Eka Beselia left the ruling Georgian Dream party. Some argue that this is the beginning of the collapse but Georgian political analyst Archil Sikharulidze disagrees.
Read more in Russian here.
Georgia held presidential elections and, for the first time in the country’s political history, the state will hold the second tour. This may be easily considered as a huge blow for the ruling political force, Georgia Dream. Local political opposition united around Grigol Vashadze, presidential candidate of United National Movement. Some foreign and local experts/observers may think that fierce political rivalry between position and opposition is a sign of positive democratic changes; furthermore, that Vashadze’s victory will have positive effect. Contrary to this perception, Vashadze’s success won’t lead country to better future but rather to unfortunate past.
On October 28, 2018 Salome Zurabishvili, an independent presidential candidate supported by the ruling party Georgian Dream and its leader Georgian typhoon Bidzina Ivanishvili failed to win in the first tour of the presidential elections in Georgia. Zurabishvili managed to surpass her opponent from United National Movement, Grigol Vashadze only by small margin. In the wake of this tremendous success of the opposition, various experts analyze possible outcomes of Vashadze’s presidency. Previously, Vashadze argued that he will pardon former Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili and his fellow teammates. Georgian political observer, Archil Sikharulidze gives a short comment on possible return of Saakashvili and the reasons behind opposition’s victory.
You can read more in Russian here.
On June 13, Georgia’s PM Giorgi Kvirikashvili resigned from his position citing a disagreement with the leader of ruling party Georgian Dream, Bidzina Ivanishvili. On June 20, Georgian parliament held a confidence vote and appointed Mamuka Bakhtadze, 36, former minister of finance of Georgia, as the new PM. Earlier, Bakhtadze’s nomination was highly criticized by the political opposition and some members of local civil society as a step backward. They argued that even though Kvirikashvili had serious political and economic flaws, he was comparatively more independent from Georgia’s “kingmaker” Ivanishvili than his predecessor Irakli Garibashvili (Nov. 2013 – Dec. 2015). The government’s critics believe that an inexperienced, little-known and young Bakhtadze has been chosen by Ivanishvili as a replacement for Kvirikashvili to strengthen/restore his informal grasp on power in the country.
We can debate whether these allegations are right or wrong, but it is undoubted reality that there is a pretty questionable selection methodology in Georgia. Apart from nepotism and other painful reflections of the 90s, there is still something puzzling in this “human resources” approach, which we can define as the “Zidanes y Pavones” policy.
“Zidanes y Pavones”
In the early 2000s, Florentino Perez, current President of Real Madrid C.F. (a professional football club based in Madrid, Spain) announced a policy of club management that was formulated as “Zidanes y Pavones”. In theory, it meant the aspiration of the club to purchase world-leading football players from all around the globe and use “homegrown wonder kids” to make the team totally unbeatable on the field as well as a financially successful market brand. To achieve the goals, Real Madrid bought such prominent football players as Luis Figo (2000-2005), Zinedine Zidane (2001-2006), Ronaldo (2002-2007), and David Beckham (2003-2007) while wholeheartedly supporting very talented “homegrown” wonder boy, Francisco Pavon. Unfortunately, in practice, this approach appeared to be flawed. Though Perez managed to build a well-known and well-bought brand, he failed to secure this success on the field. The club went four years without success in the Spanish Football League between 2003 and 2007 and would fail to qualify beyond the last 16 of the Champions League for seven consecutive seasons after 2004. Perez was forced to leave his post in February 2006. Analysts outline three main reasons as to why this policy failed. The first was divisions in the team. Real Madrid was split into “superstars” and “ordinary” players that complicated interaction between members and factually made it impossible to build a strong united and consolidated team. The second reason was the tremendous pressure that all players faced. In the wake of continuous demands from club management to show the highest possible results, both “superstars” and “homegrowns” had no actual time to adjust, settle, develop and, most importantly, grow professionally. And finally, the accent was put more on the financial part of the policy rather than football itself. There was no sense investing so much money into expensive football players when Real Madrid could have pursued a more pragmatic and game-oriented policy. “Superstars” and “homegrown wonder kids” are attractive concepts but, at the end of the day, a team needs hard-working and game-oriented players who will create a core, rather than market-oriented stars and inexperienced youth. All in all, the “stars” attracted and “wonder kids” tried, but without the backbone of honored and experienced players who passed through fire water and copper pipes, Real Madrid failed to be an effective and efficient football team.
