Hungary blocking the EU condemnation of Georgia's Foreign Agents Law gives an indication what to expect at Tbilisi's October parliamentary elections (Photo: European Union)


The Hungarian EU presidency and Georgia's election — don't say you weren't warned

Georgia's current political crisis was triggered by the Georgian Dream government's repeated attempts to push through its highly-controversial Foreign Agents Law, finally passed on Tuesday (28 May), which jeopardises the country's EU accession path.

But it was also catalysed by a rather unexpected external development: the European Union's inability to respond to this challenge with one voice and in a timely manner. 

The EU's failure to react adequately is both striking and — especially for the pro-EU demonstrators on Georgian streets — deeply disappointing, especially given the overwhelming support of Georgian society for EU accession and the watershed moment for the country.

Following the adoption of the law by the Georgian parliament on 14 May, EU member states were simply unable to issue a joint statement and condemn the legislation that put Georgia's EU accession process on a knife's edge. Why?

Because the Hungarian government, led by prime minister Viktor Orbán, whose ruling Fidesz party has developed cordial ties with Georgian Dream over the past two years, blocked the EU statement.

And according to the treaties, EU decision-making in the field of common foreign and security policy requires unanimity, which gives even a lone-standing member state the right to veto any EU action.

After intense negotiations, EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell finally issued a statement on behalf of the EU some 24 hours after the events. But the damage cannot be undone.

Balázs Orbán, the political director of the Hungarian prime minister’s Office, proudly tweeted that the Hungarian government’s intention is not to veto Georgia’s Law on the Transparency of Foreign Influence — but to encourage the introduction of similar laws across the EU.

Georgian Dream, sensing the EU's inability to name-and-shame and exert leverage, may feel emboldened to continue on its authoritarian path. At the same time, Georgian citizens protesting for a European future for their country may feel abandoned.

Muzzling electoral watchdogs a prelude to election

However, this saga was only a prelude to the next potential clash between the EU and the Georgian Dream government where the stakes will be much higher than this time. 

On 26 October, Georgia will hold its parliamentary elections, the first time under the new proportional electoral system agreed upon in the 2017 constitutional reform as a compromise between Georgian Dream and opposition parties.

Due to the full proportionality, Georgian Dream — even though its electoral victory seems certain — may face increased difficulties in winning a comfortable majority of seats necessary to continue a single-party government. 

The Foreign Agents Law gives an indication of how the Georgian Dream intends to address this problem.

It may not be a coincidence that the main targets of the law are Georgian election integrity watchdogs, like ISFED, that have traditionally borne the brunt of the fight against electoral fraud and interference in Georgia.

Electoral integrity — or the lack of it — will be the centrepiece of the October Georgian elections, and it could determine the outcome one way or another. Imagine that in a highly sensitive situation — both Georgian Dream and the opposition declare victory, or opposition parties refuse to recognise the election results due to high level of systemic irregularities in the elections — the EU won’t be able to speak with one voice.

Or even worse, a malicious member state holding the rotating EU Council presidency may pretend to speak on behalf of the European Union

This is the scenario EU institutions and member states need to be prepared for.

The Hungarian government will hold the rotating EU presidency in the second half of 2024, at a critical time for enlargement policy and neighbourhood relations: during parliamentary elections in Georgia and presidential elections in Moldova. Hungary will not only be able — and ready — to block EU statements in case of widespread electoral fraud but might also be ready to formally issue statements on behalf of the presidency. 

The rotating EU presidency does not represent the EU on the international stage. That is the prerogative of the president of the EU Commission, the high commissioner for foreign relations, and the president of the European Council.

But are most Georgian citizens and international media representatives aware of this fine distinction?

With a well-timed statement recognising Georgian Dream's electoral victory, despite outstanding and uninvestigated questions of possible electoral fraud, Orbán and the Hungarian presidency could confuse EU and Western reactions and provide significant domestic and international support for the Georgian ruling party at a critical time.

What is Orbán’s vested interest in the Georgian Dream that explains the Hungarian government’s recent and possible future interventions?

The simple answer is Hungary’s own illiberal agenda and Russia.

Over the past decade, Orbán and his Fidesz party have invested significant resources in building strong, strategic party diplomacy ties with illiberal or radical-right parties around the world, often at the expense of official diplomatic relations when these parties are in opposition.

The list includes, for example, the Trump/MAGA wing of the US Republicans and Jair Bolsonaro's party in Brazil, the full spectrum of the European radical right, and the Georgian Dream and North Macedonia's VMRO-DPMNE in EU candidate countries. The glue is always the common illiberal agenda.

Moreover, as has been demonstrated since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Hungarian government has rarely missed an opportunity to serve Russian strategic interests by delaying or watering down sanctions packages or blocking EU aid to Ukraine.

However, this subservience to the Kremlin may not be limited to Ukraine. Georgia Dream is pursuing an illiberal and authoritarian path that is moving Tbilisi further and further away from the EU and closer and closer to Russia's orbit. Keeping the party in power is in the Kremlin's strategic interest.

Orbán has two good reasons to troll EU responses to Georgia’s upcoming elections. EU institutions and member states must be prepared for this eventuality.