Georgia’s argument over ‘Michel’ is finished, at least for now


While the democratic process in Georgia benefits from the advice and encouragement of friends and partners, its politics must find its way back to consensus and trust building on its own terms.

On April 19th, 2021 in Tbilisi during an official ceremony the so-called But the ruling party soon decided to abandon the agreement on June 28th. Inga Grigolia, executive director of the opposition channel TV Pirveli, quickly argued that this represented a step toward dictatorship in Georgia and called on all of the country’s opposition leaders to leave the parliament. Despite this, GD party officials have argued that the deal was ultimately broken by the rival United National Movement (UNM), which has refused to follow the agreement. Indeed, it is clear that neither the political opposition nor its supporters actually follow the spirit of the document. Some opposition leaders like Nika Melia (UNM) and Zurab Girchi Japaridze (Girchi) have already left parliament and plan to challenge the government from the outside. Additionally, some civil society figures, as well as European and American representatives, have criticised the opposition for its unwillingness to continue negotiations that could help find a peaceful solution to the country’s ongoing political crisis. At the same time, upcoming municipal elections are set for October and this means that political rivalry will once again reach a peak in Georgia.

Apart from a desire to simply maintain political power, what actually determined GD’s decision to abandon the agreement? Was the Charles Michel agreement ultimately fit for purpose? Perhaps most importantly, could the agreement actually help deal with the political crisis among Georgia’s elite?

Crisis postponement

Charles Michel’s document was initially full of problems. The deal was signed following the so-called March 8th agreement. However, it was pretty obvious that both the government and the opposition participated due to possible cuts in foreign financial support. Representatives of the local opposition were especially nervous as they were brought to the table largely due to the aggressive nature of the negotiations. The whole deal was directly enforced from the top-down both in a national and international sense. So far, both the government and (perhaps even more) the opposition have been unwilling to find common ground. The agreement did not solve the crisis. Instead, it simply postponed it for a while. Both sides were not enthusiastic about the deal and this led to GD seeing no sense in being devoted to a ‘piece of paper’. It must be also noted that the country as a whole is not in a crisis. Indeed, it is Georgia’s elites that find themselves in a crisis as soon as there is no real vision beyond statements related to NATO and EU integration. These people have fought a fierce battle for the hearts and minds of the Georgian population and this has nothing to do with being pro-Russian or pro-Western. Power ultimately corrupted these groups and this has left regular citizens in a difficult situation. Due to this, it could be said that there are still many problems to deal with in Georgian politics and society.

GD strikes back

GD’s opponents currently argue that the government is unsure if it will receive enough support in the upcoming municipal elections to avoid an early parliamentary vote. This is ultimately one of the key parts of the Michel agreement. However, it would be naïve to think that the government will not be able to gather the necessary 43 per cent of votes in October. Moreover, it is obvious that GD will win the Tbilisi mayoral elections, as their candidate Kakha Kaladze enjoys widespread support. Due to this, there appear to be three complex issues that seemingly pushed the ruling party to abandon the deal.

The first issue is the UNM’s refusal to sign the agreement. The idea behind Charles Michel’s document was to guarantee the distribution of power and responsibilities within the country’s political system. The political opposition is keen to gain power but it seems that the UNM simply wants to make a come back without taking any real responsibility. It is generally accepted in Georgian political culture that responsibility is all about what the government is doing. As a result, other political forces are unwilling to recognise that their parliamentary membership also matters. Of course, a deal only matters when all the main actors agree to uphold its principles. As Machiavelli noted, if your opponent does not follow an agreement, then there is no sense in you following it.

Secondly, after the dramatic events that took place in early July, which even arguably led to the death of TV cameraman Lekso Lashkarava, some minor opposition groups refused to fully engage with the parliament unless their demands were accepted by Tbilisi. Furthermore, various opposition broadcasters worked with the political opposition to sabotage the everyday functioning of the parliament. Due to these events, even the minor parties are now refusing to actually implement the agreement. General lack of trust in the government, especially in relation to the commission meant to investigate the October 31st elections, has also played a role in parties refusing to respect the agreement. So far, both the UNM and various minor opposition parties have failed to follow the spirit of the document and left the real responsibilities to GD. Thus, in order to make the agreement easier to implement, the Michel deal placed all the responsibilities of power distribution on the ruling party. The other groups that signed the document just signed it and hoped to get more power instead of additional duties. These would simply be a political headache.

Last but not the least, various sovereignty issues are connected to judiciary system reform, particularly in relation to the courts and judges. According to the agreement, judges should have been appointed following talks with the political opposition. However, such negotiation is simply impossible as both sides are more interested in having judges and courts that are friendly to their own side. Georgian elites, political or non-political, are simply not ready to give up control of such a tremendous resource. GD has stated that it aspires to create a better justice system but there are issues that must be dealt with internally. Such changes cannot be imposed in a top-down manner, from Brussels/Washington to Tbilisi.

The grip on democracy

GD’s decision to abandon the agreement was criticised by many and has been considered a step backward in Georgia’s democratic development. However, this view is arguably rather naïve. Georgia is a developing country and as such it is still looking for its own path to democratic success. For the first time in the country’s history, Georgia had real freedom to choose what agreements it wanted to follow. As a result, recent events do not represent a move away from democracy. Instead, it could be argued that this is one of the most democratic decisions that has ever been taken in Tbilisi. You simply cannot turn Georgia into a democracy from the top-down. Instead, a democratic society must grow naturally and it should play a key role in the decision-making process. Overall, it seems that Georgia’s strategic allies are not ready to let this happen. Even a softer institutional intervention from outside cannot bring about lasting change in society. At some point, the grip that European and American diplomats and ambassadors have on the decision-making process becomes too clear. This was especially true with regards to the March 8th 2020 agreement, which was signed by Georgia’s political actors behind the closed doors of the US Embassy in Tbilisi. This document potentially offered yet another way out of the political crisis but it is still misunderstood due to the elite’s lack of accountability and transparency. It could be argued that the country’s political elites only feel accountable to strategic allies, such as various Western financial and political institutions. Due to this, the elites only care about Georgian citizens when an election is approaching. At the moment, therefore, Georgia’s political parties and government feel the need to engage voters. Tbilisi’s friends must let the Georgian people fail or succeed on their own. Today, Georgia resembles many other countries in Eastern Europe as its political system has various pros and cons. Georgian actors must now try to build a local political culture based on democratic principles.