From the beginning of his governance, Saakashvili expressed willingness to engage youth in policy and decision-making processes. This approach was probably highly welcomed by all sides. But unfortunately, Saakashvili pursued a very strict “Pavones” policy, meaning that in his statements the Georgian President called citizens above the age 35 as “flashy” and unnecessary. He believed that the only way to get rid of the so-called “soviet mentality” was to make a bet on “Zidanes” (Georgian emigrants) and, mostly, “homegrown wonder kids” (local human resources) to lead the country to a better future.
Probably the most prominent “Zidane” in Saakashvili’s cabinet was a Georgian emigrant from Paris, Salome Zurabishvili. Zurabishvili, who had been a French career diplomat since 1974, was appointed as the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia in March 20, 2004. This decision was a marketing step to make Tbilisi more recognizable and attractive for the Western world. On the other hand, Georgia has witnessed the rise of “homegrown wonder kids” such as Kakha Lomaia, Giga Bokeria, Gigi Ugulava, Irakli Okruashvili, Vano Merabishili, Khatuna Kalmakhelidze, of course, Vera Kobalia.
Saakashvili’s team, like Real Madrid, had initial positive success, especially in handling corruption and reforming the education system. But, very soon, the Georgian “Zidane” rose against Saakashvili and finished her public servant career without significant results. Kakha Lomaia’s “breakthrough” in the education sphere was pretty soon continued by a poor and blank chain of questionable and, we may argue, ineffective decisions that still effect the education system of Georgia today. Saakashvili’s beloved “son,” Irakli Okruashvili, was too arrogant, selfish and self-confident- leading to his exile and political downfall.
Generally speaking, Saakashvili’s “Pavones” were highly motivated for change, but frequently had no idea how to go about it effectively and efficiently; they had no respective experience and, simply, no time to grow professionally. The pressure that Saakashvili unleashed on them was too oppressive and Georgia’s “Pavones” started making serious mistakes that resulted in criminal punishments for Gigi Ugulava, Vano Merabishvili and some other “homegrown wonder kids” later on. By the end of Saakashvili’s term, Georgian society had no understanding of the merits that Saakashvili had applied in his selection methodology; the best examples are the appointments of Khatuna Kalmakhelidze (Minister of Corrections and Legal Assistance, Dec. 2009-Sept. 2012) and Vera Kobalia (Minister of Economy and Sustainable Development, Jul. 2010-Oct. 2012).
The Same Old Story with Georgian Dream
There were hopes that Saakashvili’s policy that put forward “Pavones” and totally overlooked experienced and honored local human resources would be re-thought by PM Bidzina Ivanishvili. Unfortunately, these expectations were misleading. Ivanishvili shared his predecessor’s policy and, as an example, appointed Archil Kbilashvili as Prosecutor General. Kbilashvili’s (Oct. 2012-Nov. 2013) approach to a few very sensitive criminal cases lead to his early resignation and total disappearance from the public eye. During an open-door debate with political opposition and other members of Georgian civil society, Ivanishvili was asked by Aleko Elisashvili (Georgian politician, civil activist) whether Kbilashvili had the respective experience and/or expertise handling not only criminal cases but, generally speaking, to occupy the position of Prosecutor General. The Georgian PM noted that Archil was a “good” guy but “a little bit inexperienced.:
Another example of the “Pavones” policy was the appointment of Irakli Garibashvili as a Prime Minister of Georgia. Garibashvili (Nov. 2013-Dec. 2015), who was in his early 30s at that time and had no idea of politics at all, was highly criticized by all actors. His approach to state-management and political rhetoric was full of inconsistencies and showed a clear lack of understanding of political processes; by and large, he was unaware of the rules of the game. At the same time, Georgian Dream had its own “Zidane”; not an immigrant but, as Kvirikashvili argued, a person with tremendous managerial skills and knowledge of “how to-do” and “how to-fix” things – Aleksandre Jejelava. Jejelava (Minister of Education and Science, Jun. 2016-Nov. 2017), who, in accordance with existing traditions, had no serious experience in public service, was “Zidane” due to his status of a certified international level trainer and for the “catchy” phrases he liked to throw around. These were his only achievements in the position and we may definitely assess Jejelava’s progress by the formula – he came, he said and he left to continue his studies.
