Senators Warn Georgia: U.S. Will Not Tolerate Backslide Into Authoritarianism

As Georgia teeters on the brink, leading U.S. observers warn democracy is quickly eroding

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As Georgia teeters on the brink of a backslide into authoritarianism, two senators are warning that a campaign of repression against pro-Western protesters opens the door "for increased Russian meddling in the country" and jeopardizes the historically close relationship between the United States and Georgia.

Sens. Jim Risch (R., Idaho) and Jeanne Shaheen (D., N.H.), two leading foreign policy voices in Congress, issued a letter urging Georgian prime minister Giorgi Gakharia to stop repressing pro-U.S. voices and ensure that upcoming Georgian elections are not marred by corruption. Risch and Shaheen both served in 2012 as election observers in Georgia.

The letter is the latest in a series of petitions from U.S. observers of Georgia, including House Georgia Caucus leaders and top officials on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The bipartisan group of lawmakers has sent increasingly critical letters to Georgian leaders in recent weeks, warning that the anti-U.S. backslide imperils the country's democratic progress.

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In addition to violently repressing protesters, the ruling Georgian Dream Party—led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, the country's wealthiest citizen—has targeted pro-U.S. opposition leaders to delegitimize their movement. U.S. officials are now worried that Georgia will fall back into authoritarianism nearly 30 years after it broke free of the Soviet Union.

"These events give us pause and raise questions about Georgia's commitment to our shared values," Risch and Shaheen wrote. "Further, we fear that a lack of progress on reforms and increased tensions within Georgia will only open the door for increased Russian meddling in the country and throughout the region. The longer these actions continue, the more Georgia's security will be jeopardized, and we may be forced to reevaluate our partnership."

The country's failure to enact electoral reforms and subsequent suppression of protesters are chief concerns for Risch and Shaheen.

"We are increasingly concerned by recent events that indicate a weakening of Georgian democracy and governance," the lawmakers wrote. "Two of the most pressing matters are Parliament's failure to uphold its commitment to electoral reform and the government's violent suppression of peaceful protests."

"We understand that the promised electoral reform was expected to give proportional representation to Georgian voters to ensure the system did not unduly favor any one political party," the letter said. "Your government's decision to prevent that change indicates a backsliding from commitments to build the institutions of Georgia's democracy. Furthermore, the massive yet peaceful protests that followed are a visible sign that there is dissatisfaction with this failure. The government's violent suppression of these protests is a violation of Georgians' democratic rights and of the government's duty to protect its citizens."

U.S. officials are concerned that Ivanishvili's ruling party is abusing Georgia's justice system to discredit opposition leaders such as Giga Bokeria, a prominent member of the European Georgia Party. Bokeria and other officials have been summoned to court over years-old cases that critics say are based on trumped-up charges.

"The recent political targeting of opposition leaders through both formal and informal methods is further evidence of Georgia's democratic backsliding," Risch and Shaheen wrote. "Reports that opposition leaders have been physically assaulted or harassed by individuals linked to the ruling party are disconcerting. So too is the reopening of criminal cases against opposition figures that have been closed for years. Politicians must be permitted to exercise their right to speak freely, and Georgia's judicial system should not be used as a tool to limit this freedom."

The senators said U.S. support for Georgia cannot be guaranteed if the country continues down its current path.

"We are motivated to support Georgia's economic and political development only as long as we can rely on Georgia to be a stable, trustworthy, and democratic partner in this effort," the lawmakers said. "We sincerely hope that you will work quickly to reverse this decline and fulfill the promises made to the Georgian people."