The United States and its European allies have been warning the current Georgian government to stick by the rules of democratic fair play. Now any such sense of restraint on the part of the authorities has fallen away. This is a clear signal that Georgia is taking a sharp turn away from its declared aspirations to become a member of the Euro-Atlantic community. The arrest of the leader of the opposition United National Movement means Washington’s staunchest ally in the region is sliding toward authoritarianism.
Over the past three decades, the Americans and the Europeans have invested billions of dollars in the effort to help a small South Caucasian nation become a reliable partner in the former Soviet space. Georgia was seen in the West as a test case: If, after 70 years of Soviet rule, it could escape Moscow’s orbit, then other countries in the region could rid themselves of entrenched corrupt practices and reclaim their places in the West. Tbilisi has also proved a vital potential ally as renewed geopolitical competition has heated up with Russia in the region.
Melia’s arrest demonstrates how the legacy of Soviet and Russian imperial ambitions still haunts Georgia. Over the past nine years, the political ascent of Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made most of his fortune in Russia, has coincided with a steady deterioration of democratic norms. He served as prime minister between 2012-2013, but he is widely believed to run things behind the scenes. His growing political dominance has been marked by increasing state capture, a collapse in the independence of the judiciary, worsening media freedoms and steady persecution of political opponents. The detention of Melia, who is charged with engaging in violence in a 2019 anti-Russian demonstration in Tbilisi, is sure to have been met with satisfaction in Moscow.
Some have compared the events in Georgia to the case of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, whose recent arrest in Moscow caused much outcry in the West. The charges against Melia, like those against Navalny, are widely seen as politically motivated. The difference, however, is that this is happening in a country that enjoys bipartisan support in Washington and was once celebrated as a champion of reform and “a beacon of liberty” in the post-Soviet space.
The current British ambassador in Tbilisi spoke for many Western observers when he called these latest developments shocking. Yet those who have watched Georgia’s evolution in recent years were anything but surprised. This latest crackdown has been long in the making.
Yet the United States has been largely absent. The Trump administration did not replace the U.S. ambassador in Tbilisi for more than two years. And while the State Department has made statements calling on the Georgian government to respect democratic principles, the lack of attention to events on the ground has given the current Ivanishvili-backed government a sense of impunity.
Tbilisi has used this leeway to test how far it can go. In a move that warmed hearts in Moscow and Beijing, it canceled the Anaklia deep sea port project that Washington has repeatedly described as key to its strategic interests in the South Caucasus. It has fostered anti-Western and xenophobic sentiments by partnering with openly pro-Russian political parties and movements, and has dispersed anti-Russian protesters with rubber bullets and tear gas.
In Washington, the arrest of Melia has met with harsh criticism. A bipartisan group of senators and congressmen has issued statements calling on the Georgian government to free Melia, saying that the move “jeopardizes what remains of Georgia’s democracy and its Euro-Atlantic path.” By contrast, the response from the State Department, and from the new Biden administration more generally, has come off as tepid.
Democracies, history has shown, do not die overnight — instead, they slowly stagnate and decline. President Biden himself said that “democratic progress is under assault” around the world. This will be a test for the new administration. If Washington fails to stop allies like Georgia from sliding into authoritarianism, how can the United States succeed in bigger countries such as Russia or Turkey?
In Tbilisi, many hope that the Biden administration will take a more active role, as the president himself has pledged. As Winston Churchill is often quoted as saying, “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, after they have exhausted all the other possibilities.” Those concerned about the future of Georgia’s democracy are hoping that the time has come to do so.