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.

Tagged : / / / / / / /

“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.

Tagged : / / / / / / / / / /

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.

Tagged : / / / / / / / / /

Georgia’s wayward son


When it comes to Mikheil Saakashvili and his legacy as president, Georgians praise and curse him simultaneously. His announced return should the largest opposition party win in upcoming elections should be seen through the lens of the local society, most of which would not warmly welcome such a homecoming.

Former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili announced a “come back” to Georgian political life. In a short advertisement video, the prominent politician asked the local society for forgiveness and promised to complete reforms that he and his political party United National Movement (UNM) initiated before being defeated later in parliamentary and presidential elections in 2012-2013. Saakashvili, who chairs the executive committee of Ukraine’s National Reforms Council, stated that Georgia is in total stagnation, returning to the so-called “dark” 90s as a result of a traitorous policy pursued by the government of the Georgian Dream. Soon after, the UNM, the main opposition party, stated that in the case of being victorious in the parliamentary elections set for October 31st, it will nominate its “founding father” as candidate for prime minister. Saakashvili, who actually has never really left Georgian politics, announced that, if victorious, he would occupy the post for two years and then continue his career in Ukraine.

While some parts of the political opposition, as well as civil society, expressed gratitude for the readiness to help liberate the state from, what they call, a Russian-controlled oligarchy represented by typhoon Bidzina Ivanishvili and Georgian Dream, others expressed serious concerns. Giga Bokeria, a former high-ranking official under Saakashvili who established a new political movement called European Georgia, stated that Saakashvili’s aspiration is to return Georgia to the past.

Political rivalries aside, it is time to finally speak out on issues that make him a significant historic figure that will probably never “come back” again. Moreover, for the sake of Georgia’s democratic development, it would be best for Saakashvili to not return.

Georgian Che

Mikheil Saakashvili is extremely popular among American neo-conservative circles, Eastern European political figures and, of course, liberal and even non-liberal elites in the post-Soviet space. He is known best for being a highly successful reformer who transformed Georgia from a “rogue” state into a developing pro-western country. Most importantly, he is respected by some groups in the West for his harsh anti-Russian rhetoric. At the same time, he has been continuously seen by Russian liberals as a counter-example to Vladimir Putin; thus, his fall from power was well-celebrated in the Kremlin. Paradoxically, the former president of Georgia is also notorious among those considered pro-Russian elites in Armenia, as well as pro-governmental groups in Azerbaijan and Central Asia that are sick and tired of systemic corruption, violence and the inability to build a career beyond loyalty to existing political regimes.

All these actors, unfortunately, lack fully objective information when it comes to Saakashvili’s true legacy, overwhelmed by his tremendously well-performed PR campaign. So far, they often simply can’t understand why so many people at home praise and curse him at the same time.

To understand this inconsistency, we should accept, once and for all, that Saakashvili is not a reformist but first and foremost – a revolutionary. What’s more the former president truly believes in his own path – the “Misha Way”. In other words, he believes that he knows what is true and false; what is patriotic and what is unpatriotic. Generally speaking, there is only one right way, the “Misha Way” and Georgia, as well as the local society, should follow it whether they express willingness to or not.

As the revolutionary, Saakashvili is ready to pursue and fight for his ideas and goals till the end. This disposition was perfectly reflected during his governance when there was no dialogue, no debate and no exchange between the state and the people. Furthermore, after the constitutional amendments introduced in 2004, Georgia’s political system became hyper-presidential, in which parliament played no role while Saakashvili ruled over the state almost as a sheikh.

Soon after, the state developed its media platforms as well as the business sector. As a result, the processes in the country were driven solely by the will of its leader, Saakashvili, and a small group of individuals. Moreover, democratic values such as human rights, freedom of speech and the press and private property were largely abandoned for the sake of revolutionary breakthroughs – a modernisation which by all means has not been coordinated and harmonised with the Georgian people.

Yet another factor that we should emphasise is the unique PR skills of the former president of Georgia, as he manages to exaggerate achievements, on the one hand, while being able to fully overshadow the negative sides on the other hand. For example, police reform was tremendously successful in fighting “petty corruption” and ensuring the fight against crime, while being a total failure in defending local society from elite corruption and state abuse or the impunity of the security services that were involved in hundreds of criminal cases including killings, tortures and other grave misdeeds. This state reform protected Georgian society from crime but was incapable of doing the same when the state behaved as a criminal itself.

Thus, at the end of the day, Saakashvili gave the local population much-needed hope for a better future but, at the same time, sacrificed a desirable, democratic institutional development. Logically, Georgians praise and curse him simultaneously, depending on what was and is more important for each particular citizen.

