Tensions remain high in Tbilisi after Russian lawmaker Sergey Gavrilov occupied the chair of the speaker of the Georgian parliament last month.
On July 20th, it will be almost one month since Georgia experienced one of the deepest and longest open political crises over the decade. Insulted by Russian deputy Sergey Gavrilov’s behavior during the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy when he occupied the chairman’s seat in the parliament of Georgia, some part of local society, in cooperation with political opposition, took to the streets to call for the government to bear responsibility, protest against occupation and remind the western partners that 20 per cent of the country is still under the control of the Kremlin. The initially peaceful protest turned violent and ended with massive clashes between protesters and riot police. Hundreds were injured, including security officers, while some lost their eyesight. As a result, the government was forced to fire the chairman of the parliament, introduce a proportional electoral system and free everyone detained during the unrest. At the same time, a small group of protesters are still demanding the resignation of the head of the ministry of internal affairs, Giorgi Gakharia. On July 7th, Georgian society experienced further frustration after Rustavi 2 TV journalist Giorgi Gabunia, on his show P.S., verbally insulted the President of Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin.
This initially provoked universal public outrage, which raised fears that the Kremlin could have initiated additional economic sanctions. Fortunately, Georgia and Russia managed to avoid further escalation of interstate relations. This incident is important for two reasons. Firstly, Rustavi 2 is one of Georgia’s leading TV channels that is capable of shaping and forming public attitudes. Secondly, this channel represents itself as a highly pro-western (and thus, anti-Russian) media agency that strongly supports the parliamentary opposition and June protests. So far, Gabunia’s absolutely provocative and non-journalistic behavior stigmatises the so-called pro-western movement and strengthens the attitudes of Georgia’s larger civil society that parliamentary opposition and the protesters are politically irresponsible and untrustworthy. Furthermore, it may create the false perception that irresponsible journalism is acceptable for the west and fits into western journalistic standards.
We may easily argue that the most critical stage of the protest has passed and the ruling party managed to avoid a further escalation of the situation for now. The political protest that is present on a regular basis in the city center is slowly fading and will probably be in vain. Putting aside the emotional part of the issue, this incident reflected Georgia’s deepening political and economic crisis; furthermore, a lack of alternatives and, most importantly, unreadiness of the youth to bear respective responsibility for its actions. And it seems that this irresponsibility became widespread, which affected Georgian media too.
The “full picture”
If you go through various local and international publications, you may come to conclusion that the Georgian youth were peacefully protesting against Gavrilov’s visit and the long-lasting occupation of the Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions by the Russian Federation. But factually, these people were peacefully protesting only for a while, and the reasons were much more complex; stagnation of political will and creativity among them. The visit of the Russian Duma deputy was just a trigger that initiated processes on the ground. Georgia is stuck between the past (the parliamentary opposition) and the present (ruling party) and is probably incapable of leading the state into a better future. Debris of the post-revolutionary government, the United National Movement and European Georgia, are lost in the past with an absolutely outdated political agenda, while the ruling party is seemingly unwilling to handle the significant issues that trouble Georgian society, including the status of the judiciary. Additionally, none of these political forces have a clear vision of how to deal with the economic crisis, unemployment and other socio-economic challenges. The status-quo pushes general Georgian society, especially the youth, to look for alternatives that are simply missing at the table. The non-existence of alternatives totally depreciates elections and leads to nihilism.
Provoked by the visit of representative of the “occupant state” and actually driven by despair, some part of Georgian society, including youth, went to the streets to unleash accumulated anger and dissatisfaction. This absolutely fair movement was acceptable for larger Georgian society until political opposition and their devoted activists decided to raise the stakes; the direct call from one of the leaders of the parliamentary opposition, Nika Melia, to “peacefully” relocate the protest into the building of the main legislative body, turned into an attempt to forcefully seize this state institution, the “heart” of Georgian statehood. Police officers and representatives of other security forces were calling on protesters to stop and attempted to prevent them from taking the building for approximately two hours. By the end of the day, Minister of Internal Affairs, Giorgi Gakharia, ordered the dispersal of the already non-peaceful and anti-constitutional protest. Unfortunately, this process was accompanied by the abuse of power and misbehavior by some members of the security forces that led to hundreds of people receiving various injuries, including the loss of eyesight. Georgian society got a new scare.