The article was initially published by the New Eastern Europe.

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“Make Georgia great again”

The aftermath of the recent elections in Georgia has shown that it will be challenging to find a compromise in the current political environment in the country.

The historical parliamentary elections that took place in November in Georgia are now officially over. The Central Election Commission (CEC) recently issued the final results and the newly elected legislative body will soon meet for the first time. While the victorious Georgian Dream party is celebrating its third consecutive term in power, the opposition still refuses to recognise the results. Moreover, opponents of the government argue that corruption influenced the pre-election campaign and the electoral process as a whole. As a result, this group has demanded a repeat of the parliamentary elections with new rules and a reformed electoral administration. Despite this, Georgian Dream has made it clear that it will not reconsider the election results. Currently, the government and opposition are set to meet for the third stage of negotiations facilitated by European and American diplomats. Georgia is now very close to reliving the events of 2008, when the United National Movement gained a constitutional majority and simply decided to rule the state without even acknowledging the opposition. Georgia’s strategic partners have called on both sides to participate in parliament and contribute to the democratic transformation of the state.

Generally, the elections have shown that it is almost impossible to find compromise in the political environment of Georgia. There are only two real political powers in the country and all the main political actors have seemingly become victims of their own propaganda.

Elections (not) stolen

Obviously, some parts of Georgian society, including the academic, non-governmental and business sectors, are troubled by the fact that Georgian Dream won the majority of seats (90 out of 150). They believe that a third term will damage the state’s development and set a bad precedent for the future. For these groups, the adoption of a Western-style “two terms” rule is viewed as the best possible outcome for Georgia and its democracy. These actors tend to focus on the government’s failures and corrupt practices when discussing past elections. At the same time, another part of Georgian society considers these allegations simply to be a long-established practice during Georgian elections. They do not view such accusations as important or a reason to question the results. Interestingly, international observers, who were led by the OSCE/ODIHR, agreed with the second group’s understanding of the elections. This caused an outcry from many representatives of the political opposition. For example, Mikhail Saakashvili, the third president of Georgia, and members of other parties called the head of the electoral mission, Tiny Kox, an “experienced KGB agent”. In contrast to this, NATO, the American Embassy in Georgia and other European states agreed with the findings of these “Russian agents” from the OSCE/ODIHR.

Moving on from these labels, it is clear that Georgia’s strategic partners and international observers said nothing new about the country’s politics. Moreover, these actors are aware of the methods and approaches that almost all Georgian governments and political leaders use to stay in power and gain electoral support. Overall, it has been more important for these outside forces to make sure that Georgia did not challenge the “red lines” that were crossed in Belarus. Thus, the international assessment of the elections appears to match the reality of the situation. Whilst the process was competitive and voters were capable of fully participating in the elections, its fairness was questionable. However, due to the fact that elections in Georgia continue to possess the same flaws and failures as past votes, there is no real reason to question the legitimacy of this year’s contest. If we express doubts over whether or not the government has been elected in accordance with all democratic standards, then we will be forced to question all the elections that have ever been held in Georgia.

Georgia’s American model

Both local and international actors are trying hard to develop traditions of coalition government and, more generally, a pluralistic political culture in Georgia. In order to achieve these goals significant reforms were put in place regarding issues such as the electoral threshold. Before, it was as low as one per cent. Despite these changes, however, the outcome remained the same. Voters are always forced to choose between either keeping the same political establishment in charge or replacing it with another. There is no strong demand for coalitions and complicated formulas. Instead, there is just one party, one power, one ideology, one outlook and one force ruling the country. These traditions show the unwillingness of the Georgian people to compromise and acknowledge the achievements of their opponents. The best examples of this are the narratives expressed by the leading Georgian Dream party and the United National Movement. Members of the ruling party rarely remember the successes of the former government. On the other hand, Saakashvili and his allies do not even recognise that they lost power in 2012-13, blaming “Russian agents” and “Russian hackers” for the defeat. It is subsequently crucial for this group to end Georgian Dream’s control of the state and “make Georgia great again”. Such rhetoric makes it impossible to organise coalition governments and even engage in peaceful dialogue without the “supervision” of American and European actors.

Past elections have shown that voters unite around Georgian Dream and the United National Movement, while smaller parties that promote themselves as “alternatives” win a small amount of seats. The electoral threshold is set to be increased again for the next elections and this will probably see the parliament dominated by these two leading powers. This could result in the formation of Georgia’s own ‘American’ political model, where voters effectively choose between their own versions of the Democratic and Republican parties. In a rather ironic twist, any acceptance of the opposition’s demands by the government would only speed up this shift to a more American system.

Gone with the propaganda

A strong belief in propaganda continues to be the biggest challenge for all political actors in the country. The ruling administration, deceived by its own media, still believes that the electorate hates the representatives of the former government and is afraid of their return. As a result, the government believes that the people will always vote for Georgian Dream and that they will always be thankful for being ‘liberated’ from Saakashvili’s regime. These statements are at least partially misleading. The United National Movement is more active than ever before and is benefitting from the mistakes of the government. Sooner or later, the past will not help Georgian Dream stay in power. It will need to offer something new, which is a difficult task in Georgia’s political system.

There is political opposition, with the UNM at its core, naïve enough to argue that Georgian Dream has done nothing positive for the country. Moreover, Saakashvili has created an alternative reality in which the people dream of his return to power and the restoration of a national “greatness” that has never actually existed. In this political narrative, the former government of Saakashvili never did anything wrong or broke any laws. It is viewed as a generally democratic, pro-Western regime that was overthrown by the Russian oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili and his followers. Unfortunately, other opposition parties, such as European Georgia, Lelo, Strategy Agmashenebeli and Girchi, are not strong enough to break this illusion and act in an independent manner.

Consequently, political actors in Georgia remain detached from wider society. They believe that the population unilaterally supports the ideas of the government or the opposition. In reality, what people actually want are clear and well-structured policies that deal with poverty, unemployment and other important socio-economic challenges.

The article was originally published by New Eastern Europe.

