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Ex-Boris aide barred from Georgia amid opposition crackdown fears

Ex-Boris aide barred from Georgia amid opposition crackdown fears

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A former senior political advisor to ex-U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was detained at the airport in Tbilisi and forced to leave Georgia, where he has been advising the country’s leading opposition party.

Speaking to journalists on Monday, the chairman of the United National Movement, Georgia’s main opposition bloc, confirmed that Ben Mallet, a veteran political campaigner, was questioned upon his arrival in the capital. Accusing the government of double standards and sparking a “diplomatic scandal,” Levan Khabeishvili asked: “Can you imagine that a British citizen was not allowed, but they lay a red carpet for [Russian Foreign Minister Sergei] Lavrov and Russian generals?”

Border guards questioned Mallet, who works as director of international campaigns for U.S. strategic consultancy The Messina Group, after he arrived on a flight from Paris for talks with opposition leaders. The authorities later issued a formal entry rejection on ambiguous grounds, said a person working closely with the party, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly.

The incident comes just days after Georgia was recommended for EU candidate status by the European Commission, despite lingering concerns over human rights, the rule of law, and growing political polarization. The ruling Georgian Dream party has publicly backed the former Soviet republic’s constitutional commitment to joining both the EU and NATO, but has refused to implement sanctions on Russia since the start of Moscow’s war in Ukraine.

Speaking to POLITICO, a person familiar with the matter —who was granted anonymity to discuss the issue without fear of repercussions — said Mallet’s phone and laptop were initially seized, and he wasn’t given a clear reason for being denied entry.

The pro-European United National Movement was founded in 2001 by former President Mikheil Saakashvili, who took office in the wake of the Rose Revolution three years later. Saakashvili is currently serving a jail sentence in hospital in Tbilisi, while allies including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy have expressed concern over his well-being.

Despite concerns over its domestic record, Georgia was recommended for EU candidate status by the Commission earlier this month. In an unprecedented step, however, the decision was taken “on the understanding” that the country will commit to undertake substantial reforms on nine priority issues, including tackling political polarization, aligning its foreign policy with the West, and undertaking a process of “de-oligarchization.”

Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire business tycoon and former prime minister whose net worth is reportedly between a third and half of Georgia’s GDP, “appears to be largely responsible” for the country’s sudden political swing toward Moscow since the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine, according to a report from the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Mallet worked as an aide to Johnson during his time in Downing Street and was awarded an OBE in the former prime minister’s resignation honors list. He also acted as campaign director for Shaun Bailey, the Conservative Party’s candidate in the 2021 London mayoral election, and was among a handful of advisors who came under fire when a picture surfaced of the team holding a Christmas party in breach of the COVID guidance in force at the time.

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