It is obvious that the government is usually guilty of both success and failure. The ruling Georgian Dream party made dramatic mistakes, including agreeing to hold the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy in the Georgian parliament and its failure to be responsive to the protesters demands and anxieties. Undoubtedly, the government failed to protect those peaceful and unarmed individuals who were attending the protest. At the same time, it has already suffered serious consequences and will feel significant impact during the upcoming parliamentary elections in 2020. But what about the actors who played a significant role in escalating and provoking unrest? Should the political opposition and the protesters also bear some responsibility for the events? We may definitely argue that Georgia cannot transform into a real democratic state unless we introduce the concept of shared responsibility, meaning the government is not always the only actor to blame—every engaged actor must bear its share of responsibility for its own actions and outcomes of these activities. And here we are experiencing serious problems.
Narratives expressed by members of the parliamentary opposition and the protesters simply avoid this issue; they are trying to turn a blind eye to it as if there were no direct attacks on security officers, destruction of state property, attempts to forcefully seize parliament building and general anti-constitutional behavior. John F. Kennedy once said, “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. The best thing that the protesters and especially the youth could have done for the country was to remain peaceful, but they failed. Today, the best thing they can still do is to share responsibility for June 20th with the government and parliamentary opposition. Unfortunately, neither the opposition nor the youth is ready to do so. This unreadiness for responsibility raises serious questions among larger Georgian society about whether the youth is actually prepared and can be trusted to lead the country.
By and large, Georgia suffers from a political and economic crisis that neither the ruling party nor the parliamentary opposition are probably capable of handling. There is dramatic need for new approaches and creativity through the establishment of alternative political forces and schools of thought. Unfortunately, Georgian society is simply not ready to satisfy this demand and some parts of the society, especially the youth, unleash their anger with political protests. The local parliamentary opposition and protesters are trying to represent the June 20th events as a peaceful protest that was brutally dispersed by the government. This narrative has little to do with the actual facts. Of course, the ruling party made a few significant mistakes, but both the political opposition and protesters played a significant role in escalating and provoking unrest. Thus, all sides should bear some part of the responsibility. Georgian society must realize that the responsibility for the country must be shared among all engaged actors and not only the government. Finally, this recklessness also affected the Georgian media environment. Giorgi Gabunia’s “demarché” against Vladimir Putin was, by all means, extremely damaging non-sense that sent the wrong message regarding Georgian values and journalistic standards and stigmatised political opposition and the protesters as politically irresponsible and untrustworthy actors.
Georgian security officers might have been complicit in the abduction of Afgan Muktarli, an exiled Azerbaijani journalist, which took place on May 29th in Tbilisi. Later on, Mukhtarli was found in a Baku detention facility. Local opposition and non-governmental organisations argue that the country is retreating from its democratic path and that the ruling Georgian Dream is supporting the regime in Baku.
This event, just like the 2008 August War, the recent clashes during an anti-homophobia rally and various other events, reflects the existence of two parallel Georgias: Georgia as a political brand, created by the former president Mikhail Saakashvili, and Georgia as a political actor of international relations which has to maneuver in the global and regional political environment. The brand is slowly being dismantled, as the country is increasingly failing to hide the real political processes underway within its borders. This in turn, has led to a painful disillusionment on the part of the local population.
Georgia’s political brand
Mikhail Saakashvili’s time in office was full of hope, reforms, achievements and, of course, misdeeds. Whether or not one positively assesses his two terms, it is clear that he was a well-educated politician and a brilliant PR campaigner. While in power he started building a new political brand of the country, which evolved over the years, reflecting the attitudes of the governing elite. The more Saakashvili’s political team was falling into authoritarianism, the weaker the brand was becoming. By the end of the Rose Revolution government’s time in office, when a new political grouping – the Georgian Dream coalition, defeated the president’s party in the parliamentary and presidential elections in 2012-2013, the brand began to lose its appeal.
