Big trouble in little Georgia


For years, Georgia’s politics has been organised around the “search for a saviour”. But now this search has quietly ended, what is left?

This year, it is the absence of a “Messiah figure” who will “save the country”, as well as the obvious crisis of the country’s political party system. For years, Georgian society has been consolidated around the prospect of finding a “saviour”, which, in turn, has undermined the role of parliament, and left the country’s party system underdeveloped. Indeed, Georgia’s voters are used to choosing political figures rather than political blocs.

Nowadays, when Georgia’s “Messiah era” has come to an end and it is up to political parties to lead the state, the political establishment has nothing new to persuade voters that the old promises are still achievable. The electorate is confused. And this leads to an election campaign organised around mutual accusations, absurd initiatives, conspiracy theories and dangerous incidents. 

A short history of Messiahs

The unexpected break-up of the Soviet Union left Georgia in dire need of re-shaping its domestic political culture. While there were attempts to make the transition to a “western political system”, political memory, in combination with the political, social and economic instability of the 1990s, led to the formation of a Messiah-centered presidential system. 

Georgian society sought a “firm hand” from within the political establishment who would rescue the state from its deep political, social and economic crisis. In this situation, the main purpose of elections in Georgia was to consolidate society and find the “chosen one” who would oppose the existing repressive regime and rebuild the state.

Soon enough, Georgian society found a new “saviour” — Eduard Shevardnadze, a representative of the Soviet nomenklatura, who was elected in 1992 with 77% of the vote. Later on, in September 1993, when rumors began to emerge that Shevardnadze was planning to leave, protesters gathered outside the parliament, kneeled and begged him to stay in power. Ilia II, Patriarch of All Georgia (and the most trusted person in the country), personally called Shevardnadze a “nation leader”. He was re-elected in 2000 by 79% of votes.

For years, Georgian society has been consolidated around the prospect of finding a “saviour”

Much like his predecessor, however, Shevardnadze was unable to fulfill society’s aspirations and, by the end of 2003, Georgia was on the edge of collapse. State institutions were weak and corrupt. And this was the moment when another “saviour” appeared — Mikhail Saakashvili, who, backed by the US, initiated a new campaign to save Georgia. After pushing Shevardnadze to resign, Saakashvili was elected as president with 96% of the vote. Later on, his political team, the United National Movement, took a constitutional majority in Georgia’s parliament and he became the undisputed leader of the nation.

Saakashvili’s aggressive rhetoric and authoritarian nature pushed him to resign and set new presidential elections in 2008, which he won with a smaller majority. By 2012, Georgian society had come to a critical point, when United National Movement changed the constitution and turned the state towards a parliamentary system. This reform should have ended the era of Messianism in Georgia, but there were fears that Saakashvili was planning to continue governance by simply switching posts.

The transformation of Georgia’s political system from presidential to parliamentary model and the defeat of Mikhail Saakashvili’s government reflected the end of a long-lasting culture of Messianism. It was time for the political party system to take the lead.

Big trouble in little Georgia

Assessing the pre-election process in September, US Ambassador to Georgia Ian Kelly noted: “I wish the election campaign to be as good in the United States as it is in Georgia”. Even though local government took the statement as a compliment, the election campaign that can hardly be called a success. 

Indeed, the campaign started not with political debates or programmes, but a fistfight in Samegrelo. On 22 May, 2016, members of the United National Movement were attacked and brutally beaten by unidentified persons in the village of Kortskheli in western Georgia. While the participants were later detained, the UNM accused Georgian Dream of initiating the incident. The ruling party responded by publishing documents that verify close ties between the attackers and the UNM. The investigation is still in progress.

What remains to be seen is how this crisis will develop and how it will influence the post-election environment. Currently, there is only uncertainty

At the beginning of August, leaders of Georgia’s Centrist Party, Lado Bedukadze and Nikoloz Khachisvhili, hit the stage by offering “Russian pensions” (i.e. significantly higher payments) as an election promise to every pensioner in Georgia. Moreover, the party’s election campaign video footage promised to legalise the future presence of Russian troops in the country. Even though this initiative was absurd and unachievable, it got a wide-range reaction. The party was later expelled from the race.

An equally absurd initiative was proposed by David Usupashvili, a prominent Georgian politician who recently resigned from the position of parliamentary speaker. Usupashvili, leader of the Republican Party, promised to establish an “American base” in Georgia in the run-up to joining NATO. The idea contradicts the foreign policy that the coalition Georgian Dream government has pursued until recently. For years, Georgian Dream, in cooperation with US advisors, has tried to move Georgia-Russia relations out of the US-Russia relations context. The mere possibility that a US base would appear in the South Caucasus would definitely backfire and, of course, escalate the situation in the region. 

