By Georgi Gotev
(EurActiv) — European Council President Charles Michel “took risks” during his recent visit to Georgia, and some in Brussels thought his actions were “mad”, according to an EU official familiar with the latest diplomatic action meant to reassert the EU’s ‘soft power’.
Michel declared on Tuesday (20 April) that the long-lasting political crisis in Georgia was resolved. After several false starts, his diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis brought about an agreement on Monday between the ruling Georgian Dream party and opposition groups.
The agreement, signed by representatives of all political parties, ended the opposition’s parliamentary boycott and paves the way for sweeping electoral and judicial reforms. Georgia’s main opposition force, the United National Movement (UNM), will join the deal after its jailed leader Nika Melia is released from prison.
EURACTIV spoke to the European Council official, who asked to remain anonymous, on Tuesday, while Michel was still in Georgia. He said that when Michel was in the parliament in Tbilisi on Tuesday it marked the first time that many MPs had set foot in the building following a very long period of boycott.
“Once we trigger the release of Melia via an amnesty, UNM will return to the parliament as well”, the Council official said, adding that the previous weekend’s discussions had been key.
Michel had reportedly been in “semi-permanent contact” with the President of Georgia, Salome Zourabishvili, he had spoken “a couple of times” with Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, and Council diplomats held more than 20 similar discussions with political actors, also by videoconference.
After the document was signed on Monday evening, it was opened for individual MPs to sign. On Tuesday, Michel arrived in Georgia, and by the afternoon the document already had the signatures of 140 MPs, just 10 short of the total number of deputies.
According to the Council official, this was important because a reinforced majority will be needed for some of the foreseen reforms.
Amnesty and pardon
The next steps, he said, was an amnesty law to be tabled by one of the political parties one week after the signature of the agreement, which would trigger the return to parliament of the political parties, who would then vote in the amnesty law. That, in his words, would allow for the release of Melia.
One more nut to crack is the issue of another political prisoner, Giorgi Rurua, sentenced in 2020 to four years of prison for the illegal possession and carrying of firearms, charges he and his supporters have called politically motivated.
The ruling Georgian Dream is said to be fiercely opposed to the idea of releasing him or including him in the amnesty. One solution would be for President Zourabishvili to pardon him, which the source said was a “very courageous move on her part”.
The signing of the pardon would also take place one week after the signature of the agreement.
The ‘Saakashvili factor’
Things however are complicated by “the Saakashvili factor” – two-time President Mikheil Saakashvili – who on Monday called on his UNM party not to align, but his appeal was not widely heeded.
Saakashvili was the third president of Georgia for two consecutive terms, from 25 January 2004 to 17 November 2013. He left Georgia in 2013, a year after his party lost a parliamentary election, and was charged and sentenced in absentia in 2017 on charges of abuse of public office and corruption. He now lives in Ukraine, which has no extradition agreement with Georgia.
Reportedly, the other tricky part was to find a solution acceptable to the Georgian Dream party to the issue of local elections, possibly opening the way to early general elections.
The agreement dictates that early parliamentary elections will be called in 2022 if Georgian Dream scores less than 43% in the upcoming local elections.
Initially, the Georgian Dream had insisted on the figure of 40%, and UNM on 45%. The Council diplomats then proposed 43%, which became part of the accord.
All’s well that ends well
Charles Michel took “an existential risk by agreeing to do the mediation, the Council official said, adding that “one or two people thought he was mad.” But according to his associates, Michel felt it was essential” that the EU demonstrate its ability to sort out the chaos in one of its eastern neighbours.
What made a big difference, the official insisted, was EU-US cooperation, with the two ambassadors having done “a fantastic job”.
“I know it is not the flavour of the month in the Council to say anything positive about the Commission, and vice-versa, but Dombrovskis has played a very helpful role as well”, the official said, referring to the role of Valdis Dombrovskis, the executive vice president of the European Commission.
Dombrovskis is understood to have made it clear to his Georgian interlocutors that macro-financial assistance would be “inconceivable” without the judicial reforms the agreement foresees being implemented.
“It’s a strange story, it’s an unorthodox approach”, but one which ended in a “nice success story”, the official said, underlining that the experience of using the EU’s soft power, and working jointly with the US, could be potentially useful in places like “North Macedonia, Montenegro or anywhere else”.