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Georgia’s ‘deter-engage’ dichotomy


Georgian Dream could become the first party to retain power for a third consecutive term. What would this mean for the country’s foreign policy?

On October 31st, Georgia is likely to experience historic parliamentary elections. On the one hand, the country may witness its second peaceful transition of power. On the other hand, the ruling Georgian Dream party could become the country’s first government to retain power for a third consecutive term. At the same time, Georgia is closer than ever before to achieving a coalition government. This possibility is welcomed by both local pro-Western forces and the country’s European and American partners. Despite this, rivalry between the parties remains fierce and is more focused on internal issues such as economic prosperity, equality, equity, poverty and unemployment. But there is also an external dimension in the form of Georgia’s foreign policy. Overall, it is interesting to question to what extent these elections may affect the state’s position in the region. This is especially true with regard to relations with Russia. Overall, it could be argued that the state is yet again facing a ‘deter-engage’ dichotomy in relation to its links with Moscow.

A brief history

After the so-called Rose Revolution in 2003, the newly elected government of Mikhail Saakashvili and the United National Movement tried to reset Georgia-Russia relations. However, they failed to do so due to conflicting foreign policy goals. Whilst a pro-Western government in Tbilisi tried to integrate into institutions such as the EU and NATO, Vladimir Putin’s Moscow hoped to maintain a grip on its so-called “near abroad”. As a result, the Tbilisi-Moscow ‘honeymoon’ ended almost as soon as it began. Influenced by this development and the neoconservatism of America’s Bush administration, Saakashvili decided to compete with Moscow. This turned Tbilisi into a pro-Western stronghold within both the South Caucasus and post-Soviet space as a whole. Georgia’s ruling elites were certain that the West, represented most importantly by America and NATO, would be willing to stop the Kremlin from using military force against its valuable ally. These dreams were shattered during the conflict in August 2008, when it appeared that neither Brussels nor Washington were ready to actually counter Moscow’s interests in the South Caucasus. Georgia’s foreign policy, therefore, was in need of revision and so the Georgian Dream party, led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, made an offer to the electorate. The leader suggested that it would be better to ‘deter’ potential Russian aggression through a change of language. Tbilisi subsequently discouraged anti-Russian sentiment and military rhetoric. Instead of war, there would be reconciliation. Saakashvili lost power and this new policy was introduced as official policy. However, this attempt to reset relations did not lead to a breakthrough. During this period, Moscow started its ongoing process of ‘borderisation’ and even kidnapped Georgian citizens. Such cases of kidnapping have often involved torture and murder. Many former officials, as well as some representatives of Georgian civil society, have subsequently described this desire to not irritate Russia as a betrayal of the country’s interests.

The effect of elections

Currently, Georgian society is being offered two distinct approaches to the Kremlin. The opposition, led by the United National Movement and European Georgia parties, wish to return to a form of military engagement and ‘fight back’ against the Kremlin. At the same time, Georgian Dream continues to support a policy of ‘deterring’ Russian aggression in order to avoid a potential repeat of the catastrophic events of the 2008 war. Despite this, it is indisputable that Georgia’s general foreign policy orientation will remain largely the same, with the country continuing to focus on EU-NATO integration. In particular, Tbilisi is striving to become a member of the West at the expense of a proactive policy in the South Caucasus.

Naturally, only the final outcome of the parliamentary elections will determine whether Tbilisi continues its current approach or switches to the previous one. If Georgian Dream is victorious, the state will further try to avoid direct confrontation with the Kremlin. This is considered the best guarantee of peace, not only for Georgia and Russia but for the whole South Caucasus region. However, a government made up of those who support an ‘engage’ policy will likely encourage increased confrontation between Tbilisi and Moscow. Such aggressive rhetoric could end an already volatile status-quo. Even in America and Europe, there appears to be no shared agreement as to which side should win. Some Western actors openly support the political opposition, while others prefer Georgian Dream’s more balanced and peaceful politics. Despite allegations of interference, the Kremlin appears rather indifferent. This is due to the fact that Tbilisi will still remain oriented towards the West regardless of its government. Furthermore, it could be argued that Russia has done little to encourage Tbilisi to adopt an openly friendly policy. This only encourages beliefs that Moscow simply has no interest in avoiding conflict. Overall, it seems that the Kremlin has achieved its political and geopolitical goals and is satisfied with the existing status-quo.

The article was originally published by New Eastern Europe.

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On the West we rely


The Georgian parliament has adopted constitutional changes that have been applauded by their international partners. As a result, the Georgian Dream government might struggle with an even more alienated opposition.

On June 29th 2020 the Georgian parliament finally adopted constitutional amendments that have been praised by an absolute majority of local and international actors as “historic”. The new electoral system, which introduces a mixed model consisting of 120 members of Parliament proportionally elected and 30 majoritarian MPs, is seen as an opportunity for Georgian democracy to build a culture of collaboration and coalition governments. And while this statement may be seriously challenged, there are issues that are more relevant and important in Georgian society.

Particularly, members of the political opposition, Irakli Okruashvili and Gigi Ugulava, had been previously pardoned by president Salome Zurabishvili. These individuals, arguably perceived as criminals by the majority of Georgians, were released as a result of international pressure from some representatives of European Parliament and American Congress. Local oppositional parties praised the decision, calling it a step towards less political turbulence; more justice and peace is expected in buildup to the upcoming parliamentary elections set for October 2020.

Meanwhile, the majority of the electorate of Georgian Dream is most likely shocked and astonished as they simply cannot understand how former members of the ruling government who directly participated in building a semi-authoritarian regime while oppressing media and human rights can be protected and lobbied by the state’s strategic partners in the EU and USA. This is especially relevant as it relies on judgements by the ECHR and International arbitrage in The Hague. Moreover, there is an apparent embarrassment due to the behavior of Georgia’s allies who directly intervened in internal affairs and pressured the government, or even threatened it.

Terrorists or freedom fighters

It goes without saying that the biggest issue here is the alleged existence of political prisoners in Georgia. Some members of European Parliament as well as American Senators and Congressmen are extremely keen to refer to almost all the members of political opposition who went to jail as political prisoners. Of course local judiciary and prosecutor offices are far from Western standards and need to be further strengthened and distanced from the state’s grip. At the same time, all statistical data shows that these institutions are freer and more independent than ever before. Thus, Georgians can be sure that their rights will be better protected than in the past. This fact is sometimes even challenged despite clear evidence.

