TBILISI -- A diplomatic spat has erupted between Tbilisi and its Western partners over the criminal trial of a Georgian opposition journalist, further straining relations as U.S. and EU officials press the Caucasus country to depolarize its political scene.
The feisty exchanges concerning the EU and U.S. ambassadors highlight ongoing obstacles to Georgia's accelerated bid to join the European Union in response to the perceived regional threat from Russia, whose troops occupy two Georgian regions and are waging a large-scale invasion of Ukraine.
They could also reflect Western frustration with the ruling Georgian Dream party since the government in Tbilisi made unsolicited public statements asserting that it would not join EU and other international sanctions meant to punish Moscow for its war on Ukraine.
On July 20, the State Department took the unusual step of affirming its support for the U.S. mission in Tbilisi after suggestions by a judge and members of Georgia's ruling party that Ambassador Kelly Degnan and her team improperly interfered in the prosecution of journalist and former Rustavi-2 TV general director Nika Gvaramia.
State Department spokesman Ned Price told a daily briefing that recent statements from some Georgian officials might be "intended to distract" Georgians from their goal of Euro-Atlantic membership. "Ambassador Degnan has our full support," Price said.
"Disinformation and personal attacks on Ambassador Degnan or her team are not consistent with how partners communicate with one another, and we will continue to focus on supporting our shared goals," Price added.
The Georgian Dream party founded by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili has been in power since 2012 in the face of a fractious opposition, and has faced criticism for its inability or unwillingness to implement reforms to better prepare Georgia for EU integration.
Georgian Dream's chairman, Irakli Kobakhidze, issued a blunt criticism of the EU's outgoing envoy to Tbilisi as Ambassador Carl Hartzell announced his departure on July 20, saying Hartzell had played "only a negative role" in Georgian-EU relations.
Nikoloz Samkharadze, a party colleague who chairs the parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, said Hartzell "could have worked better to get Georgia [EU] candidate status."
Kobakhidze added that he was disturbed by the lack of any "clear explanation and a denial" from Degnan "that any such interference took place" regarding the Gvaramia case.
The exchange arose as a six-member delegation from the European Parliament visited Tbilisi for two days of information gathering on July 20-21 to inform an annual report on Georgia's implementation of its EU Association Agreement.
The head of that delegation, Foreign Affairs Committee head David
, warned after their arrival that "time is running out" and "now is a key moment for the Georgian government to clearly show the political will to realize the European ambitions of the [Georgian] people."
A spokesman for EU high representative for foreign affairs Josep Borrell delivered another sharp rebuke to Tbilisi by stressing that "delivery on reforms & EU agenda is [a] task for domestic politicians."
"Blaming others for [your] own unfulfilled ambitions only confirms the need 2have more time 2understand how [the EU] works & that reforms are a homework," Borrell lead spokesman Peter Stano tweeted. "[The] EU fully supports @CarlHartzellEU who did great job 4 [EU-Georgian] ties!"
The European Commission last month approved the candidacies of Ukraine and Moldova while deferring Georgia's bid until it met "set priorities," a move that sparked street protests in Tbilisi to demand progress in tackling Brussels' 12 main recommendations.
They include the end of political polarization, progress on media freedom, judiciary and electoral reforms, and "de-oligarchization," an apparent allusion to Ivanishvili's ongoing influence over his party and Georgian politics.
Until then, the commission said, Georgia remains on the "perspective" path.
Before that, in early June, the European Parliament passed a nonbinding resolution citing the Gvaramia case and calling for sanctions against Ivanishvili for his "destructive role" in Georgia, including risks to free media and journalists' safety.
Judge Lasha Chkhikvadze, who presided over Gvaramia's conviction, which is still under appeal, authored a letter published this month that suggested U.S. officials had overstepped by inquiring to him about Gvaramia's case.
Chkhikvadze wrote in a letter published on the Rustavi-2 website that he met with a U.S. Embassy employee who told him that "the ambassador is interested in why I received a guilty verdict in this case and especially why I used imprisonment as a punishment."
"In my estimation, this was a request for a report related to a specific case," the judge said, before going on to suggest he'd then been excluded from a preplanned event.
Degnan said any suggestion that the United States was improperly interfering in a Georgian court case was untrue.
Transparency International-Georgia has called Gvaramia's conviction retaliation for his critical journalism.
Gvaramia left Rustavi-2 in 2019 after the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) upheld a verdict by Georgia's Supreme Court on restoring the main opposition TV channel to a previous owner who was believed to be close to the government.
Tbilisi accelerated and formalized its EU application in March, days after President Vladimir Putin ordered tens of thousands of Russian troops into nearby Ukraine in the largest invasion of a European country since World War II.
Georgian Dream has consistently expressed support for the country's EU membership. But Ivanishvili is said to wield enormous influence behind the scenes, and the Georgian Dream-led government announced in early June that it did not intend to join Western sanctions against Russia because those measures weren't in Georgia's "national interests."
Earlier this week, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili sent a letter to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen complaining about the European Parliament's resolution in June, saying the accusations against Ivanishvili holding excessive power were an insult to Georgia and to Gharibashvili himself.
Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili said alongside McAllister on July 20 that there was a battle "not only inside the country but also outside" it and "we heard a kind of ping-pong with the MEPs," referring to the European Parliament members. "I also [told them] that sometimes it might be better not to have responses and I called for us to move this dialogue into slightly different forms."
Hartzell, who has served as the EU's ambassador since 2018, should be replaced as head of the EU delegation to Georgia by Pawel Herczynski.