To prevent Georgia going down Putin’s path, sanction the country’s Russian puppets

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Georgian billionaire and former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili — the power behind the ruling party, Georgian Dream — essentially declared war against U.S. and European assistance for Georgian civil society actors in a speech Monday. Western governments should be appalled and respond in no uncertain terms.

Over the years, the government’s illiberal actions have accumulated, but the trigger that brought over 100,000 Georgians out to protest was the ruling party’s proposed law, On Transparency of Foreign Influence.  Like Russian President Vladimir Putin’s infamous law, it would force nongovernmental organizations receiving aid from Europe and the United States to declare themselves foreign agents.

While a recent poll shows nearly 80 percent of Georgians support joining the EU and NATO, the Georgian government has moved in the opposite direction, borrowing rhetoric and legislative tools that are essentially copied and pasted from Putin’s Russia. The West must stand with those 80 percent of Georgians and sanction those taking the country in the wrong direction.

Ivanishvili vowed to destroy opposition parties and prosecute his critics in a speech responding to the protests and abandoned all pretense of seeking to build a pluralistic, Western-oriented system. Ivanishvili was prime minister over a decade ago — holding the position for a year after 2012 elections.

“Over these years, we have accumulated enough resources to begin to fully consolidate our sovereignty,” Ivanishvili said. “This is precisely what the law On Transparency of Foreign Influence serves. And after the elections, we will have the opportunity to give the collective National Movement the harsh political and legal judgment it deserves for the nine years of bloody rule and 12 years spent [in opposition] in the role of the ‘ruinous overseer.’”

Ivanishvili excoriated the West (the “Global War Party”). He accused it of funding a “pseudo-elite” who “hate Georgia” and have “no homeland,” with the goal of bringing back an “inhuman and sadistic dictatorship.” Georgian Dream officials have launched unprecedented rhetorical attacks on the American and various EU ambassadors. The failure by capitals to back up their diplomats based in Tbilisi has been painful to watch. Putin must have been proud.

Last December, the European Union offered candidacy status to Georgia, a step toward eventual membership. Ivanishvili was really rooting for the EU to reject Georgia’s candidacy status so that he could blame Europe for leaving Georgia with no choice but to cozy up to Moscow.

Soon after the EU decision, he announced his return to Georgian politics, even though he never truly left. He switched prime ministers, promoting Irakli Kobakhidze, whose main task is to carry out Ivanishvili’s orders. Georgian Dream deputies then launched a nasty campaign against the LGBTQ+ community, again borrowing from the Kremlin playbook before proposing the unpopular On Transparency of Foreign Influence legislation.

For Ivanishvili and Georgian Dream apologists in the West, there is no more pretending. After years of holing up in his Bond-villain palace in Tbilisi, Ivanishvili has taken personal responsibility for what will happen: “As a matter of principle and dedication, I personally will continue to fight for the full restoration of the sovereignty of Georgia,” he declared Monday. He’s made it easy to identify the culprit when it comes to imposing consequences.

For governments in the West, there is no time to waste if they want to try to stop the NGO legislation from becoming law. In addition to targeting Ivanishvili and Kobakhidze, the EU and United States should warn all Georgian parliamentarians that a vote to make the NGO legislation law will lead to sanctions against them.

The United States has provided Georgia with more than $6 billion in assistance over the past three decades and has significant influence in the country, which it has largely failed to exercise in recent years. Distracted by the situations in Ukraine and more recently the Middle East, the United States has paid little attention to what’s happening in Georgia, and the lack of pushback against Putin-like behavior has contributed to matters reaching a critical point. President George W. Bush was the only president to have visited Georgia, and the country has remained of great interest to the Bush Institute, including partnering on an annual conference there. 

Stern statements from the State Department and the U.S. Congress about the anti-NGO law have been helpful, but Georgian Dream has heard plenty of it, and been deterred by none of it. Words must be followed by actions. Western governments have been far too passive for far too long, as Georgian Dream has moved the country in a nondemocratic direction closer to Russia.

Real costs must be imposed. The United States and European Union should immediately impose sanctions on those responsible for using threats and violence against those who want Georgia to join the democratic West. They should begin with the oligarch Ivanishvili, who is seeking to seize all the reins of power and thwart the Georgian people’s aspirations. Doing so may be the only way to stop the country’s rapid slide into an authoritarian regime modeled on Putin’s Russia.

Ivanishvili is daring the West to respond. And respond it must, immediately. Not after the question is asked, “Who lost Georgia?”

David J. Kramer is executive director of the George W. Bush Institute and a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights & Labor; Ian Kelly is a former U.S. Ambassador to Georgia and Ambassador in Residence at Northwestern University.

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