that the Russian invasion was provoked by Ukraine’s NATO aspiration and that Georgia, deserving candidate status more than Ukraine and Moldova, had been unfairly ‘denied’ (GLOBSEC 2023). Later that month, at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) held in Budapest, the prime minister Garibashvili underscored a grave danger posed by liberal values against family traditions and values (Agenda.ge 04/05/2023). His rhetoric was soon seized upon by other members of the government team and proclaimed liberal values as undermining the country’s sovereignty (see, for instance a statement made by the minister of defence, Civil.ge, 12/05/2023). In spite of such rhetoric, representatives of the government would constantly stress that the membership in the Euro-Atlantic alliance was their priority and that they had been taking all possible measures to this end.

It is beyond any doubts that the ruling party’s rhetoric sounded rather ambivalent for both local society and international community alike, which was exactly the government’s intent. Considering the concept of ‘pragmatic politics’ voiced by the acting prime minister Kobakhidze (interpressnews, 29/01/2023), it can be assumed that by playing the sovereignty and national values card, the government aimed to catch three birds with one stone: 1. Revitalise withering support among population whose ‘absolute majority’ are perceived as having conservative sentiments (as was put by Irakli Garibashvili in Budapest on 4 May 2023) especially in the runup to the 2024 parliamentary elections 2. Demonstrate to the EU that in spite of strong support to the European aspiration, the government is capable of effortlessly instrumentalising their conservative sentiments as a strategy to beef up bargaining power especially while awaiting a decision on candidate status, and finally 3. Pursue a so-called “non-irritation politics” with Russia especially in light of Georgia’s growing economic dependence (European Values Center for Security Policy 2021) on the former, particularly against the backdrop of Ukraine’s invasion.  

Therefore, the ambivalent discourse of the Georgian Dream towards the EU goes back as early as July 2021, growing openly critical since March 2022. However, the attack against the EU has never been that open and conspicuous as the one taking place on 29 April 2024 when Bidzina Ivanishvili, founder and honorary chair of the Georgian Dream made an appearance in front of the crowd bussed into the capital to attend a counter-rally in defence of the so-called foreign agents law. Ivanishvili’s hostility towards the civil society did not come as a surprise. In January 2015, he publicly stated that the non-governmental sector had been smearing the country’s image. As a response to this accusation, 45 non-governmental organisations addressed authorities with a public letter pledging to prevent Ivanishvili’s attack against NGO sector since his stance displayed a position of not a private person but that of the “informal governer” of the country. Therefore, as early as 10 years ago, representatives of the NGO sector made an open statement about looming danger related to the informal governance in the country. Evidently, as expected, authorities retaliated and already in April 2017, the parliament discussed a draft legislative initiative about the transparency of foreign influence for the first time, targeting NGOs who had been receiving funding from the Western countries (Tsuladze et al. 2018). The initiative was immediately met with resistance and the review was postponed to more favourable timing which appeared to be February-March 2023. Against the backdrop of the pressure from the West and amidst mass protests in front of the parliament, the ruling party was compelled to repeal the law within three days. The Georgian Dream also made a promise to never get back to the law. However, the promise lasted just a year. As of today, the Georgian Dream has firmly decided to not listen to either Georgia’s Western partners who the former blatantly attacks or ignores entirely (for instance, the ruling party who has been bragging about candidate status, refused to meet with the Director-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations of the European Commission in Tbilisi on 1 May 2024) or their own people, whose votes will be easily fabricated unless there is a strong presence of Western monitors and observers. Therefore, signs of apparent de-Europeanization pursued by Georgian authorities are evident at both normative and discursive levels (Tsuladze et al. 2023) coupled with a foreign policy direction pivoting towards Russia.

The most eye-catching discursive manifestation of this pattern was an appearance that Bidzina Ivanishvili made in front of those gathered at the government-organised rally on 29 April 2024. The slogan of the rally – ‘Homeland, Language, Religion’ made it outright clear that authorities had been planning to play a nationalist-populist card. Ivanishvili’s opening passage, more specifically a quote by Merab Kostava, made this assumption even more apparent: ‘remember, you will live to the day when Georgia becomes free! But you should know that the minute you stop fighting for freedom even in the independent country, both you and your country are going to lose this freedom’. Even though this quote makes no reference to either the West or the EU it, in fact, targets the West with independence from the West being portrayed as the national project. A quick look at the context in which the quote was delivered will suffice to understand that pronounced by Ivanishvili, the passage hints towards the West (rather than Russia as meant by Kostava): the rest of the speech is mostly centred around attempts to demonise the West following the Russian pattern in terms of both content and discursive strategies. What is the ground for such a conclusion?

NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence has researched propagandist ‘master narratives’ promoted by Russia in its close and distant neighbourhoods (Rebegea 2019). The five dominant narratives dealt with in the NATO report are as follow:

  1. Anti-EU master narrative: EU as a place of moral decay: In order to do the job for which it was constructed not only in the Eastern Partnership aspirant countries but also in the Eastern and Central European countries which are EU member states, the narrative draws a wedge between the EU and Europe, appearing as a protector of the ‘traditional’ and ‘decent’ Europe from ‘obscene’ and ‘evil’ EU.
  2. Anti-NATO master narrative: NATO as an insecurity alliance: According to this narrative, Russia is not responsible for attacking neighbouring sovereign states. Rather, these states themselves are responsible since they have been trying to get closer to NATO in order to protect themselves from Russia, and NATO itself should be held responsible for attempting to enlarge to the East and provoking Russia by doing so.
  3. Domestic failure master narrative: Central and Eastern European states as well as Eastern Partnership countries as failed states: This narrative reads as follows: look at all those disasters brought by the Western and the EU influence upon post-Communist and post-Soviet countries! They have become salves to the West at a cost of losing their values and sovereignty instead of living ‘peacefully’ and ‘independently’ with Russia by their side.
  4. The History master narrative: Fabricating historical facts and using them to underscore historical and cultural ties between Russia and the states that she invaded: The objective of this narrative is to promote the idea according to which the states that Russia tries to exert pressure upon have ostensibly more in common with Russia whether it is a language (Slavic languages), religion (Orthodox Christianity), or culture (Russia brought about cultural advancement in these countries). Therefore, these states should make efforts to return not to the ‘European family’ but rather to the Soviet family.
  5. Ukraine is not a country master narrative: According to this narrative, Ukraine cannot have a claim to being an independent country as it has always been part of Russia since times immemorial (this narrative is closely linked to the one of history fabrication). Importantly, this narrative had been supported by Russia as early as 2019 preparing the ground for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.


Now, the question is as to what the purpose of these narratives is. The European Union External Action Strategic Communication division (EEAS StratCom) and its East StratCom task force, an organisation mandated to understand and respond to Russian ‘soft’ power (which has already snowballed into ‘sharp’ power aiming at information manipulation, by, among other means, spreading conflicting messages in order to disorient societies (Walker and Ludwig 2017)) identifies three key discursive strategies: sowing fear, invoking despair, offering salvation (East StratCom 2019). Following the aforementioned narratives, one will easily discern that portraying the EU as a place for moral decay and NATO as an instigator of war, is a fine example of the ‘sowing fear’ strategy. Then, salvation can be secured by maintaining ‘friendly’ and ‘peaceful’ relations with Russia with whom we share history and religion. Evidently, ‘Georgia is not a country’ narrative is within a stone’s throw. 

In addition to interfaces between contents, Bidzina Ivanishvili seized upon the first three narratives and complemented them with the fourth narrative – fabrication of facts, as a recurrent theme throughout his entire speech which culminated in a promise of Georgia’s EU membership by 2030. It is evident that Ivanishvili’s entire speech represented all three Russian discursive strategies writ large.[1]  

