Biden Faces First Major Foreign Policy Test in Georgia

Admin urges all sides to deescalate while pro-Russia regime consolidates power

Protesters against the ruling Georgian Dream party in Nov. 2020 (Photo by Vano Shlamov via Getty Images)
February 25, 2021

The Georgian government's Tuesday raid on the opposition party's headquarters and arrest of its leader, Nika Melia, threatens to cripple the only democracy in the South Caucasus and is an early foreign policy test for the Biden administration, which has yet to take any concrete action aimed at holding Georgia's pro-Russian government accountable for its crimes.

Melia, leader of the pro-western United National Movement, was arrested on Tuesday after government forces aligned with the pro-Moscow ruling Georgian Dream party raided the movement's offices. The organized assault is just the latest attempt by Georgian Dream to destroy its pro-American opposition and further align the country with Russia. The party is bankrolled and controlled by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire with deep ties to Moscow and, at one time, the largest private shareholder of Russian natural gas giant Gazprom.

Georgia's continued backslide into authoritarianism threatens to erode its longstanding alliance with the United States and puts the Biden administration in a tense diplomatic plight as it seeks to make good on promises to protect democracies across the globe. American congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle have roundly criticized Georgian Dream's actions and called for new sanctions on the country's leaders. The Biden State Department, however, has refrained from taking a firm position on the situation, instead calling for both sides to remain calm.

"We call on all sides to avoid actions that could further escalate tensions and to engage in good faith negotiations to resolve the current political crisis," State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement on Tuesday.

The crisis, however, is quickly worsening. Giorgi Gakharia, the country's embattled prime minister, abandoned the office last week as Ivanishvili and other Georgian Dream leaders demanded that Melia be arrested on trumped-up charges that are widely seen as politically motivated. Gakharia has been replaced by Irakli Garibashvili, an associate of Ivanishvili who also has close ties to Russia.

Georgian opposition parties, meanwhile, have refused to accept the official results of parliamentary elections held last October, claiming widespread fraud and voter intimidation. Since then, Georgian Dream has continued to arrest political opponents and violate agreements meant to reduce its persecution of pro-western opposition leaders.

Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, said the crisis will show whether the Biden administration backs up its anti-Russia rhetoric with action.

Russia's recent arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny was the "first test" for Biden's State Department, McFaul said on Twitter. The coup in Myanmar was the second. "Georgia is now third. In words, Biden has pledged to do more to advance democracy and human rights. Now it's time to match those words with deeds."

Giga Bokeria, a prominent leader in the Movement for Freedom-European Georgia Party, a pro-American faction, likewise told the Washington Free Beacon that the current crisis represents a tipping point.

"It's crunch time now for Georgia's future," Bokeria said. "The oligarch who for years has gradually tried to erode a pro-American, pro-Western consensus in Georgian politics by persecuting pro-Western opponents and promoting pro-Putin forces inside the country, has now raided the office of the biggest pro-Western opposition party, arrested its leader, and appointed a new prime minister known for being close to pro-Putin forces."

Leaders on the House Georgia Caucus said the raid constitutes an unacceptable assault on the country's fledgling democracy.

"Years of hard work by the Georgian people to build a stronger and more prosperous democracy are being gravely threatened by excessive force and undemocratic actions," Reps. Gregory Meeks (D., N.Y.), Gerry Connolly (D., Va.), and Adam Kinzinger (R., Ill.) said in a joint statement on Tuesday. Meeks is the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Connolly and Kinzinger cochair the House's Georgia Caucus.

"We encourage the leaders of Georgian Dream to de-escalate the situation and work with the United National Movement and other opposition parties to bring Georgia's push for a healthy democratic future back on track," the lawmakers said. "We fear that failure to work with minority parties will impede the progress made by Georgia to foster stronger relations with the European Union and NATO."

Senators Jim Risch (R., Idaho), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Jeanne Shaheen (D., N.H.), chairwoman of the Senate subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation, demanded that Melia and dozens of other political prisoners be immediately released.

"The corrupt use of Georgia's law enforcement and judiciary to execute politically-motivated actions jeopardizes what remains of Georgia's democracy and its Euro-Atlantic path," the senators said in a statement. "We call for the immediate release of all political prisoners."