Secondly, it is up to local and international legal institutions to give final judgement on whether a person has been persecuted due to political views and activities or not. But what bothers regular citizens of Georgia is that there are active attempts by some Western officials to whitewash members of Saakashvili’s government; although it is a government prominent for its brutal dispersal of peaceful protests, massive oppression of political opponents, seizure of oppositional media outlets and total disregard of human rights. And these outcomes frequently come through direct misrepresentation of data and even ECHR judgements. For example, Małgorzata Maria Gosiewska, Deputy Marshal of the Sejm of the Republic of Poland, represented former Minister of Internal Affairs Ivane Merabishvili as a political prisoner and cited an ECHR judgement as a legal document. Ms. Gosiewska blatantly misled listeners as the court ruled that the state hadn’t violated Mr. Merabishvili’s right to a fair and public trial and his sentence was given in accordance to international practice. Generally speaking, there are serious hesitations and doubts about fairness of conclusions made by some politicians, especially Europeans. This is especially relevant in wake of a call by Marketa Gregorova, Czech activist, member of the Czech Pirate Party, and elected MEP, to investigate dispersal of a questionably “peaceful” political protest on June 20th 2019. If this issue is so urgent and relevant for some members of EU parliament then why do they continue to whitewash Ivane Merabishvili, who brutally stamped out dozens of peaceful protests which resulted in hundreds, if not thousands, of people being injured and three people being killed?!

Generally, an extremely large gap in perceptions exists between regular Georgian citizens on the one hand and some political actors on the ground and abroad on the other hand. This challenge can described within the framework given by a character from the movie Die Another Day, in which he stated “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”. For the larger Georgian society, Gigi Ugulava and other former top officials are criminals mentioned in judgements by the ECHR in cases such as Sulkhan Molashvili v. Georgia (political persecution and torture), Enukidze and Gvirgvliani v. Georgia (torture of civilian and concealment of evidences), Batiashvili v. Georgia (intentional fabrication of evidences), Rustavi 2 Broadcasting Company Ltd and Others v. Georgia (unlawful expropriation of private media property) and so on.

Politics above the law

The lion’s share of allegations against Georgian Dream from its American allies is arguably mostly politically motivated. At the very least, the allegations made by American Senators and Congressmen are definitely political rather than legal. Arguably the best example of this is the claimed oppression of American business, as in the Frontera Resources case. This Texas company has operated in Georgia since 1997 and continues promising to find natural resources, such as gas and oil. The Georgian Dream government argued that the company violated an agreement, resulting in approximately one hundred Georgian citizens not being paid salaries for more than year. The company, however, was and still is arguing that it has found the largest oil and gas deposits, which have been false claims for the last two decades. Therefore, the government of Georgia decided to break the contract. This situation was addressed by American Republican Congressman Pete Olson, who directly called Bidzina Ivanishvili and the current government pro-Russian puppets; additionally, Mr. Olson argued that Frontera Resources has been pushed away in order to give Georgian gas to the president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, and the Kremlin in general. This narrative was picked up by members of the political opposition despite the fact that one of its own leaders from the United National Movement, MP Roman Gotsiridze, was personally calling Frontera Resources a “charlatan” company and urging the government to defend Georgian citizens. These allegations did not disappear even after a judgement by an international arbitrage, located in The Hague, ruled in favor of the Georgian government and gave the state permission to break cooperation with the American company due to a breach of contract. But what is especially disturbing is that some representatives of leading international and local NGOs, such as Transparency International, including Georgia’s Executive Director Eka Gigauri, are still using this case to express “concerns” and contribute to the legally false claims of Congressman Olson and the local political opposition.

It seems that these organisations, at least some of their members, have their own ideological and political rivalry or confrontation with the ruling Georgian Dream, which pushes them to turn a blind eye to the legal aspects and focus more on a political agenda. The same scenario happened during the private Rustavi 2 channel dispute when NGOs argued that Bidzina Ivanishvili and Georgian Dream controlled local courts, pushing the institution to transfer property rights to pro-governmental businessman Kibar Khalvashi. This narrative is still proliferated by these same organisations and people despite an ECHR judgement that ruled in favor of the decision made previously by a Georgian court. Moreover, none of the claims made by NGO representatives had been publicly shared. By the end of this ruling. members of the political opposition called the judgement pro-Russian and claimed the ECHR was bribed by Bidzina Ivanishvili and influenced by the Kremlin.

Behind the back politics 

The biggest concerns among regular citizens are raised most often due to political negotiations and agreements facilitated by European and American diplomats between the Georgian Dream government and political opposition. The most important achievement of this process was the March 8th agreement that, in theory, should have depolarised the environment in the country and ensured more transparent and democratic parliamentary elections, which are set for October 2020. But as soon as the ruling party and political opposition started disputing the agreement itself, Georgian citizens realised that they had no clue what was happening at all. It took place behind closed doors and agreements were made in secret. Thus far, local voters are in a frustrating situation as political actors are representing things in a completely contradictory manner while European and American diplomats keep silent. Georgia’s strategic partners have often “negotiated democracy” with local political elites “behind the back” of Georgian society. Thus, the above concerns are obviously not baseless. In a country where “shadow politics” is taking place on a regular basis, it is highly questionable whether yet another example of “international shadow politics” can strengthen democracy or increase trust in the political process. Moreover, this can easily be perceived as a intervention into domestic affairs and an attempt to defend interests of political elites on the one hand and national (political, geopolitical and economic) interests of the EU and USA on the other hand, without asking for an opinion from Georgian voters.

By and large, the substantial astonishment among a significant portion of Georgian society, namely those who sent Mikhail Saakashvili’s government to the “political bench”, stems from them simply being unable to understand how the former officials, involved in corruption and other legal cases, can be lobbied by the West and even called “freedom fighters”?! Furthermore, why do some European and American officials think that Georgian democracy will be strengthened by keeping these perceivably corrupt individuals active in politics and even appointing them to high political positions again?! The usual pro-Western actors in the country, as well as their allies abroad, should be ready for increased anti-Western criticism and skepticism among regular citizens of Georgia who see lobbyist attempts as a glaring intervention in domestic affairs and a politically-motivated liberation of alleged criminals. Most importantly, however, are the concerns raised about whether the European and American actors involved in the process promote principles of equality before the law or an old quote known as “all are equal but some are more equal”. And it seems that in this case Gigi Ugulava and Irakli Okruashvili fall into the second basket, because there is no doubt that no one can be bothered to save individuals who lack political labels and/or political protection.

