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.
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.
The August 2008 war, events in Ukraine and role in Syria have raised concerns in the west that Russia seeks to reshape the post-Cold War international system and regain once lost positions around the world. “Deterring” Russia has become a crucial issue for NATO and its allies. But Georgia, where Russia is a crucial pillar of both domestic and foreign political narratives, has taken on this topic to a whole new level.
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.
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.
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.
At the same time, the situation in Georgia itself also became more strained. Saakashvili’s aggressive rhetoric and authoritarian attitudes gave way to a political system with a “firm hand” and one dominant political party in parliament. Lacking balance, Saakashvili’s government made a few critical mistakes. By 2007, Saakasvhili’s popularity had seriously declined, which was reflected in a permanent protest that gathered thousands of people.
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.
Later on, under the direct patronage of the government, Georgia’s Public Broadcaster released a documentary called From November to November, in which Nika Gvaramia, Georgia’s then deputy state prosecutor, argued that Georgian opposition forces were in a direct contact with the Russian security agencies.
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.
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”.
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.
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 newly elected parliament of Georgia approved the cabinet of ministries headed by Bidzina Ivanishvili On October 25. The Georgian tycoon kept his word given to the citizens of Georgia to celebrate victory over the already former ruling party UNM (United National Movement) in the parliamentary elections held on October 2 and become Prime-Minister of the state.
Earlier, neither political position, nor opposition seriously considered his statements, noting that Ivanishvili hadn’t had experience of being a politician. As a result, many had expected that he could have shared the fate of another Georgian tycoon– Badri Patarkatsishvili, who once challenged the UNM. Finally, Patarkatsishvili was forced to flee from the country and later found dead at home under odd circumstances. But the realm proved opposite.
“Veni Vidi Vici” (or “I came, I saw, I conquered”) is a Latin sentence reportedly written by Julius Caesar in 47 BC as a comment on his short war with Pharnaces II of Pontus in the city of Zela (currently known as Zile, in Turkey). Veni, Vidi, and Vici are first person perfect forms of the three Latin verbs Venire, Videre, and Vincere.
‘Veni’ (‘he came’)
Ivanishvili appeared in the right place at the right time. The political opposition of Georgia was dismantled and fragmented; the UNM had no doubts that it would have won the parliamentary elections; as a result, Georgian civil society as well as international organizations and strategic partners were afraid that the ruling party could repeat the path passed by Vladimir Putin in the past; particularly, the UNM could win the parliamentary elections, form a one-party parliament and Mikhail Saakashvili would have occupied the post of Prime-Minister of Georgia, thus keeping reins of power over the country after his second-presidential term would have passed.
Though challenging the government at the right time, Ivanishvili instantly became a leader who had enough power to unite the oppositional forces around him and restore the trust of the voters towards a discredited Georgian opposition; on the other hand, he appeared as a long-expected appropriate alternative for the existing government in the eyes of the West.
‘Vidi’ (‘he saw’)
The Georgian tycoon not only ‘came’ in the right place at the right time, but also he clearly analyzed and understood the distributions of the forces on the political battlefield of Georgia. He used past experience of his predecessor to avoid common mistakes.
One of the main flaws of his predecessors was the abandonment of the strategic partners of Georgia, such as the US and the EU. Broadly speaking, neither Levan Gachechiladze (former leader of Georgian opposition who lost presidential elections held in 2008), nor Badri Patarkatsishvili, had the political support of the West. The Western allies considered both politicians as inappropriate alternatives to the regime of Saakashvili and his political team.
Consequently, the first political step of Ivanishvili was to consolidate the pro-Western political parties and through them, assure the West that the new force must be allowed to govern the country; and that the new government will maintain a pro-Western orientation as well as the aspiration to join NATO.
On October 15, the newly appointed US ambassador to Georgia, Richard Norland, attending a civil Society Forum noted that, “we are confident that Georgia’s future is in good hands.” The gained ‘confidence’ of the US is a result of the right perception of distribution of forces on the political battlefield of Georgia, as well as the tremendous work done by Ivanishvili to prove that he is ‘axios’ (‘worthy’).