Bakhtadze’s appointment as a PM was probably irritating for many Georgians due to a fact that people are sick and tired of this “Zidanes y Pavones” policy that brings useless “stars” and arrogant, selfish and self-confident “homegrown wonder kids” to power. Georgian society has already experienced the outcomes of such a policy – partial success with significant flaws. There is no doubt that Georgia needs “Zidanes” to be attractive and “Pavones” to have gifted youth, but Tbilisi needs more a system where the backbone of state institutions will be experienced and honored resources. Until that time, Georgia, like Real Madrid, will face challenges with effectiveness and efficiency. Currently, this is expressed by poor and blank state institutions with no clear vision; and, of course, continuous reshuffling of cabinet ministers every two-three years.
Archil Sikharulidze & Teona Mamukishvili
The Georgian political establishment has already summarized 2017 and given promises to further develop democratic practices on the ground, ensuring economic and social security, equality and, of course, equity. And while members of the Georgian Dream are mainly satisfied with the decision-making, there is an issue that is causing significant alarm. Particularly, there are fears that the ruling party is repeating the mistakes of its predecessor, the United National Movement, by following an old and time-tested policy to solve complex tasks that can be reflected by an abbreviature – KIS. What is more astonishing is that some members of Georgian civil society directly or indirectly play a significant role in this process by pushing the government to pursue the above mentioned policy.
What is KIS policy?
The abbreviature KIS comes from the software developing sphere and means, “Keep it Simple.” The idea behind it is that any complicated programming code should be written in an elegant yet clear way to facilitate other software developers in better understanding the code, the reason it is written in the given manner and, generally the whole program. By doing so, we significantly shorten the time period of further development and integration. And while this general line is applicable to any decision-making process, in Georgian political culture, it overwhelmingly means a scheme containing three policy-making statements: quick, simple and cheap.
To understand what these statements are about, we should analyze them based on two unfortunate cases that happened in Tbilisi this past year. Particularly, on September 25, a 3-year-old child fell from the second floor of the 206th kindergarten of Zemo Ponichala and on December 1 two 16-year-old boys died in a school scuffle.
The first policy-making statement is probably the most common in Georgia: things must be done quickly (especially when it comes to cases that undermine the prestige of the ruling political elite), deal with pretty sensitive issues, or/and enthrall the eye of the mainstream media. This is also where representatives of civil society play a significant role. Local civil society has a tendency to overreact and by doing so (and continuing to hype various topics), they often push political elites to make decisions as fast as possible. The main narrative behind the decision-making process in such cases is not to solve the issue in general but rather to calm and stabilize the situation.
Notably, in the above two cases, the Georgian government decided to, in the case of the kindergarten incident, punish the director, caregivers and, finally, to increase security measures by putting the children behind bars. The same punishment scenario took place in the school and, according to tradition, security forces such as resource officers and patrol police were mobilized to tighten control in public schools.
Quick decisions are not bad when they are followed by in-depth analysis and strategic planning. In the Georgian case, quick decision-making is not immediately or even in the near future accompanied by any such action.
Quick decisions that aim to stabilize a situation are usually simple decisions. Simplicity is frequently a positive happening, but not in those cases needing us to deal with complex issues and challenges.