The article was originally published by New Eastern Europe.

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Coronavirus in Georgia: Dilemma with the Orthodox Church


Georgia has joined the group of many other states with its first recorded death on April 4. The local government in collaboration with leading virologists tried hard to avoid the precedent and continue comparatively successful fight against coronavirus pandemic. Praised internationally for effective and efficient policy, the leadership of Georgian Dream, headed by PM Giorgi Gakharia introduced nationwide quarantine on March 31, including curfew to stop proliferation of the virus in the state by enforcing the so-called “social distancing” concept.

And while the absolute majority of Georgians support the government’s approach, Georgian Dream found itself in rivalry with the state’s one of the most trusted and strongest institutions – Georgian Orthodox Church. Particularly, the lion’s share of Georgian priests initially refused to follow the new regulations arguing that the flock must attend religious meetings; furthermore, they even refused to change some aspects of the rituals to avoid spread of the virus. Finally, officials are now trying to persuade the church to postpone celebration of one of the most respected and holy religious holidays – Easter. 

Hesitations and inconsistency of the ruling party with regard to Orthodox Georgian Church’s behavior split local society on the so-called liberals, conservatists and neutrals: the first group arguing that this is a grave violation of superiority of the law (secular state), others considering the happening as an assault on Orthodox Christianity (the GOD) and the neutrals being simply too occupied by everyday routine.

Above the Law

Spirituality is an inherent part of Georgian society. Georgia, a historically strongly Orthodox Christian entity, tries to carefully nurture its heritage and is especially sensitive to the issue of religious freedom due to its Soviet past when all denominations were oppressed by communists. The religion played even more important role during and after the collapse of USSR when the Georgian Orthodox Church actually became the only coherent and trustworthy institution in the country. Governments used to come and fall but the church was always there as a “painkiller” for a physically and emotionally exhausted population. This objective reality made it a nation-wide “influencer”, an important political and social actor, a decision-maker. Thus, the state, on the one hand, and the entity, on the other hand, signed in 2002 the so-called – concordat – constitutional agreement recognizing the historic role of the Apostolic Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Georgia in building, strengthening and maintaining statehood and the Georgian nationhood in general. Furthermore, it granted the church and its representatives additional rights and protections that raised the institution above any other religious denomination.

Representatives of the so-called liberals, mainly civil society organizations and some other actors, have been troubled by the concordat arguing that both, the state and the church, are violating the principles of equality and secular state for years. These arguments have been re-iterated and strengthened during the first days of the COVID-19 pandemic when Orthodox priests refused to follow strict regulations set by the Georgian Dream, even threatening to retaliate if the ruling party dares to restrict spiritual rituals. This comes alongside comparatively minor religious denominations immediately showing social responsibility by temporarily halting activities and calling on their flocks to obey the law. The government, being caught between the hammer and the anvil, hesitated whether to react on the disobedience raising additional concerns that the Georgian Orthodox Church is truly above the law. 

The ruling party is still at the crossroad: it should maintain the law while try to avoid rivalry with one of the most trusted institutions right before the elections.

Politics of Faith

It is not a secret that Georgian politicians actively use various religious groups for political purposes. This is especially true during election campaigns when not only Georgian Orthodox Church but also Muslim community and other groups are being dragged into political processes. Political actors are extremely keen to use it to gain additional electoral support by giving a wide range of promises that are usually not implemented later on.

Nevertheless, due to the Georgian Orthodox Church’s vast societal support manages to bargain more benefits from local government. Moreover, its representatives are aware of the existing reality and frequently use this as a quite effective trigger against ruling political elites. On the other hand, Georgian governments were always trying to “conclude” political alliance with the institution to strengthen legitimacy and attract more followers; creating an illusion of people’s power.

Thus, both, the ruling Georgian Dream and the political opposition, behave according to the established tradition. In the wake of the extremely important upcoming parliamentary elections set for October this year, the government is unwilling to fall into confrontation with the church while adversaries are trying to gain the hearts and minds of less privileged religious groups by voicing the concept of equality. Conventionally, even during the coronavirus pandemic faith is being deployed by all interested parties for political and other benefits.

By and large, the Georgian Dream is still struggling to handle the dilemma with the Georgian Orthodox Church in a sophisticated way to avoid allegations of breaking principles of secular state, on the one hand, and, to keep political support of the institution, on the other hand. The Easter holidays are coming and state officials have already expressed their willingness to observe it in accordance with the “social distancing” approach (being at home). This is an additional strong message to the priests that the law must be followed. Thus, the upcoming holidays will be yet another test for the Georgian Dream government and will, probably, finalize the struggle. At the same time, political opponents shall try hard to use this confrontation to unveil political incompetence of the establishment. All in all, parliamentary elections are coming and even the COVID-19 pandemic cannot stop it.

The article was originally published by Caucasus Watch.

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The right to a fair trial in Georgia


Every attempt to reform the Georgian judiciary has been met with suspicion. It is no different when Georgian Dream pushes for them now.

The issue of the right to a fair trial in Georgia has plagued the country since its independence. No government has managed to bring the judicial system to an appropriate condition yet. Currently, the Georgian Dream party is pushing for grand reforms to finally settle the topic. While some may argue that the justice system has become more functional, there is strong evidence raising concerns the ruling government is still unwilling to fully give up on it as a political tool. Transparency International Georgia, as well as other local NGOs, argue that the recent appointments of judges on a permanent basis was flawed and politically motivated. These concerns have been echoed by a number of American congressmen and European actors.

It may sound like a typical story of corruption when the regime tries to subordinate the courts while civil society, in collaboration with external actors, fight to maintain its independence, but as usual, everything is not as simple as it looks in Georgia. When analysing the right to a fair trial, it is important to keep in mind that there always was, is, and probably will be politics behind the justice system. All actors have their own agendas and perceptions.

