A bipartisan group of lawmakers is warning the Georgian government that an ongoing campaign of repression by the country's ruling political party is endangering the Eastern European ally's pro-U.S. opposition parties and threatening to sweep the country back into authoritarianism.
For months now, Georgians have taken to the streets to protest the ruling Georgian Dream party led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, the country's wealthiest citizen. The demonstrations have been marred by violence and punctuated by the ruling party's targeting of the largely pro-American opposition party.
As the country backslides into authoritarian rule, the U.S. State Department and members of Congress are demanding Ivanishvili's ruling regime end its campaign of intimidation or face new U.S. sanctions. The unrest marks a potential tipping point for Georgia as it shifts away from the United States and back to Russia, a move that threatens to erase more than three decades of pro-democracy progress.
"Despite the promise shown over the past three decades, recent democratic and economic trends are negatively affecting Georgia's image in the United States," Reps. Adam Kinzinger (R., Ill.), Gerry Connolly (D., Va.), Eliot Engel (D., N.Y.), and Michael McCaul (R., Texas) wrote in a letter sent Tuesday to Georgian prime minister Giorgi Gakharia. Kinzinger and Connolly chair the House Georgia Caucus, while Engel and McCaul run the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
This is the second official letter sent to Gakharia by Kinzinger and Connolly, who expressed similar concerns about Georgia's authoritarianism in December. The correspondence was the result of a Georgian multiparty opposition delegation that visited Washington, D.C., in December. Salome Samadashvili, a member of the pro-Western United National Movement party who serves in Georgia's parliament, led the delegation and highlighted the Georgian Dream party's democratic backsliding, sources said.
"Unfortunately, economic indicators show a sharp decline in foreign direct investment in Georgia as American and European companies have suffered harassment, causing many to reconsider their business ventures," the lawmakers wrote, according to a copy of the letter obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.
The lawmakers expressed particular concern over what they describe as "the decision to forego promised democratic reforms and the associated violence against peaceful protestors."
In recent weeks, the effort to discredit opposition leaders pulled a page from Russia's playbook when it ran a now-deleted series of Facebook campaigns that sought to discredit pro-U.S. voices and leaders in Georgia. These tactics, as well as the violent suppression of pro-democracy demonstrators, have sparked increasingly stern communications by members of Congress.
"Recent reports indicate that Facebook had to shut down an extensive network of accounts funded by Georgian Dream," the lawmakers write. "The fact that these accounts were apparently spreading anti-democratic, anti-Western sentiments is simply unacceptable."
The lawmakers are also concerned Ivanishvili's ruling party is attempting to use Georgia's justice system to discredit leading opposition voices. Giga Bokeria, a prominent member of the opposing European Georgia party, which also favors closer ties to the West, found himself summoned for questioning by the country's prosecutor's office over a years-old case.
"We are troubled by reports that prosecutors appointed by Georgian Dream are reopening old legal cases against the party's opponents," the lawmakers wrote. "While some of these cases may have merits, others are perceived as targeting leading opposition political figures, news operators, international corporations, and civil society members. Respect for the rule of law and an impartial justice system are key to a healthy democracy and to ensuring free and fair elections, which were guaranteed by your party."
The unrest in Georgia has generated concern that the upcoming elections may be corrupted.
"We continue to encourage you to protect the legitimacy of these elections and ensure they are guarded against both internal and external interference," the lawmakers wrote.
Georgia's economy is also suffering as a result of the ongoing tumult. The lawmakers warn that this situation is only strengthening Russian leader Vladimir Putin's influence in Georgia.
"Georgian Dream's perceived political targeting of the U.S.-backed Anaklia Development Consortium has now deterred or prevented investment from American companies in this important project," the lawmakers wrote. "These developments seem to reflect an increasingly unfavorable business environment and could deter future U.S. investment in Georgia. Decreased foreign investment not only hurts the Georgian people and their hopes for deeper integration with Western institutions, but it also strengthens Vladimir Putin's hand in the region. Georgia could be a vital hub for goods traversing from the United States and Europe to Central Asia, and vice versa, which would serve as a boon for the Georgian economy."
"We raise these concerns with the hopes of strengthening Georgia as a democracy and of preventing the broad bipartisan and bicameral support that Georgia enjoys in the halls of Congress from being negatively impacted," the letter said. "We hope that your government will work with the United States Congress, Ambassador Kelly Degnan, the European Union, and non-governmental organizations to strengthen democratic institutions and enhance economic prosperity for the Georgian people so that Georgia can continue to be a strategic partner of the United States for many years to come."