It is no secret that local kindergartens are not capable of satisfying the existing demand for child spaces. Moreover, there are serious doubts being raised as to the professionalism and skills of the caregivers, and to the quality of services given. This state institution is also experiencing a shortage of pedagogues who are able to ensure the physical safety of the children in their care. Taking into account international standards, according to which caregivers do not belong to “security services” and are devoted to promoting the healthy development of children, it is questionable how simply putting a young generation of Georgians behind security bars can deal with the source of the problem rather than its logical consequence.
The same analysis is applicable to the school incident. Georgian schools do not lack “security” institutions; they lack “healthy,” safe environments and inter-personal communication focused on multidimensional (staff, children, families, community, policy) responsibilities to promote the raising of socially responsible youths. This can be achieved only by involving supportive professionals: social workers, specialist pedagogues, psychologists and other related professionals.
The fact that the Georgian government by default considers using security services as a main tool for handling these issues raises questions as to whether it realizes the necessity of raising a new generation of educated citizens devoted to democratic principles.
The third important statement, of course, deals with finances. It is not only fast to put bars, take punitive measures, and send police officers to schools, but also simple and comparatively pretty cheap. Representatives of the Georgian political establishment might assume that there are not enough financial resources in the country to hire and prepare high-level professionals to eradicate the issues in the Georgian education system. So far, it has been more logical to use the existing resources (the same resource officers and police) or/and cheap techniques (bars) to contain these problems. Such argumentation is not only wrong but also financially unprofitable. A well-managed infusion of money will undoubtedly lead to the development of strong, effective and efficient institutions that, in turn, will create the respective basis for improved financial and social prosperity.
By and large, the Georgian government should abandon the time-tested KIS policy when dealing with complex tasks. The formula “quick-simple-cheap” is not applicable in such cases. Instead, representatives of the local political elite should pursue a logical long-term policy oriented on eradication of the source of the problems rather than containment. We need a policy-making approach that is based on comprehensive strategic planning with an infusion of the respective financial resources.
Constitutions in Western democracies are based on a principle perfectly expressed by the Latin phrase “Non rex est lex, sed lex est rex” (lat., The King is not the law, but the law is king). For years, Georgia tried hard to set the same framework by changing the country’s main legislative document, but instead of settling the superiority of the law, it was used to strengthen the superiority of particular political groups.
The current government’s constitutional reform is highly criticized by various actors for being a unilateral decision not backed by society and lacking a common agreement among political actors. Some say it may even trigger the worsening of domestic processes, though, generally, this is a false statement. In fact, the reform is a continuation of Georgia’s never ending “perestroika” and will not significantly change the environment, due to problems with political willingness rather than with the constitutional amendments themselves.
What is it all about?
Georgian “perestroika” is a process of re-shaping and re-building state institutions, laws and other things to improve on the “misdeeds” of the previous government. Predictably, every political group wants to make the country better than it was, but the local scenario is complex. According to well-established Georgian political tradition, every predecessor is “corrupt” in the eyes of the current power holder, and the “perestroika” frequently means the demolishing and abandonment of pretty much everything that was initiated before. So far, Georgia has been stuck in a close circle of rarely useful never-ending reforms. The constitutional changes perfectly reflect this paradox. Every government sees flaws in it and is highly motivated to make respective amendments to the document, forgetting the importance of political willingness to give up the reins of power and decentralize power vertically. Briefly, the political elite would like to make a better Constitution but are not ready to lose seats in parliament to do so. Logically, this is hardly manageable in real life. So, amendments are made but the political situation remains unchanged and the process starts all over again.
The current constitutional reform process is so frequently discussed by various actors in a negative way that it is natural to share the popular assumption that something really bad is happening; something that will undermine Georgia’s democracy and institutional stability. In fact, it is a misleading assumption based on two false statements regularly used by the political opposition and a number of local non-governmental actors.
The first argument expressed by NGOs is that there was never a demand for constitutional change, but as the government initiated the process, it must be dealt with in accordance with democratic standards. Since the first Constitution was approved in 1995, Georgians were and are too busy with everyday challenges such as unemployment, poverty, elite corruption, military conflicts and occupation to focus particularly on this comparatively less important issue. Furthermore, there is no survey where “constitutional reform” is even mentioned by interviewees. For years, political elites have been making amendments based on their own initiatives and positioning rather than decisive demands from the electorate.