Background

There are no debates that Mikhail Saakashvili’s courts were totally flawed and controlled by the ruling party. Thus, the newly elected Georgian Dream, with help of local and international actors, initiated a reform process that aimed at building an independent, transparent and accountable judiciary system. As a part of the reforms, the Venice Commission called on the government to appoint judges on a permanent basis so that they could be invulnerable to changes of the political elites and influence from outside. The Ambassador of the European Union to Georgia, Carl Hartzell, argued that the process of nomination and appointment was open to the public and transparent like never before. But political opposition and local observers raised concerns that the ruling government broke the merit-based principle and appointed judges with highly questionable pasts. Particularly, they raised concern about those who were involved in sensitive criminal cases during Saakashvili’s regime and were previously perceived as “following the political order from above.” So far, critics of the Georgian Dream party have blamed it for “promotion” in exchange for “obedience.”

Furthermore, independent experts such as Ana Dolidze, the former chief legal adviser to the President of Georgia, argue that the government has given Saakashvili-era corrupt judges a platform to build the so-called “Murusidze-Chinchaladze clan” and control the whole system through political alliances. Some of these grave concerns are shared by Georgia’s strategic partners. As a result, the Georgian Dream was forced to halt its Supreme Court judicial appointments.

At the same time, contrary to everything said above, the latest statistics and reports show that courts are now functioning better than ever before. According to the statistics of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), the amount of new applications submitted to a judicial formation increased with 30 per cent in 2019 compared to the previous year. Some 1,390 applications from Georgia were found to be inadmissible, a historic achievement. Furthermore, the Georgian government also won the important Rustavi 2 case in Strasbourg.

Therefore, while the system itself remains the least trustworthy institution according to a survey by the Caucasus Research Resource Center, the right to a fair trial is definitely more ensured in Georgia than previously.

Georgian politics behind the Georgian justice

On July 18th 2019, the European Court on Human Rights in Strasbourg published a historic judgement for Georgia regarding the so-called Rustavi 2 case. It was important due to the fact that the decision proved that Georgian courts can work appropriately and ensure the right to a fair trial, even in extremely sensitive cases.

The private opposition channel Rustavi 2, led by a close ally to Saakashvili and former high official, Nika Gvaramia, was sued by the former owner Kibar Khalvashi. According to Khalvashi, the channel was forcefully taken from him during the governance of the post-Rose Revolution government and allocated to the regime’s friendly forces. Khalvashi asked the Georgian courts to return his property. In 2017 Georgia’s supreme court reaffirmed previous judgements and ordered a transfer of the channel’s rights. Nika Gvaramia and the whole specter of the political opposition argued that Khalvashi was directed by the ruling government to close the only oppositional channel; furthermore, they argued that this was a direct attack on critical media and freedom of speech. Finally, Gvaramia stressed that the government was pursuing a direct order from the Kremlin to close the most pro-Western channel in the country. These allegations were mainly shared by respected local and non-governmental organisations such as Transparency International Georgia and the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association. The public defender Nino Lomjaria also expressed grave concerns. Gvaramia and others sent a letter to the ECHR emphasising that Rustavi 2 is crucial for Georgian democracy. They asked the court to suspend the decision of the supreme court and investigate the case. The European Court agreed. Rustavi 2 channel members, as well as political opposition and the “elite” civil society representatives, spend the next two years re-iterating that the case was a clear example of the grip of the ruling regime on the courts.

Shockingly for these actors, the ECHR not only supported the change of the ownership but also stated that no rights to a fair trial were violated and that there were no signs of Georgian democracy and freedom of speech being under a threat. Finally, European judges noticed that Nika Gvaramia was directly insulting the Georgian judiciary system and intentionally undermining the local court’s legitimacy and credibility.

Georgia’s “elite” civil society became silent. Gvaramia, grinding his teeth, called it a “huge mistake,” while leaders of the political opposition like Giorgi Baramidze, the former Acting Prime Minister, and Khatia Dekanoidze, the former Minister of Education and Science, assessed the judgement as a pro-Russian. They asserted that the ECHR was being bribed by the Kremlin and Georgian tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili.

What is the question about?!

To generalise the debate in Georgian society, we can argue that the judiciary reforms raises a highly philosophical dilemma: is the glass half empty or half full?

Obviously, local political opposition, along with representatives of the so-called “elite” civil society, consider the glass half empty. Logically, opponents of the government use this approach for the purpose of political rivalry to undermine the ruling party and gain electoral votes. But in the case of the “elite” civil society members, it has to do with a combination of political preferences, general agendas, and beliefs.

On the other hand, there is the current government that continuously compares its achievements with the legacy left by United National Movement, and consequently argues that the glass is half full. The comparison is crucial to remind the Georgian population, which is frequently keen to forget lessons of the past, that the post-Rose Revolution regime simply failed to fulfill any standards for the right to a fair trial. But, at the same time, this narrative cannot be used as an excuse. Furthermore, the government should not simply ensure “better” courts, it must raise the stakes and make the whole system respective to European standards. They need to finally set the institution free, something that the ruling power is not ready to do yet.

The magna challenge

The judgement on the Rustavi 2 case shows that there is clearly one magna challenge with regard to the establishment of an independent and objective judiciary system in Georgia. That is the unreadiness of local actors to obey, respect and follow.

The United National Movement had no concerns with the right to a fair trial when the reigns of power were in their hands and they controlled the courts to oppress opponents. But, as soon as they lost control and were threatened by the system they directly nurtured, former government representatives suddenly proclaimed that the institution is flawed and in need of total reconsideration. The judges, who were highly praised at that time by representatives of the government, were transformed from democracy-defenders to enemies of the state. This example refers us to an old established perception among political actors and, generally, wider society: the court is free and fair if it produces “appropriate” judgement. This means that no actors, including “elite” civil society and the general population, are actually ready to recognise that the court can provide the right for fair trial even if members of political opposition are being jailed, arguments expressed by civic activists have not been shared and, of course, government has been held responsible for its actions. All in all, the judiciary system works appropriately not only by restraining the regime but, generally, through making everyone equal and accountable. The courts must ensure that former or current elites are accountable, as well as any regular citizen. This is something that is still unobservable with the state.

