Josep Borrell, Brussels’new incoming Vice President of the European Commission and the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, will certainly have his hands full as he takes up his new position. The 72-year old Spanish socialist is known for being outspoken and for some was a surprising choice in the horse-trading process that went on for one of Europe’s top jobs.
He is taking over at a time when Europe faces challenges from all points, whether we look East to the ascending China and an aggressive Russia or West to President Trump. Those challenges are a given, but there is another country that merits the attention of the new Commission. What happens in Georgia, given its precarious position next to Europe’s belligerent Russian neighbour, should also be firmly on the EU’s agenda.
During June 2019, mass protests took place in Georgia, culminating in police violence being used against peaceful marchers on 20 June. Soon afterwards, the founder of leading Georgian financial institution, London-listed TBC bank, Mamuka Khazaradze, announced a new political movement, stating that the police violence had been a “red line” and that a new Georgian political movement was required to build Western style democracy and mend the widening political rifts in the country. The new Georgian politics seem to be well on the way to being developed, with an event taking place in Anaklia last week at which the ‘Lelo’ movement was born at a seaside rally and it is widely thought it will mature into an official political party in the autumn. Comparisons are being drawn with Macron’s “En Marche”movement that swept to power in France.
However, the European Union should be on high alert. Perhaps unsurprisingly, shortly after his political announcement, prosecutors brought fraud charges against Lelo founder Mamuka Khazaradze and his colleague Badri Japaridze. Concerns that the case is politically motivated have been fuelled by the fact that an 11-year old transaction had to be exhumed in order to try and make a case against Khazaradze. The timing of the charges is seen as being linked to the fact that the Lelo movement is viewed as a potentially serious rival to the main political parties, Georgian Dream (GD) and the United National Movement (NDM). Until now, GD leader Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia’s richest man, has had the financial clout needed to feel secure in a country where money talks in politics. The entry into politics of a leading business figure such as Khazaradze seems to have caused some unease inside Georgian Dream, not least because polling figures show there is definitely a gap to be filled, with voters disillusioned with both GD and UNM.
The Anaklia deep-water port development, with which Khazaradze has been closely involved, is another reason that his political move is being resisted. Such a transformational transit hub between Asia and Europe is likely to irritate Georgia’s Russian neighbours who will see it as a threat to their influence and domination of regional infrastructure. It is likely that GD Chairman Bidzina Ivanishvili feels threatened by the project.
Europe has every reason to work for a prosperous and democratic Georgia. There have been ups and downs since we all watched with hope as the Rose Revolution took place. Georgia’s vital position at the crossroads between East and West means it could play a big role in global trade and the country’s democratic future is vital. Prosecution of political opposition figures does not go unnoticed by the international community. The UK, France and USA have all had their embassies voice concerns about the Khazaradzecase. It is up to Georgia to decide what kind of country it wants to be, but its European friends have a crucial role to play. Let’s hope our no-nonsense EU foreign policy chief Josep Borell does indeed have Georgia on his mind.