There are several reasons for this loss. First, the brand was based on the perception that the country is a beacon of democracy in the South Caucasus surrounded by close friends and strategic allies (Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan) and oppressed by its northern neighbour, the Russian Federation. Moreover, it was meant to be protected by the red line that Russia supposedly could not cross, drawn by the former US president George W. Bush. Second, Saakashvili managed not only to build a well-structured political brand but also to persuade the majority of local actors that it reflects the reality. In practice, however, this was only an illusion used by the Georgian elite, both governmental and non-governmental, to keep society misinformed and to attract foreign political and financial resources.
What has been beneath the perception is a harsh political, social and economic reality where Georgia is a relatively democratic state in a very complex environment and a geopolitically sensitive region. All the neighbouring countries are falling into authoritarianism, often trying to further their own national interests with the help of Tbilisi. Finally, in their actions, the ruling elite has to take into consideration the existing regional tendencies and political climate. Georgia, as a political actor, does not possess any significant political, economic or military power and, so far, is highly dependent on its Western strategic allies, especially the US.
The harsh reality
Despite the well-organised and structured nature of Georgia’s political brand, the country is unable to hide the political processes taking place on the ground. The harsh reality often resurfaces and causes sincere astonishment and uproar. Probably the most painful disillusionment came when society realised that there have been no red lines in the South Caucasus and that Russia is capable of crossing any border. George W. Bush’s statement was just a part of his PR campaign in the wake of the growing dissatisfaction of American electorate with his presidency.
The 2008 August War reflected Tbilisi’s deep vulnerability to Russian military force. It also painfully showed that NATO’s was unable to provide support that Georgians had hoped for, that is military units on the ground fighting along Tbilisi against the aggressor. Furthermore, the recognition of Georgia’s separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states by Moscow once again proved that the country has been as vulnerable as ever. Georgia might be politically and morally supported by the West, but it is still defenceless in the face of military and other challenges that global and regional processes may unleash.
Finally, Georgia’s allegedly established democracy is a myth. After coming to power, the pro-Western post-revolutionary government assured its strategic partners that it would put the country on a democratic track. The Western allies (especially, the US under George W. Bush) immediately began to praise Tbilisi’s democratic transition. Both governmental and non-governmental organisations were working hard to create the image of Georgia as a beacon of democracy in the South Caucasus.
Yet, a peaceful meeting of the LGBT community in the capital on May 17th 2013 to celebrate the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia turned into a violent confrontation. Thousands of conservative ultra-Orthodox demonstrators broke through police cordons, clashing with gay rights activists. Georgia’s civil society reacted by gathering signatures under a petition calling the government to punish religious figures involved in the incident. But the newly elected Georgian Dream Coalition turned a blind eye, which showed that while the country may be democratic in comparison with its neighborhood, it is still far from the type of democracy it aspires to be.
Allies and enemies
The political dichotomy of Georgia’s allies and enemies built by Saakashvili is slowly vanishing too. In this scenario, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan are presented as the country’s close allies and strategic partners, while Russia as the only threat to Tbilisi’s sovereignty, democracy and institutional stability. In reality, however, the dichotomy reflects rather the political correctness of Georgia’s elite and their attempts to avoid further escalation of the political situation in the region. The state is surrounded by authoritarian regimes that are trying to use Tbilisi to further their own national interests.
Istanbul, for instance, is pushing its neighbour to close all schools and organisations connected to the exiled Turkish politician, Fethullah Gülen. Following Turkey’s request, the Georgian government detained the manager of the private Turkish Demirel College. Moreover, at Turkey’s request, the authorities halted discussions in the Georgian parliament on making Didgoroba – the celebration of the 1121th anniversary of the victory of the Kingdom of Georgia over the Great Seljuk Empire, a public holiday. According to official sources, the Embassy of Turkey in Georgia asked that the parliament stops the proceedings over the legislative proposal because the day marks a great defeat for Turks.