So far, the real reforms must be continued and the government should be ready to give up this institution as a political tool once and for all. But, at the same time, the most important pre-condition for building well-trusted courts is to come to a common agreement that the judgement must be followed and respected. It cannot be abandoned, local courts cannot be intentionally discredited and simply undermined by neither side due to mercantile, narrow political interests.

The article was originally published by New Eastern Europe.

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Rose Revolution 2.0


A step back to the past?

The government of Georgian Dream failed to approve a constitutional amendment that would have led to a proportional electoral system implemented in the 2020 parliamentary elections. The majority of the state’s strategic partners in the United States and European Union, as well as local actors, are hoping that this amendment will finally end the two-party system tradition and push local political groups to start forming coalition governments. In theory, the necessity of co-operation will provide additional incentives for further democratic development. Due to disagreements inside the ruling party, the initiative failed and the population will elect a parliament with this new model only during the 2024 elections. Georgian political actors, including civil society representatives, assessed this incident as an attempt of state capture. Moreover, there are appeals to the larger population to protest and to force the “illegitimate” government to leave power. The united opposition has announced an ultimatum, demanding the resignation of Georgian Dream, the appointment of an interim government and a set of snap parliamentary elections with the proportional system. This situation is noticeably similar to the 2003 political scenario when Eduard Shevardnadze, at the time president of Georgia, announced his resignation and the Rose Revolution ushered in a peaceful democratic transition.

Some are already speaking about a Rose Revolution 2.0 and consider it a fight against Georgian oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili to liberate the state from the pro-Russian corrupt government. On the other hand, there are serious doubts about whether the revolutionary spirit or proportional system will benefit the state’s stability and democratic development.

Rose Revolution revisited

The post-Soviet space has been turbulent for years. In the beginning of the 2000s, coloured revolutions spread through the region and there were hopes that the new pro-western governments in Georgia (Rose Revolution, 2003), Ukraine (Orange Revolution, 2004) and Kyrgyzstan (Tulip Revolution, 2005) would promote democratic institutes, ensuring stability and prosperity. Unfortunately, Ukraine fell into endless revolutionary scenarios while Kyrgyzstan ended up returning to its pre-revolutionary corrupt political system. Only in Georgia, President Mikheil Saakashvili and the United National Movement party managed to normalise the country and implement the basic democratic standard of regime change via (more or less) fair and transparent elections. This new tradition as an alternative to the long-lasting revolutionary approach was warmly supported and praised by the United States and European Union diplomats. But the normalisation came with a high price. Part of Georgian society, used to protests and appraisement tried to overthrow Saakashvili’s government from the outside for years and the post-revolutionary government tended to harshly suppress these attempts. They believed they were using legitimate actions to once and for all suppress the revolutionary spirit and make it clear that: a) political rivalry must be settled via political dialogue and b) power transitions should take place through elections. In general, despite various grave misdeeds during the brutal dispersals, both the US and European representatives shared Saakashvili’s main message. Eventually, Georgian society accepted the new rules of the game. The country became a success story and a land of stability in the region.

Today, the same people who were aggressively implementing the above-mentioned approach are undermining it. If the revolutionary scenario offered by the united opposition and supported by most of the local civil society succeeds, it will return Georgian political culture back to the past. The basic rules of the game will be broken and the street will become the platform for dialogue once again. The country will probably experience harsh consequences, including destabilisation of the whole region. Thus, it is crucial to ensure that both the government and opposition, in contribution with the state’s strategic partners, lead the state to fair and transparent elections that should remain the only model of regime change.

Proportional system

The idea of a shift to a proportional electoral system is not new. Actually, Georgia is already planning to move to this model by 2024. Its activation for parliamentary elections in 2020 was a political promise given personally by Ivanishvili to the local population after the June protests. The political opposition and its followers consider the proportional system more fair and transparent and are hoping that it will raise their representation in the main legislative body of the state. On the other hand, officials from the US and EU see this model as an opportunity to make the local parliament more diverse and competitive. Particularly, it may give other political parties a chance to enter political life, dismantling the sinful practice of a two-party parliament. Moreover, a multiparty institute may be a pre-condition for a new tradition – coalition government.

Generally, the idea and its logic are clear and accepted, but we should be ready for the possibility that instead of democracy promotion we will lead the state to permanent democratic crisis: the “two-party swamp” will be replaced by “multiparty bedlam”. Georgian political culture is at its rock bottom. Both, the government and opposition have no skills for political dialogue and currently, local parliament is more the wrestling arena rather than the house of political debate. Furthermore, the only thing these actors discuss is the concepts of traitors, the fifth column, agents of the Kremlin, and other topics that have nothing to do with the socio-economic issues like poverty and unemployment. Generally speaking, Georgian society observes a zero-sum game: the government tries to suppress rivals while the opposition tries to destroy the regime. So far, there are serious doubts whether more political actors included will lead to a plurality of voices or a plurality of craziness.

By and large, political actors in Georgia, with contribution from the state’s strategic partners, must ensure that elections are the only acceptable regime change model. No new revolutions are necessary and if the Rose Revolution 2.0 takes place, Georgia may be thrown back into the past from a success to a story of failure. Additionally, external and internal actors must think carefully and weigh the pros and cons before moving to the proportional electoral system. What is now considered as a chance for more plurality and democracy may actually lead to even more polarisation, pushing Georgia to an endless democratic crisis with an inability to form strong coalitions.

The article was originally published by New Eastern Europe.

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Georgia’s June crisis


Tensions remain high in Tbilisi after Russian lawmaker Sergey Gavrilov occupied the chair of the speaker of the Georgian parliament last month.

On July 20th, it will be almost one month since Georgia experienced one of the deepest and longest open political crises over the decade. Insulted by Russian deputy Sergey Gavrilov’s behavior during the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy when he occupied the chairman’s seat in the parliament of Georgia, some part of local society, in cooperation with political opposition, took to the streets to call for the government to bear responsibility, protest against occupation and remind the western partners that 20 per cent of the country is still under the control of the Kremlin. The initially peaceful protest turned violent and ended with massive clashes between protesters and riot police. Hundreds were injured, including security officers, while some lost their eyesight. As a result, the government was forced to fire the chairman of the parliament, introduce a proportional electoral system and free everyone detained during the unrest. At the same time, a small group of protesters are still demanding the resignation of the head of the ministry of internal affairs, Giorgi Gakharia. On July 7th, Georgian society experienced further frustration after Rustavi 2 TV journalist Giorgi Gabunia, on his show P.S., verbally insulted the President of Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin.