‘Vici’ (‘he conquered’)
As a result of his calculated actions, Ivanishvili became a leader of the joint Georgian opposition backed by the support of Georgia’s strategic Western allies. The victory over the UNM, which already exceeded all limits of trust and confidence, was inevitable.
The inevitability relied on two realms. The first one was the external and internal political realities. The victory of the UNM would have directly been considered as a duplication of the well-known and unappreciated political system of Russia. Both, the West, as well as Georgia’s civil society, desired to avoid such a deviation from the process of democratic development.
On the other hand, it was clear that the political misdeeds of the ruling party resulted in the loss of credibility and support of the voters; while Bidzina Ivanishvili, famous for his charity activities was ‘in the prime of his political life’. Consequently, the Georgian tycoon ‘conquered’ the reins of power despite harsh opposition from the ruling party and its leader Saakashvili.
Ivanishvili revealed the skills of the leader and politician through having a clear understanding of the political ‘game rules’ and the distribution of forces that led to the flash and absolute victory over the former ruling party in the parliamentary elections held on October 2.
Despite the fact that his team didn’t get a constitutional majority as the Georgian tycoon was aiming for on October 25, it’s definitely his ‘triumph’ on the political battlefield, which can be described as ‘Veni Vidi Vici!’ (‘He came, he saw, he conquered’). And Georgia’s civil society as well as the West should keep a close eye on him and his political team to be sure that the ‘triumph’ won’t lead the country in the wrong direction.
On October 9, the Georgian Dream Coalition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili and the members of his political team met with president of Georgia Mikhail Saakashvili, marking the moment in which the Georgian Dream would take reins of power over the country, thus forcing the UNM (United National Movement) to step aside and become the parliamentary minority after governing the state for the last eight years.
The defeat of the ruling party in the parliamentary elections held on October 2 represented a drastic shift in the political, social and economic environment in Georgia, and at the same time it was the marked a precedent in the region when the ruling force recognized its defeat in the elections and allowed the political opposition an opportunity to lead the state.
Such dramatic events were considered by some domestic as well as foreign experts as an important step away from Georgia’s post-Soviet era towards democracy. This transition was symbolic of the positive changes occurring not only in Georgia itself, but in the whole region. Therefore, the worldwide media just couldn’t turn blind eye on the ongoing developments in Georgia. The BBC, CNN, RIA Novosti, Foreign Policy, The Times, Sunday Times – all these prominent magazines and newsmakers kept tabs on the vote itself, as well as the post-election events in the country.
Three main issues are under discussion in the international media: the reasons behind the UNM’s defeat, the incoming government, Georgia’s democratic transition and the country’s relationship with Russia.
What led to the loss?
“Indeed, defeat was the best thing that could have happened to him [Mikhail Saakashvili] and his country’s reputation,” notes James Nixey, Manager and Research Fellow, at the Russia and Eurasia Programme.
In his article ‘Georgia: Post-Election Analysis’ that Chatham House published on October 2, James Nixey concludes that the recognition of defeat was the only and the best way for Mikhail Saakashvili and his political team to “ensure that his [Mikhail Saakashvili] legacy is not entirely in tatters.” The reason behind total loss, according to him, lies in the “disappointing economic picture, the centralization of power and the small matter of partial responsibility for the August 2008 war.”
In the short paper published by the Georgian Journal on October 3, Mark Mullen, the former Director of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) Georgia from 1997 until 2004, emphasizes two fundamental reasons behind Misha and the UNM’s decreased popularity among citizens of Georgia: “the punishment of those in Shevardnadze’s government and the amendment of the constitution on 6 February 2004.”
Defining the first reason, Mullen notes that “so many great things happened: the administrative reforms, the end of petty corruption, fixing roads and in general creating a real state. But at the same time, a large part of [that] was based on punishment. On treating people as if they were a problem to be rolled over rather than a constituent group to be listened to.”
The international media as well as local experts agree that Mikhail Saakashvili definitely played a role on improving democracy in Georgia, but the main problem of his was “accusations of authoritarian behavior masked as democracy.”