By the beginning of September, the election campaign had come to entertain conspiracy theories, after an audio recording that allegedly reveals Saakashvili’s plan to overturn the election results was leaked to the press. The recording supposedly documents a conversation between the ex-president of Georgia and fellow members of UNM in which they plan for mass riots and political disturbances in the post-election period. 

Moreover, Giga Bokeria, a prominent figures in the UNM and former secretary of the National Security Council, is allegedly heard to propose a “revolutionary scenario”, which is approved by Saakashvili. The security services have summoned the alleged participants for questioning, and an analysis of the tape’s authenticity is currently taking place.

The election campaign has now entered the stage of various local confrontations and serious incidents. On 2 October, three members of the youth wing of Georgian Dream were hospitalised after they were physically assaulted allegedly by UNM supporters (again in Samegrelo). The next day, shots were fired at a campaign meeting of Irakli Okruashvili, a past ally of Saakashvili, in Gori. While one of the former defence minister’s security team and a supporter were wounded as a result, Okruashvili claimed that responsibility for the attack lies with local Georgian Dream activists. 

The whole election campaign and the events of the past week reveal that there is a big mess in little Georgia. These “Messiah-less” elections make it clear that Georgia’s mainstream political parties have more or less the same “ideology” and the same goals, while parties with opposite approaches lack necessary financial and human resources. 

What remains to be seen is how this crisis will develop and how it will influence the post-election environment. Currently, there is only uncertainty. 

The article was initially published by OpenDemocracy.

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Who do I call if I want to speak to “pro-Russian forces” in Georgia?


In Georgia, whether you’re in opposition or in power, you can always call your opponent an agent of the Kremlin.

Russia may be actively involved in the Georgian economy, but our foreign policy narrative represents Russia as an existential threat. With Georgia’s status as a “beacon” of democracy in the South Caucasus taken as standard, the country finds itself under a continuous phantom threat from outside.

This is where Georgia’s domestic political narrative comes in. Ever since Mikheil Saakashvili divided society into “patriots” and “non-patriots” in the post-revolutionary years, the Georgian state has publicly searched for “enemy agents” in the form of “pro-Russian forces” and “fifth columns” — these groups are “traitors” who try to undermine Georgia’s sovereignty and aspirations to become a member of the civilised world.

This tactic has been transformed into an approved pre-election campaign to marginalise opponents and mobilise further support from Georgian society

Indeed, these exact terms have been used to abuse, oppress and libel various Georgian opposition groups and political parties by the political elite. Fast forward to 2016, this tactic has been transformed into an approved pre-election campaign to marginalise opponents and mobilise further support from Georgian society and the country’s strategic partners.

In fact, there is no clear definition of Georgia’s “pro-Russian” phenomenon. Instead, there are various interpretations that make it easy to deploy this term against “undesirable” elements and thus legitimise the use of questionable methods against them.

Saakashvili’s rise, fall and rise again

Russia’s involvement in its southern neighbour’s political life is an old story. During the 1990s, the Russian state contributed to the unrest in Abkhazia and South Ossetia (separatist regions recognised by Russia) and Georgians were fully aware of that.

Still, there was no public obsession with Russia in Georgia. Russia wasn’t the focus of discussion locally or internationally. Eduard Shevardnadze, Georgia’s president from 1992 to 2003, did not push the idea of Russia as an enemy, instead trying to maintain good relationships with both the west and the north.

Saakshvili’s government managed to make it acceptable for Georgian society to use questionable methods against so-called “pro-Russian forces” and the “fifth column”

Everything changed dramatically after the Rose Revolution in 2003. The newly elected political trio of Mikhail Saakashvili, Zurab Zhvania and Nino Burjanadze assured the international community that they will put the state on a democratic “path”. After the death of Zhvania in 2005, Saakashvili and his political team in the United National Movement (UNM) became the undisputed leaders of Georgia. Saakashvili tried to “restart” Georgian-Russian relations, but failed.

After the events of August 2004, when Saakasvhili’s government clashed with separatists in South Ossetia’s Tskhinvali region, it became clear that there was little ground for political dialogue between Georgia and Russia.

It was obvious that Saakashvili’s enormous support had melted away. In November of that year, Saakashvili ordered the dispersal of this peaceful protest, which led to mass riots, the closure of opposition TV broadcaster Imedi and the declaration of an emergency situation.

After Saakashvili was forced to resign and announce new presidential elections, it was clear Saakashvili was in need of a new political campaign that could consolidate Georgian society around him and legitimise his actions. He found it in Russia.

From November to November

The people who gathered in downtown Tbilisi in November 2007 came out against authoritarianism, abuse of rights and corruption. But prominent figures from UNM initially labelled it as a “pro-Russian rally” that aimed to dismantle Georgia, its sovereignty and overthrow the democratically elected pro-western government.