This initially provoked universal public outrage, which raised fears that the Kremlin could have initiated additional economic sanctions. Fortunately, Georgia and Russia managed to avoid further escalation of interstate relations. This incident is important for two reasons. Firstly, Rustavi 2 is one of Georgia’s leading TV channels that is capable of shaping and forming public attitudes. Secondly, this channel represents itself as a highly pro-western (and thus, anti-Russian) media agency that strongly supports the parliamentary opposition and June protests. So far, Gabunia’s absolutely provocative and non-journalistic behavior stigmatises the so-called pro-western movement and strengthens the attitudes of Georgia’s larger civil society that parliamentary opposition and the protesters are politically irresponsible and untrustworthy. Furthermore, it may create the false perception that irresponsible journalism is acceptable for the west and fits into western journalistic standards.

We may easily argue that the most critical stage of the protest has passed and the ruling party managed to avoid a further escalation of the situation for now. The political protest that is present on a regular basis in the city center is slowly fading and will probably be in vain. Putting aside the emotional part of the issue, this incident reflected Georgia’s deepening political and economic crisis; furthermore, a lack of alternatives and, most importantly, unreadiness of the youth to bear respective responsibility for its actions. And it seems that this irresponsibility became widespread, which affected Georgian media too.

The “full picture”

If you go through various local and international publications, you may come to conclusion that the Georgian youth were peacefully protesting against Gavrilov’s visit and the long-lasting occupation of the Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions by the Russian Federation. But factually, these people were peacefully protesting only for a while, and the reasons were much more complex; stagnation of political will and creativity among them. The visit of the Russian Duma deputy was just a trigger that initiated processes on the ground. Georgia is stuck between the past (the parliamentary opposition) and the present (ruling party) and is probably incapable of leading the state into a better future. Debris of the post-revolutionary government, the United National Movement and European Georgia, are lost in the past with an absolutely outdated political agenda, while the ruling party is seemingly unwilling to handle the significant issues that trouble Georgian society, including the status of the judiciary. Additionally, none of these political forces have a clear vision of how to deal with the economic crisis, unemployment and other socio-economic challenges. The status-quo pushes general Georgian society, especially the youth, to look for alternatives that are simply missing at the table. The non-existence of alternatives totally depreciates elections and leads to nihilism.

Provoked by the visit of representative of the “occupant state” and actually driven by despair, some part of Georgian society, including youth, went to the streets to unleash accumulated anger and dissatisfaction. This absolutely fair movement was acceptable for larger Georgian society until political opposition and their devoted activists decided to raise the stakes; the direct call from one of the leaders of the parliamentary opposition, Nika Melia, to “peacefully” relocate the protest into the building of the main legislative body, turned into an attempt to forcefully seize this state institution, the “heart” of Georgian statehood. Police officers and representatives of other security forces were calling on protesters to stop and attempted to prevent them from taking the building for approximately two hours. By the end of the day, Minister of Internal Affairs, Giorgi Gakharia, ordered the dispersal of the already non-peaceful and anti-constitutional protest. Unfortunately, this process was accompanied by the abuse of power and misbehavior by some members of the security forces that led to hundreds of people receiving various injuries, including the loss of eyesight. Georgian society got a new scare.

Shared irresponsibility

It is obvious that the government is usually guilty of both success and failure. The ruling Georgian Dream party made dramatic mistakes, including agreeing to hold the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy in the Georgian parliament and its failure to be responsive to the protesters demands and anxieties. Undoubtedly, the government failed to protect those peaceful and unarmed individuals who were attending the protest. At the same time, it has already suffered serious consequences and will feel significant impact during the upcoming parliamentary elections in 2020. But what about the actors who played a significant role in escalating and provoking unrest? Should the political opposition and the protesters also bear some responsibility for the events? We may definitely argue that Georgia cannot transform into a real democratic state unless we introduce the concept of shared responsibility, meaning the government is not always the only actor to blame—every engaged actor must bear its share of responsibility for its own actions and outcomes of these activities. And here we are experiencing serious problems.

Narratives expressed by members of the parliamentary opposition and the protesters simply avoid this issue; they are trying to turn a blind eye to it as if there were no direct attacks on security officers, destruction of state property, attempts to forcefully seize parliament building and general anti-constitutional behavior. John F. Kennedy once said, “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. The best thing that the protesters and especially the youth could have done for the country was to remain peaceful, but they failed. Today, the best thing they can still do is to share responsibility for June 20th with the government and parliamentary opposition. Unfortunately, neither the opposition nor the youth is ready to do so. This unreadiness for responsibility raises serious questions among larger Georgian society about whether the youth is actually prepared and can be trusted to lead the country.

By and large, Georgia suffers from a political and economic crisis that neither the ruling party nor the parliamentary opposition are probably capable of handling. There is dramatic need for new approaches and creativity through the establishment of alternative political forces and schools of thought. Unfortunately, Georgian society is simply not ready to satisfy this demand and some parts of the society, especially the youth, unleash their anger with political protests. The local parliamentary opposition and protesters are trying to represent the June 20th events as a peaceful protest that was brutally dispersed by the government. This narrative has little to do with the actual facts. Of course, the ruling party made a few significant mistakes, but both the political opposition and protesters played a significant role in escalating and provoking unrest. Thus, all sides should bear some part of the responsibility. Georgian society must realize that the responsibility for the country must be shared among all engaged actors and not only the government. Finally, this recklessness also affected the Georgian media environment. Giorgi Gabunia’s “demarché” against Vladimir Putin was, by all means, extremely damaging non-sense that sent the wrong message regarding Georgian values and journalistic standards and stigmatised political opposition and the protesters as politically irresponsible and untrustworthy actors.

The article was originally published by New Eastern Europe.

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Post-election Georgia: More problems to come?


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.

Democracy guarantor

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.

The article was initially published by New Eastern Europe.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Saakashvili’s rise, fall and rise again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From November to November

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russia, again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The article was initially published by OpenDemocracy.

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