The case of Afgan Mukhtarli’s, an exiled Azerbaijani journalist who was abducted by members of Georgian and Azerbaijani security forces and sent to a detention facility in Baku, is another great example of Tbilisi’s vulnerability. Human rights activists argue that the Georgian government collaborated with Azerbaijan due to the pressure from SOCAR gas and oil company. It is not a secret that Saakashvili’s early attempts to free the country from Russia’s Gazprom leverage led to a dramatic dependence on Azerbaijan’s energy resources.
Finally, Armenia with its Russian military base located in Gyumri, constitutes another veritable Damocles’ sword hanging over Tbilisi.
All in all, while Georgia needs a brand that would help to promote its national interests, the local elite should not get deluded. The country is on the path to democracy, but one that is still far from the Western definition. Moreover, the situation in the region is fragile and Tbilisi must realise that an existing dichotomy of allies and enemies is no longer relevant. The neighbouring countries will continue to put pressure on Georgia to defend their authoritarian ends. This becomes clear, when the brand faces a reality check.
On October 8th, Georgia hosted a parliamentary election. The ruling Georgian Dream party supported by local tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili, received 48.68 per cent of the vote, while the leading oppositional force the United National Movement received 27.11 per cent. The third party entering the parliament is the Patriotic Alliance, with 5.01 per cent of the vote. On October 30th, in some districts, the second round of votes will take place to elect majoritarian MPs.
Some hoped that the election will lead to the development of a multiparty system. Even though it seems to have happened, the results caught the majority of Georgians by surprise. Instead of having a few relatively equal and mutually dependent pro-Western parties, there is a strong sense of dominance of the Georgian Dream over the UNM. Moreover, liberal parties such as the Republican Party and Free Democrats, supported by the country’s strategic partners, did not manage to break the 5 per cent threshold and enter the parliament. At the same time, the Patriotic Alliance, known for its nationalistic and aggressive rhetoric and frequently seen as a pro-Russian force, will be represented in the main legislative body.
The outcome reflects a few interesting dilemmas that Georgian democracy is facing – a possible constitutional majority of the Georgian Dream, transformation of UNM into democracy guarantor and the increased popularity of nationalistic rhetoric.
The phantom menace
The Georgian Dream is hoping to achieve a constitutional majority. According to existing practices the Georgian parliament has 150 members, 77 of which are elected on the basis of proportional representation and 73 through a single-mandate system representing their constituencies. Constitutional majority requires 113 seats. In the first round of the election, the Georgian Dream have received 67 seats (23 – majoritarian, 44 – proportional), the UNM 27 seats (0 majoritarian , 27 proportional) and the Patriotic Alliance 6 seats (0 majoritarian, 6 proportional). In the second round, the parties will be competing for 50 majoritarian mandates. At the moment, the ruling party needs an additional 44 seats to achieve a constitutional majority, and it is likely that it will reach its goal.
The option that one party will hold a full carte-blanche is widely feared. There already have been calls from oppositional forces and civil society not to let the Georgian Dream win the constitutional majority. This is due both to the experiences of the recent past as well as the party’s controversial initiatives.
The last government that held a constitutional majority was the United National Movement between 2004 and 2012. This period was particularly complex as far as Georgia’s political party system is concerned. Mikhail Saakashvili managed to consolidate the power vertical around himself, and the legislative body completely lost its role. Unbalanced by other state institutions, both Saakashvili and the UNM made a number of serious mistakes that pushed the country on an authoritarian path. It is therefore argued that the Georgian Dream also will not have enough political will to resist the temptation of unilateral rule.
The second issue is related to the controversial initiatives that the Georgian Dream will most likely try to implement. In particular, there are a few extremely sensitive amendments to the constitution that the ruling government would like to make – namely the definition of the family and regulations related to the election of the President.
In the wake of debates regarding the LGBT minority in Georgia, some members of the Georgian Dream have called for a constitutional amendment to the definition of family that would automatically ban same-sex marriages. The initiative has been highly criticised not only by human rights groups but also by some members of the Georgian Dream. The ruling party, unable to make changes in the absence of a constitutional majority, promised to implement the initiative if it gets enough seats in the parliament.