In the article ‘Democracy wins as Rose Revolution admits defeat in parliament elections,’ published in The Times Europe, Roger Boyes exclaims that “Bidzina Ivanishvili’s victory in the parliamentary elections has astonished the region.” According to the journalist, it seems that Georgia is on its way to shaping real democracy in the region where before the Rose revolution, no one could even imagine such a possibility.
In another report, the BBC’s Damien McGuinnes notes that “it is [parliamentary elections] a momentous day for Georgia– a day which strengthens the country’s democratic credentials.”
In another article published by BBC, Georgia’s election is described as “a milestone for democracy in the ex-Soviet state.”
By and large, the peaceful transition of power was welcomed by the international media; this fact has demonstrated that a Soviet country can become a beacon of democracy in the post-Soviet space and particularly, in a strategically important region.
Russia or the West?
Doubts about Bidzina Ivanishvili’s political orientation– which included questions of whether Georgia will replace its pro-Western orientation with a pro-Russian approach, was prominent in the minds of many during the whole pre-election campaign. Considering the international reaction, the international community expects that the leader of the Georgian Dream Coalition will be loyal to the old pro-Western approach chosen by the former government of Mikhail Saakashvili.
On October 3, The Sunday Times published an article by Maria Antonova entitled ‘Georgian Dream to ease, not end Russia’s nightmare.’ In it, the expert noted that there won’t be drastic changes in the political attitude between representatives of two states; the only innovations that could appear may be an attempt to more or less place the Georgian-Russian relationship in the scope of the world’s widely accepted ‘game rules’; but there can’t be agreement on the main issues such as the fate of the separatist regions of Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia.
Bidzina v. Misha
It’s no secret that personal aspects are still important when it comes to political developments in any country.
“More than 20 years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the West has become familiar with a wide variety of leaders to emerge in this space — Soviet apparatchiks, fierce nationalists and K.G.B. trained strongmen. However, Bidzina Ivanishvili nominated Monday as Georgia’s next prime minister, does not resemble any of them, not even remotely,” writes Ellen Barry of the New York Times in the October 8 article ‘Georgian Leader Emerges as an Enigma.’
According to her, “Mr. Ivanishvili provides a contrast with Mr. Saakashvili, a cosmopolitan charmer who speaks fluent English and intuitively understands what the West expects.”
In order to portray Bidzina Ivanishvili, she cites Thomas de Waal, an expert on the Caucasus at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, as saying that the billionaire politician is a novice, and that has its pros and cons.
“The bad side is he is quite unpredictable and says some quite eccentric things. The good side is he is still learning and corrects himself. He is receptive to advice,” Thomas de Waal is quoted.
Hence, it is clear that the international media, as well as foreign experts, are in some kind of euphoria over the parliamentary elections and probable developments in the country.
And still, there are serious challenges for democracy in Georgia and the euphoria which exists in the West may further prompt opportunities for the crisis. Last time the West was in such excited state about the events in Georgia was during the 2003 Rose Revolution. Consequently, Georgia’s strategic partners overlooked some misdeeds of the former government which finally led to the crisis of democracy in the country.
By and large, Georgia expects that both the domestic and the international community will overcome its euphoric condition and begin a sober evaluation of the developments. It is up to the people to start pushing the new government to be loyal to democratic institutions and values.
In its second interim report published on September 24, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights says that the polarization of the election campaign in Georgia “has increased.” Aimed at evaluating general issues such as the campaign environment, campaign finance, as well as media and the participation of national minorities, the report covered a period between September 6 and September19. Overall, OSCE’s report is more summary of the facts than their actual analysis.The OSCE launched the observation mission on August 22 with a core team of 16 experts in Tbilisi and 28 long-term observers deployed throughout the country.
“The polarization of the campaign has increased. The tone of the campaign messages from both the UNM and the Georgian Dream coalition senior leadership and majoritarian candidates is confrontational and rough” – exclaimed the OSCE Election Observation Mission assessing the general pre-election environment in the country.
According to the interim report, the main confrontation is going to have to take place between the ruling party (United National Movement, abb. UNM) and Georgian Dream Coalition (abb. GD) led by Bidzina Ivanishvili. Both sides have chosen the policy of mutual accusations and charges. The UNM ‘questions the origins of Bidzina Ivanishvili’s assets and his political agenda in the case of victory’; meanwhile GD blames the ruling party for twisting the facts.