  1. Sowing fear: Ivanishvili’s entire narrative was built on and around ‘the politics of fear’ (Wodak 2015) warning against threats coming from the ‘radical opposition concocting a revolution’ by using ‘NGOs’. We should fear not only domestic destructive forces but also ‘externally imposed governance’ which threatens to ‘carry out repressions and send in agent ring in the judiciary system’ (a clear reference to the EU that has been demanding judiciary and electoral reforms over the course of many years). However, the ‘global war party’ is the most terrifying force and formidable enough to shape decisions made by the EU and NATO (‘all these decisions have been made by the global war party which has a decisive leverage over the NATO and the EU’). Remarkably, the ‘war party’ discourse in the rhetoric of the ruling team has been replaced with the ‘global war party’ discourse: while the first targeted solely domestic opponents, the second is directed at external actors who control domestic ones. Therefore, Ivanishvili’s concept of the ‘agent’ is based on the following hierarchy: ‘Global war party’ -> EU and NATO -> ‘radical opposition’ and ‘NGOs’. Consequently, blaming and shaming agents is the main line running through Ivanishvili’s narrative.
  2. Invoking despair: Ivanishvili openly ‘shames’ the West for rejecting Georgia’s application for the NATO membership in 2008 and leaving the country in a ‘double fire’. Both ‘Georgia and Ukraine are nothing more than cannon fodder’ to the West. ‘Spy ring’ (in other words ‘radical opposition’ and ‘NGOs’) remain vigilant and ‘let no one have an illusion that without this draft law they let us be too long’ etc. These and similar messages are recurrent in Ivanishvili’s narrative.
  3. Offering salvation: in this case we are dealing with an active instrumentalization of ‘ideological discourse’ (van Dijk 2013) based on a rigid demarcation between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Faced with the lack of persuasive arguments, politicians resort to attacking and smearing opponents as the main strategy in order to dodge the responsibility and shift the blame to others. In light of growing nationalist-populist discourses, this strategy has been coupled with statements made in the name of people, as the means for legitimating one’s actions. This discursive strategy is commonly known as ‘topoi’ (Wodak 2011). If one examines Ivanishvili’s speech against this context, it will become apparent that the entire narrative is built on dichotomies in which ends are divided between the Georgian Dream (‘us’), as an a homeland loving force who does everything in his power to protect the country and safeguards ‘long-term peace and reinforced security’, and the ‘radical opposition’ and ‘NGOs’ (‘others’)  - ‘a pseudo-elite raised in a foreign country’, labelled as ‘those without homeland’ and ‘bats’, wishing to bring back the ‘governance of people appointed from outside’ (this dichotomy bears a striking attempt to politicise NGO sector and highlight its partisan nature. In Ivanishvili’s own words, he and his party are saviours of the Georgian people from the ‘global war party’, and ‘spy ring’, or in other words, from the influence of any political opposition actor and ‘NGOs (and therefore, from any alternative vision’) and also from the West which has been trying to deprive Georgia of its sovereignty (quantitative content analysis suggests that ‘sovereignty’ is the most frequently used word in this narrative with its root in messages disseminated by the ruling party in 2023 when liberal values were proclaimed as threats to sovereignty).  In this context, it is important to understand the instruments and tactics that the ruling party have resorted to in order to manipulate national sentiments. One of the steps taken in this direction, was to declare ‘Homeland, Language, Religion’ a slogan of the pro-government rally of 29 April and discredit the youth who have allegedly altered Ilia Chavchavadze’s words and replaced ‘religion’, the last of the triad with ‘unity’. The government hoped to invoke anger towards the youth for modifying Chavchavadze’s words and stir resentment and negative attitudes among religious segment of the population towards young participants of protests. However, the government’s attempts to instrumentalise the nationalist discourse with the purpose of discrediting young protesters have failed after young people, in order to underscore and demonstrate the compatibility between pro-Western and religious sentiments, celebrated Easter in front of Kashueti, church on Rustaveli Avenue, waving a slogan ‘Language, Homeland, Religion, Unity’, as well as holding Georgian and EU symbols. By doing so, young protesters have successfully deprived the authorities of the opportunity and debunked the discourse promoted by the ruling party about liberal values ostensibly undermining traditional and religious values and portraying the Georgian Dream as protectors of Georgian societies from these grave dangers.    

Going back to Ivanishvili’s speech, in spite of orchestrating an attack against Georgia’s western partners, the honorary chair of the Georgian Dream is very well aware that he still needs to keep a straight face before the majority of the Georgian society (amounting to more than 80% according to the CRRC survey) supporting European integration. Therefore, by the end of the speech, he pledges to lead ‘free’ and ‘sovereign’ Georgia to the EU accession in 2030. However, it will not be ‘evil’ EU – the one which threatens with repealing candidate status should the ruling party stick with the law, but ‘good’ EU, with the European Parliament having nationalist-populist as the majority of its members after the 2024 European elections. Such an estimate offered by the Georgian Dream is not without its ground.[2]

To conclude by going back to the representation of the derailed foreign policy in the ruling party’s discourse, it should be noted that this process became apparent in July 2021 when the Georgian Dream left the Charles Michel agreement followed by concerns raised by the EU about looming divergence from the European integration by Georgian authorities.  Discursive confrontation between the ruling party and the EU has become particularly charged first after Ukraine’s invasion by Russia (when the Georgian government refused to join the EU sanctions against Russia and started proclaiming every opponent publicly exposing Russia as members of ‘war party’) and then after the EU had refused to grant Georgia candidate status (when Georgian authorities complained that the EU had been using double standards against Georgia meaning that the former would only set preconditions without awarding a prize). However, the attack against the EU has never been that open and conspicuous as at Ivanishvilis appearance at the pro-government rally when he told the participants that both EU and NATO are governed by the ‘global war party’ intending to orchestrate a revolution at the hands of the local ‘radical opposition’ and ‘NGOs’. The return of the law on the transparency of foreign influence to the agenda (the law had been twice initiated by the ruling party’s satellite parties and then the ruling party itself), as well as the rhetoric of the founder and honorary chair of the ruling party make it clear that at the normative and discursive levels we are dealing with overt de-Europeanization and the pivoting of the foreign policy vector in Russia’s favour. 


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