Saakashvili told local news agencies that “high-ranking officials in Russian special services are behind this”. Givi Targamadze, the former chairman of the parliamentary defense and security committee, warned protesters that the government would not let the Russian flag be raised on Rustaveli avenue, Tbilisi’s central thoroughfare. Moreover, Targamadze argued, the participants of these events would “drown in blood”. This was the first case in which a high-ranking Georgian official directly accused a foreign country of an attempt to overthrow the government.

Step-by-step, and using “secret recordings”, Gvaramia explained that the leaders of Georgia’s main opposition forces, such as Levan Berdzenishvili of the Republican Party, Giorgi Khaindrava of the Equality Institute, Konstantine Gamsakhurdia, leader of the Freedom Party and Shalva Natelashvili, the leader of the Labor Party, directed the 2007 protests under the guidance of foreign agents. From November to November thus introduced the concept of “pro-Russian forces” and “fifth column” into Georgia’s domestic political culture, justifying the government’s actions as a “necessary evil”. Despite these allegations, no one was arrested or with treason or the organisation of an attempted coup.

By the end of Saakashvili’s rule, every single individual, group of people or political opponents who had alternative approaches had been labeled “pro-Russian” and “non-patriotic”

Saakshvili’s government managed to make it acceptable for Georgian society to use questionable methods against so-called “pro-Russian forces” and the “fifth column”. As Koba Turmanidze, the director of Caucasus Research Resource Center, argued, an openly “pro-Russian” position could provoke a “harsh response”. This “response” was revealed several years later on 26 May 2011, when protesters led by Nino Burjanadze in Tbilisi were accosted by security officers and brutally beaten. Four people were later found dead.

The government called this protest “pro-Russian”, and easily justified its actions while members of Georgian society — afraid of the same fate — turned a blind eye to this “punitive” operation. By the end of Saakashvili’s rule, every single individual, group of people or political opponents who had alternative approaches had been labeled “pro-Russian” and “non-patriotic”.

Russia, again

Even though Georgia’s post-Rose Revolution government tried hard to stay in power, it lost parliamentary elections to the “pro-Russian” political party Georgian Dream in 2012.

Saakashvili’s attempts to represent Bidzina Ivanishvili, the oligarchic leader of Georgia’s opposition movement, as a close ally of Vladimir Putin failed. As soon as these “agents of foreign states” came to power, they assured Georgian society they would normalise Georgian-Russian relations.

But while there were hopes that the new government would dismantle the dubious concept of “pro-Russian forces”, Georgian society was deceived. Saakashvili’s legacy remained strong. Just like UNM in the past, Georgian Dream slowly haemorrhaged support thanks to its frequently illogical and ineffective reforms in various fields, including the extremely sensitive judicial and electoral systems. And on top of that, the failure of the Georgian-Russian “reset” intensified dissatisfaction among the electorate, on the one hand, and positions of anti-Russian groups, on the other.

So, who do I call if I want to speak to “pro-Russian forces” in Georgia? It seems the addresses are growing exponentially.

By September 2015, one year before parliamentary elections in October 2016, and in the wake of Georgian Dream’s falling approval ratings, Russia became relevant again. In a BBC interview, Tina Khidasheli, Georgia’s defence minister at the time, urged western states to support Georgia on its way toward NATO and EU integration — otherwise pro-Russian forces would be represented in the new parliament. Funnily enough, it was a colleague of Khidasheli’s who appeared in the secret recording with a Russian intelligence operative in From November to November that “proved” Russia’s involvement in the November 2007 events.

It is a paradox that Tina Khidasheli, an active participant of the “Russian-led” events in November 2007, began a search for “Russian spies” among opposition members in the lead-up to this year’s parliamentary elections. Nowadays, both the government and opposition use the concept to corral votes and marginalise one another other.

For instance, take July’s OSCE parliamentary assembly annual meeting in Tbilisi. During the session, OSCE members should have voted for a new president. The UNM presented its own candidate Gigi Tseretely, while the ruling party opposed. By the end of the day, the dispute was not about Tseretely’s candidacy, but rather about which side was cooperating with the Russian delegation. It should be noted that while the Bush administration was previously keen to trust Saakashvili on “pro-Russian forces”, nowadays, it is a less popular topic abroad.

Russia is both an important trade partner and a threat to Georgian security, but Mikheil Saakashvili managed to transform the country into a popular political method to marginalise his political opponents and oppress them.

Now, two months before Georgia’s parliamentary elections, the Georgian Dream ruling coalition, which is unable and unwilling to crack down on opponents, is also using the concept to consolidate the electorate.

So, who do I call if I want to speak to “pro-Russian forces” in Georgia? It seems the addresses are growing exponentially.

The article was initially published by OpenDemocracy.

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