OSCE report emphasizes the facts of involvement of officials as well as public (administration) employees in the pre-election campaign of the ruling party. According to the document, the “UNM representatives, municipal authorities and at times the police, allegedly signal to such voters [public (administration) employees/recipients of social benefits] not to engage in opposition activities but rather attend UNM rallies.”
Another important accent has been made by the OSCE on the ‘campaign finance’ issue. The report notes that about 35 cases of illegal donations [mainly in favor of the GD] were examined by the mission. In all instances, the OSCE has doubts about the fairness of the decisions taken by the Georgian courts.
“In some 35 cases examined in detail by the OSCE/ODIHR EOM, the courts have deemed the donations by such individuals illegal on the grounds that ‘the donor failed to prove the origins of the property donated,” – notes the mission and continues by pointing out that all citizens are obliged by the law to declare income and pay taxes. Still, the Law on Public Unions of Citizens doesn’t demand any documents proving the origins of the donated property to assess donation as legal; consequently, the facts of disagreement between the law and the reality create basis for criticism.
The OSCE interim report hadn’t avoided the issue of discretionary power given to the SAO (State Audit Office). According to the report, legislation grants the SAO as well as the courts “wide discretion in determining whether a donation is ‘justifiable’” which spreads doubts regarding objectivity of the institutions.
Additionally, the document complainss about the cases when “potentially illegal donors were summoned without being informed about their status as witnesses or suspects. They were body searched and deprived of personal belongings during lengthy interviews conducted in a manner that did not indicate due process.”
The Georgian media environment became an issue of concern as well. According to the OSCE interim report, the media is highly politicized and tends to be biased toward the ruling party or the opposition: “…the majority of broadcasters monitored by the OSCE/ODIHR EOM appear to follow partisan editorial policies in their news and current affairs programs.”
The OSCE marked out the broadcasters mainly promoting the UNM and humiliating the main Georgian oppositional force GD: Rustavi 2, Imedi and TV Adjara. According to the report, despite the fact that all these channels are pro-governmental there are differences in their policies; in particular, Rustavi 2 is more focused on praising achievements of the ruling party; meanwhile, Imedi TV tries to humiliate the GD and spread mistrust toward Bidzina Ivanishvili and his political coalition.
On the other hand, Maestro TV as well as TV9 was recognized as the oppositional ‘mainly positive in tone, to the opposition GD bloc’. In the same time, Kavkasia TV well-known for its oppositional ‘soul’ has been considered as more or less neutral.
The only broadcaster recognized as fully neutral and who tends to promote media fairness was the Public Broadcaster (GPB). According to the report “GPB offered balanced coverage of the campaign. In the newscasts of First Channel (GPB1), both UNM and GD received similar proportions of mostly positive and neutral coverage… GPB1 has also devoted extensive coverage to further seven political parties’.
The OSCE mission is concerned that minority groups such as Azeri, Armenians mainly concentrated in border regions with only six MPs in the outgoing parliament are not able to fully integrate into civil society.
Finally, the OSCE responded to the latest developments in the country and exclaimed that the mission will be to further observe the political environment and assess the impact of the shocking videos [showing scenes of torture and the abuse of prisoners in prison number 8 located in Gldani, Tbilisi] unveiled by the broadcasters on 18 of September.
The representatives of the ruling party have not made any comments regarding the report. Meanwhile, the leader of the Georgian Dream Coalition, Bidzina Ivanishvili, noted that the OSCE mission fully reflected the existing injustice in its interim report.
Heartbreaking video footage separately released on September 18 by the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs as well as the opposition-minded Maestro TV and Channel 9, shocked people in Georgia and far beyond. Videos show how the staff of Tbilisi prison No. 8 were involved in prisoners’ torture, rape and abuse. The scandal resulted in the resignation of Khatuna Kalmakhelidze, the minister in charge of the prison system, a surge of street protests throughout the country and most surprisingly, resignation of Bacho Akhalia, Interior Minister of Georgia. The investigation into the case is ongoing.
