We need to talk about Budapest and Tbilisi

Over the course of 2022 and 2023 the bromance between the Georgian prime minister Irakli Garibashvili and his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orbán has become undeniably obvious, with Garibashvili’s performance at the CPAC conference in Budapest as most vivid illustration. The latter resulted in the expulsion of Georgian Dream from the European social-democratic umbrella-party PES in June 2023. What is behind this relationship?

For that we have to rewind to 2014 when the Georgian government set up a commission for the development of soccer in Georgia, led by prime minister Gharibashvili. Energy minister and former international soccer player Kakha Kaladze also sat in that commission. In February 2015 the prime minister was officially received by his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orbán, a former professional soccer player. Orbán was keen to explain to Gharibashvili and Kaladze how he professionalized the Hungarian soccer infrastructure, including showing the large sports stadium in his home village Felcsut near Budapest.

The visit not only made Orbán mentally connect with Garibashvili over the Georgian football reforms, but also laid the foundation for a strong bilateral strategic relationship based on economic, agricultural and energy cooperation. At the press briefing at the end of the visit Orbán announced the opening of a Hungarian trade office in Tbilisi, emphasised Georgia’s strategic importance for Europe’s energy provision in light of the developments in Ukraine, and he expressed support for the Georgian Schengen visa waiver stressing this should not be delayed any further. He proposed a “tailor-made (EU) program” for Georgia “which fits its characteristics”. In his address Garibashvili opened by emphasising the “close traditional and emotional relationship between the Hungarian and Georgian people”.

At the end of 2015 Garibashvili resigned as prime minister, but the bilateral cooperation remained a specific foreign policy, with leaders of both countries paying numerous visits. Fast forward to 2021 when Garibashvili returned as prime minister during the political crisis which was triggered by the 2020 parliamentary elections. By that time Georgia got embroiled in a deepening conflict with its European and American partners over its eroding democracy. Prime minister Giorgi Gakharia resigned in February 2021 after a court green lighted the arrest of opposition leader Nika Melia (UNM), which he didn’t want to be responsible for in the middle of the post-election crisis. Garibashvili, regarded as one of the hardliners in the Georgian Dream party,  took over the reign and immediately ordered the arrest of Melia.

Throughout 2021 Georgian Dream took an increasingly illiberal turn, and drifted away from its pro-European course. In the summer of 2021 the prime minister dog whistled a mob assault on the Tbilisi Pride, which turned into an assault on the gathered press injuring more than 50 press representatives. After the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine the Georgian government showed an ambivalence in joining western sanctions against Russia, using rhetoric similar to the Kremlin, accusing both the opposition and western partners of trying to drag Georgia in the war. In Hungary, the rhetoric aligned with the Georgian, with Fidesz accusing the Hungarian opposition of dragging the country in the war. Over this wave of anti-western pose and illiberal rhetoric of Georgian Dream, the friendship with Hungary became more pronounced, and more ideological in nature. Hungary, like Georgia, refused to sanction Russia and like Georgia got criticised for it. It created another bond, a friendship of two outcasts. Like Georgia, Hungary pushed for peace negotiations between Ukraine and Russia.

In March 2022 Georgia reluctantly submitted an application for membership of the European Union, under public pressure after Ukraine announced such a step. Georgian Dream initially wanted to stay with its original election promise to do that in 2024. The European Union supported Georgia’s membership bid, but demanded a dozen points to be implemented, which centred around democracy, rule of law, the separation of powers and most importantly removing the vested influence of Georgian Dream founder and oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili through a “de-oligarchization” law. Meanwhile, Hungary strongly supports Georgia’s membership bid, and representatives of both countries visited each other nearly every month into 2023.

In March 2023 Georgia attempted to adopt a so called “foreign agent” law. This law aimed to label civil society organisations and media as foreign agent if they receive more than 20% foreign funding, mirroring a similar law adopted in Russia in 2012. Hungary adopted a similar law in 2017, which it revoked in 2021 under European pressure. As illustration of its illiberal tendencies, Georgian Dream pursued the foreign agent law despite strong discouragement of both the US and the EU, which emphasised it runs counter to Georgia’s EU bid. Under an unexpected strong peoples protest Georgian Dream was forced to walk back on the law and gave way to the opposition to vote it away in the second reading.

Meanwhile, Georgian Dream adopted a strong nativist and sovereigntist language, using traditional values, national pride and traditions as a way to push back against an alleged enemy, namely a European imposed liberal democracy. Here again Georgia found a friend in Hungary, which has adopted a similar approach in its relationship with the EU. Both governments developed a mutual understanding of sovereignty: no foreign power ought to interfere in domestic politics. Which explains the strong desire to curb the influence and existence of foreign funded NGOs, and the rather stingy approach to comments from western capitals how Georgia ought to be governed. Budapest and Tbilisi developed a mutual understanding on this, with the chemistry between the two leaders being a main driver.

Garibashvili shocked Georgia’s western partners and Georgian opposition leaders by stating in spring 2023 at the GLOBSEC security forum that NATO was to blame for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He explained that Ukraine’s NATO bid, like Georgia’s, was the reason for Russian aggression. In early May 2023 Garibashvili held a keynote speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Budapest. During his address he stressed the importance of traditional values and stated that “our main weapon and foundation is traditional, Christian, conservative, family values”. His barrage turned against progressive values and rights for sexual minorities in full ideological alignment with Orbán’s Hungary. For the European social-democrats PES his appearance at CPAC was “unacceptable”, and at the end of June 2023 Georgian Dream was stripped of its observer status with PES. In an ironic twist, Georgian Dream accused PES of betraying its values through an “ideological transformation” and moving further away from classical social-democratic ideology and towards a “pseudo-liberal platform”.

According to rumours in Brussels, Hungary would be willing to blackmail the European Union over Georgian candidate status. Hungary would only be willing to agree to opening accession talks with Ukraine if the EU would grant Georgia the candidate status. At the same time, other sources indicate Hungary would not be pushing for Georgia’s candidate status that strongly as it would not be in Georgia’s interest to be sponsored that strongly by Hungary which doesn’t have friends left in the EU. Just like Georgian Dream.

Whatever happens to Georgia’s EU bid, the bilateral ties between Budapest and Tbilisi are strong and will be developed more over collaborative projects such as a new Black Sea electricity cable via Romania, institutional cooperation on law enforcement, defence, infrastructure and agriculture. At the CPAC conference Garibashvili hailed Orbán as a “wise and visionary national leader”, stressing the Hungarian people were “lucky to have such a leader in this difficult era, guarding fundamental values and [who] is truly an exemplary politician, ruler and a striving Christian man”.

In response, Orbán praised Garibashvili saying “we can learn a lot from him, how a small country can manage to live in the shadow of Russia while maintaining its own […] values”. The Hungarian ambassador to Georgia thanked the Georgian prime minister for accepting his invitation to CPAC, emphasising their strategic friendship is based on “three important values: family, Christianity and nation”.

After eight years, the kinship over soccer reforms has evolved into an illiberal, ultra-conservative and Christian traditionalist bromance.

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