The Russian factor in Georgia-Ukraine relations

After a brief period in which both Ukraine and Georgia appeared to be united against Russia, it now appears that the two nations are moving along very different paths.

In October, Georgia didn’t support any of Ukraine’s resolutions denouncing the Kremlin’s foreign policy within the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). That is surprising, given how many analysts had by now assumed that Georgia and Ukraine were on the same page when it came to Russia.

The two resolutions deal with “the political implications of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine” and human rights abuses “on the occupied Ukrainian territories.” By supporting them, PACE recognized the military conflict in Ukraine as “Russian aggression” for the first time and called on the Kremlin to withdraw its forces from the eastern part of Ukraine. Moreover, it denounced the parliamentary elections, recently conducted by Russia in Crimea.

When the Georgian delegation in PACE didn’t support these resolutions, the nation’s pro-Western parties reacted strongly. For example, the United National Movement lambasted the Georgian government and accused the country’s former Prime Minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, of supporting Russia. Moreover, Mikheil Saakashvili, the former Georgian president and now the governor of the Odessa region in Ukraine, described such a stance as a “disgraceful” move.

However, an immediate response came from one of the members of the Georgian delegation in PACE, Eka Beselia. She retorted that Tbilisi needed to defend its own national interests. Even though this statement seems to have alleviated the increasing conflict, the video of Russian-Ukrainian journalist Matwey Ganapolsky, who accuses Georgia of betraying Ukraine in favor of Russia, fuelled the tensions. In contrast, Russian pundits see the unwillingness of Georgia to vote for the PACE resolution as a sign of improvement in Tbilisi-Moscow relations.

In reality, the reluctance of the Georgian Dream, the ruling party in Georgia, to approve these resolutions is just the logical conclusion of complicated relations with Kiev. Since the start of the color revolutions in the post-Soviet space, Georgia and Ukraine were largely in the same boat.

After the success of the Rose Revolution in Tbilisi and the Orange Revolution in Kiev, the newly elected governments were closely connected with each other and teamed up against Russia. This resulted from friendly relations between Ukraine’s former prime minister Yulia Timoshenko and former president Viktor Yushchenko on the one hand, and Georgia’s Saakashvili on the other hand.

However, their relationship was rather pragmatic in its nature, although officially Tbilisi recognized Ukraine as one of its closest allies. Since 2007 the democratic processes in the two countries have started moving in a reverse direction. Saakashvili’s penchant for conducting an aggressive policy as well as his authoritarian inclinations was increasing, while Ukraine faced the corruption and the political rivalry between Timoshenko and Yushchenko.

The more impact this had on the countries’ stability and development, the more obvious became the fact that the ruling elites from both sides did not support democratic reforms, but only the regimes that were friendly to them. Thus, Georgian-Ukrainian relations could be seen as a form of cooperation between governments, not between the people.        

And this trend became relevant until the 2010 presidential elections, when Georgia’s civil society and population called on the government to support democratic processes and regime change in its “brother” country. From then on, Georgia has been shying away from supporting the political regime in Ukraine and focusing more on the support of the country’s own population.

However, Ukraine refused to consider such tactics, with its official representatives criticizing the Georgian Dream coalition for supporting Russia during the 2012 parliamentary elections. Moreover, Kiev cooperated with Georgia’s United National Movement, which was openly accused of building an authoritarian regime and egregious human rights abuses.

Logically, the new Georgian government under Ivanishvili cannot help paying attention to this fact. But it was relatively reticent and didn’t respond, even when Georgian volunteers came to fight in Eastern Ukraine to support Kiev and accused Tbilisi of supporting Russia. That had some implications for the Georgian Dream: It was seen as a political force that is capable of defending the country’s national interests.

Moreover, Georgian voters also saw the fact that Saakashvili was appointed as the governor of the Odessa region as an unfriendly move from Ukraine, as a slap in the face, because the former Georgian president was legally prosecuted in his home country, which meant that Ivanishvili couldn’t fulfill his pledges and restore justice [During the election campaign he promised to put Saakashvili in jail for corruption and the abuse of power — Editor’s note]. The problem was exacerbated when Kiev granted Saakashvili Ukrainian citizenship, which made it impossible to imprison the former Georgian president.

Saakashvili crossed the red line during the latest parliamentary elections in Georgia during the campaign. First, his colleagues from the United National Movement visited Ukraine. Second, he openly called for a coup d’état against the Georgian government, which he sees as pro-Russian. In fact, he threatened to conduct a new revolution in Georgia. This was the last straw for the Georgian Dream.

It is safe to say that the current Georgian political elites started seeing Ukraine as a real headache and the shelter for dubious and controversial Georgian politicians from the United National Movement accused of different wrongdoings and legal violations.

However, with the victory of the Georgian Dream in the 2016 parliamentary elections, a lot has changed. Moreover, the odds of the party of winning the constitutional majority are really high. It means that the influence of the party is growing in the Georgian parliament and even more could change.

As a result, the government won’t necessarily have to take into account the views of other political forces to take decisions. It can be pretty outspoken now that it won’t put up with anti-government moves and initiatives like the ones promoted by Saakashvili. Moreover, the Georgian voters, who are seeking to have those involved in the violations during Saakashvili’s tenure prosecuted. So, in this regard, the electorate supports the Georgian Dream.

Thus, all this indicates that Georgian-Ukrainian relations have always been more complex and nuanced than they seemed to be at first glance.  During Saakashvili’s tenure, there was cooperation between his government and the ones of Timoshenko and Yushchenko. However, eventually, Tbilisi shifted its priority from supporting top political officials to supporting society and people.

Ukrainian politicians should keep in mind that the Russian factor is not the only one that determines the Ukrainian-Georgian agenda. Providing shelter to Saakashvili also does matter. So, to improve the relations with Tbilisi, Kiev should take into account its national interest and support the Georgian people instead of the country’s politicians.

The article was originally published by Russia Direct.

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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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Big trouble in little Georgia

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

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

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

A short history of Messiahs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big trouble in little Georgia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The article was initially published by OpenDemocracy.

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