The changes in the process of electing the President are another controversial idea. The Georgian Dream members argue that the next president of Georgia should be elected by the parliament rather than through direct vote. They insist that the body reflects the will of the people and thus there is no need for additional full-scale election. At the same time, oppositional forces argue in favour of keeping the existing system because of the high chances that the Georgian Dream will receive constitutional majority. In such a scenario, the party will control not only the executive and legislative bodies, but also the presidency.
Georgian society’s unwillingness to witness another constitutional majority rule has led to an astonishing consolidation of calls from oppositional political parties, NGOs and other institutions to vote for UNM.
The United National Movement has a controversial image. On the one hand, Saakashvili and his team have been famous for pushing outstanding reforms that transformed Georgia into a modern state. On the other hand, they are remembered for their aggressive politics and the establishment of an authoritarian regime. The former government is loved and hated simultaneously. But the last parliamentary election dramatically changed the role of the UNM and its followers.
Gia Khukhashvili, once a close ally and advisor of the Coalition Georgian Dream’s founder, Bidzina Ivanishvili, criticised the current government for pursuing a destructive pre-election campaign. Khukhasvili, an active opponent of Saakashvili and his political team, argued that the Georgian Dream intentionally discredited other political forces and managed to build another two-party parliamentary system, with the UNM playing a role of the guarantor of democracy. Moreover, Rustavi 2 Broadcasting Company, allegedly loyal to Saakashvili, will become the main oppositional TV channel and watchdog. According to Khukhashvili, instead of dismantling the UNM as a political force, the Georgian Dream contributed to its image as a crucial element of the democratic process.
The views of Khukhashvili are widely shared. David Berdzenishvili, former member of the Coalition Georgian Dream, urged the electorate to vote against the ruling party. Even local NGOs called on pro-Western parties and groups to to support the UNM in order to prevent the Georgian Dream from establishing a constitutional majority.
This is a perfect opportunity for the UNM to strengthen its position in Georgian politics once again. The party, which the majority of experts expected to disappear, not only managed to enter the parliament but also restored its role as a democracy guarantor.
The rise of pro-Russian forces
As soon as the preliminary results were published, the crucial question was whether the Patriotic Alliance will enter the parliament. It did. The information sparked a mass outrage all over social media. Members of Georgian civil society were shocked that the party was able to outmaneuver the liberal, pro-Western forces. The main problems with the Patriotic Alliance are their disdain for the UNM, ultra-conservative nationalistic ideology and allegations of being a pro-Russian force.
The Patriotic Alliance was founded in 2013 and originates in the Resistance Movement. Its main aim was to fight the United National Movement as an underground force. It refuses any cooperation with the party and demands from the current government to prosecute all members of the UNM who were involved in criminal activities during Saakashvili’s time in office. So far, it has been perceived as a group with radical views.
The radicalism is reflected in their approach to Georgia’s domestic and foreign affairs. The Patriotic Alliance opposes the mainstream liberal narrative and Georgia’s aspirations to join NATO, and promotes conservative ideas such as the increasing role of Georgian Orthodox Church, family values and so on. The group’s election advertisement was removed by Rustavi 2 Broadcasting Company and modified by Georgian Public Broadcaster due to its anti-Turkish character.
Finally, it has been labelled by pro-Western groups as a pro-Russian party. It is no secret that Georgian society is extremely sensitive to the issue of Russia and its presence in Georgia. For years, Saakashvili’s government was using Russia as an iconic enemy to marginalise and oppress its opponents. But the members of Coalition Georgian Dream share the tendency to manipulate the voters using the Russian card.Hence, the election to parliament of a political movement that is, according to some, financed and steered by Russia is considered as a threat to national security and democracy in general.
It seems that there is more trouble to come for Georgia. On the one hand, the country’s ruling party seeks to gain a constitutional majority, which is feared by almost everyone. On the other hand, we are witnessing the transformation of the United National Movement from a controversial political force to a democracy guarantor in the future parliament. Finally, we are facing the rise of an aggressive nationalistic movement. The election of the Patriotic Alliance to parliament will further deepen the paranoia related to pro-Russian forces invading Georgia and leading the country astray from Western values.