Secondly, Georgia’s strategic partners are worried by the absence of a common agreement on a variety of issues among the government, political opposition and civil society regarding the reform. There is an assumption that the unwillingness of the ruling party to cooperate and take into account critical suggestions undermines legitimacy of the process in general. We need to remind ourselves of some statistics, here. During the first years of the post-Revolutionary government, both executive and legislative bodies were under the total control of Mikhail Saakashvili and his United National Movement. From 2004 to 2008, the ruling party had 135 seats in Parliament, while the political opposition had just 15. The situation worsened when, in 2008, only 11 seats were occupied by members of the non-ruling party. In the first months of his governance, Saakashvili managed to make at least 40 amendments to the Constitution, transforming the country into a super-presidential system with no checks or balances.
Finally, the 2010 reform that gave Georgia a parliamentary model raised fears that Saakashvili was going to repeat the so-called Putin-Medvedev scenario (a case when, after two-terms of presidency, Vladimir Putin replaced Dmitry Medvedev in the position of Prime Minister, thus de-facto keeping his grip on power). These changes were mostly made without serious panel discussions with either the political opposition or civil society. And still, there were no doubts about the legitimacy of the regime or Constitution. It should be added that the 2012 parliamentary elections allocated 65 seats to the political opposition while the last one: 35.
The Georgian Constitution has been a subject for continuous reforms for years; and, frequently, the ruling party has the tendency to use its constitutional majority to unilaterally pass amendments that they believed were important or even crucial despite there being no demand for these particular changes nor any general agreements to do so among local actors. Georgian Dream is trying to ensure, as every single political force has before them, that the electoral system is government-friendly. But this process is in accordance with the established practice. There are no significant aberrations that raise concerns that the political environment in the country will get better or worse purely due to these amendments.
Finally, we need to keep in mind that constitutional reform in Georgia was never about superiority of the law over politics, but rather about the superiority of politics over this law; and by changing the country’s main legislative document, local political elites inform other actors that a new boss has arrived and “perestroika” is coming. It is a state of condition when “rex” (lat., king, or the constitutional majority in our case) is “lex” (lat., law) and not vice versa.
The original article was published by GeorgiaToday. It is available here.
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.
Parliamentary elections are coming to Georgia. This Saturday, Georgia’s electorate will go to the polls to define the country’s future for the next four years. While Georgian and foreign officials have been mostly positive in their assessments of the election environment (“the most democratic elections ever”), the tone and content of the election campaign makes it clear that there is something fundamentally wrong with Georgian politics.
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.
Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Georgia’s first post-independence president, is a classic example. In May 1991, Gamsakhurdia, an ultra-nationalist dissident, was elected by 87% of votes after campaigning on the grand goal of leading the nation. When he failed to meet his promises, Gamsakhurdia was overthrown by militants. The country was on the edge of a full-scaled civil war.
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.
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.
Once again, the electorate was looking for another leader to save Georgia’s fragile democracy. Bidzina Ivanishvili, a Georgian tycoon, appeared to be the last Messiah who managed to consolidate society once again, defeating Saakashvili’s government in the 2012 parliamentary elections.
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.
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.
On 5 October, Georgia witnessed a terrorist attack. Givi Targamadze, a leading UNM official and former defense and security committee chairman, was lucky to survive a car bomb in Tbilisi. UNM leaders indirectly blamed the government. The ruling party immediately struck back. In an urgent address to the nation, prime minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili promised to punish the initiators, saying that “foreign citizenship” will not protect them. Thus, Kvirikashvili indirectly accused Saakashvili, who accepted Ukrainian citizenship to avoid criminal charges in Georgia, of an attempt to destabilise the state prior to the elections. Saakashvili, of course, then promised his victorious return from Ukraine after the election.
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.