According to the statement made by Georgia’s Chief Prosecutor Murtaz Zodelava on September 19, ten prison officials were arrested in connection with the inhumane treatment of inmates in Gldani prison. Vladimer Bedukadze, an operative duty inspector at the same prison, has yet to be detained and is currently wanted by the police.
Budukadze, who is now staying in Brussels and provided Channel 9 with the scandalous video, was dismissed from that prison in May of 2012. Bedukadze claimed in a Skype interview with Channel 9 that with the assistance of a high ranking Interior Ministry official, he has managed to record the facts of abuse and rape.
He said the rape and torture of prisoners was a common practice and government officials were well aware of the fact, in particular, mentioning Bacho Akhalaia, the Minister of Interior.
Bedukadze said that Akhalaia was and is the only person who possesses real influence and power in the prison system. He insisted that everything happening in the prison was approved by Akhalaia himself and Mikhail Saakashvili, the President of Georgia. Moreover, according to Bedukadze, the facts of frequent deaths in the prison are closely tied with the torture and abuse of prisoners.
Bedukadze, a wanted man himself, is seeking political asylum in Belgium.
The official investigator’s version tells a different story – that Tamaz Tamazashvili, currently serving his term in the same prison, offered a bribe to prison employees for recording the inhumane treatment of inmates and then was selling the footage for a high price to a third party.
Tamazashvili is closely associated with Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream – he is the father of the coalition’s majoritarian MP candidate in Dedoplistskaro and the father-in-law of Ivanishvili’s long-time right-hand man Irakli Garibashvili, who is also running for an MP seat on the Georgian Dream’s party list. The video released by the Ministry of Internal Affairs shows how two prison employees are beating the prisoner.
Other footage that was released by Maestro TV’s Shalva Ramishvili the same day shows approximately twenty members of the staff as well as the head of the prison and his deputy involved in the newly arrived prisoners’ abuse and torture.
According to Ramishvili, who spent several years in jail over bribery charges, such cases were the “usual thing” at prisons, but no one could record it and make it public until now. The journalist criticized official statement made by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, concluding that it is just impossible for one person to hire all staff of the prison to torture and abuse prisoners; consequently, he continued, the facts of torture and the abuse of prisoners weren’t pre-arranged as the government tries to make public believe.
The most shocking, however, were videos shown by Channel 9 TV such as graphic images of prison guards raping inmates with a stick; in separate footage an inmate was seen tied to a cell door and raped with a broomstick.
The issue of prison system has been a concern for local and international human rights organizations for a long time.
George Tughushi, the Public Defender of Georgia, has continually called for the current government and chief prosecutor’s office to investigate facts of tortures and the abuse of prisoners in prison number 8. The Public Defender shared the concerns of civil society of Georgia regarding the increased rate of deaths in the prison system; especially, in prison number 8.
According to 2011 official statistics, 114 prisoners died in Georgian prisons and approximately, 86 of them were in prison number 8.
According to the Public Defender Office the facts of torture and abuse of prisoners appears not only in prison number 8, but in other prisons systems too including Kutaisi number 2 prison.
At the same time, in the recent U.S. Department of State’s annual human rights report, “abuse of prisoners and detainees by government officials, as well as dangerously substandard prison conditions” was identified among the three most important human rights problems in Georgia.
Still, the government had been hailing the system’s reforms initiated under the leadership of Khatuna Kalmakhelidze. Clearly, the footage has broken this myth. And despite the fact that both the President of Georgia and PM Vano Merabishvili went with flaming speeches demanding punishment of prison officials, the government has been scrambling to control the PR backlash.
Now with Tughushi having accepted the post of Kalmakhelidze’s, there are questions about what is in store for Georgia.
Apparently, unless all the main government figures are held accountable, public protests will not abate.
The recordings not only shocked the whole country, but also evoked mistrust and hatred toward the whole prison system; and considering the fact that all officials involved in the scandal are top-ranking officials, it may become the reason of total defeat of the current government in the parliamentary elections set for October 1.
While the political opponents of the UNM (United National Movement) will definitely try to take the opportunity to finally end the injustice in Georgia, what UNM’s strategy and tactics will be to save them from failure is hard to imagine.