Despite this paradox, all sides agree that Saakashvili is a historic figure – the “Georgian Che” who motivated Georgian society to continue its state-building process. Yet, the “Misha Way” was unable to live up to the strong desire for nation-building fully in line with democratic values.

The article was originally published by New Eastern Europe.

Tagged : / / / / / /

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.

Tagged : / / / / / / / /

Coronavirus of Georgian politics


The government of the Georgian Dream has been fairly successful with its gradual approach to tackling the pandemic. At the same time it found itself pitted against one of the most trusted institutions in the country, the Georgian Orthodox Church.

In a move that was unexpected by both Georgia’s strategic partners and its own society, the Georgian Dream government has managed to successfully wage a war against COVID-19. The state’s gradualist tactics, involving timely and appropriate political reactions, has allowed for a controllable proliferation of the disease and limited deaths thus far. So far, Georgia has been deemed a “state to follow” in the global fight against the coronavirus.

Despite this pandemic and accompanying challenges, political processes are still very relevant within the country. Both the government and its political opponents are using all possible tools to gain more electoral votes in the upcoming October parliamentary elections. Initial statements by the United Opposition that announced a “moratorium on criticism” did not hold out long. These political groups have involved affiliated media outlets and platforms which, depending on their ideological attachment, present reality in absolutely diverse ways.

Most recently, the Georgian Dream government found itself pitted against one of the most trusted state institutions, the Georgian Orthodox Church, which refused to follow strict regulations regarding the Easter holiday.

Gradualism against COVID-19

Georgia is probably one of the best examples of a gradualist approach to the COVID-19 pandemic. In a move opposite to most European and non-Western states, where populations were suddenly locked up, the government of Georgian Dream quickly reacted to the threat and started slowly setting new regulations and restrictions after the first case was discovered on February 26th. This model gave both the state and local society enough time to get used the idea that a new reality was coming and everyone should adjust. Furthermore, citizens were reassured that the country has high-level professionals in the medical sector who, in collaboration with the ruling party, managed to lead the nation while becoming symbols of hope in the fight against the virus. The state is currently in total lockdown, but due to the appropriate crisis management approach, civilians remain relatively calm and secure.

On the other hand, the Georgian Dream government threatens its own political success with an unclear economic policy. This has becoming increasingly problematic since the state of emergency was extended until May 22. It is clear that representatives of the health service are devoted to saving lives and preventing the further spread of COVID-19, but the government must also keep in mind the political, economic and social dimensions of the crisis. However, they have not yet managed to persuade Georgian society that there is a clear policy to deal with the increased rates of unemployment and poverty. Consequently, there has already been an anti-lockdown rally in the city of Marneuli where locals are in need of serious financial and social assistance.

Coronavirus, politics and media

Elections are coming and the earlier expectations that the coronavirus pandemic would overshadow it failed. No real consolidation of the political powers has been achieved. The United Opposition has realised that while it is on the “political bench,” the Georgian Dream is scoring additional votes through its crisis policies. So far, despite the announced “moratorium on criticism,” the opposition has already started waging a full-scaled rhetorical war, trying to undermine achievements of the government. They have pushed forward a negative narrative of the crisis that focuses on unemployment, poverty, and sporadic cases of police abuse. Finally, the opposition refused to support an extension of the state of emergency, arguing that the Georgian Dream had not presented an action plan that validated the necessity of keeping the state under lockdown.

At the same time, the government of Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia is aware that the pandemic has given the ruling team a unique opportunity. On the one hand, they avoided strong political protests that were expected to begin in early April regarding the liberation of alleged political prisoners, free and fair elections. On the other hand, the existing quarantine has locked down both regular citizens and members of the political opposition, who are currently at home and not able to fully participate in political life. Finally, the pandemic itself has become a chance to pursue the best possible pre-election campaign without actually announcing this campaign. The way the ruling party manages this crisis will have a profound impact on the upcoming parliamentary elections. The ball is in the government’s court and the Georgian Dream has successfully controlled it thus far .

The war between political powers is even more apparent in the Georgian media where all involved parties try hard to discredit each other. Imedi, the pro-governmental news channel, pushes a narrative that the state is doing well, while turning a blind eye to the existing challenges. The oppositional channels, like Mtavari and TV Pirveli, often do not inform their audiences about successful crisis management, arguing that the state has returned to the “dark” 1990s with people starving and dying on the streets. This unfortunate polarity has once again raised concerns about the politicised nature of local media.

The calls: Church versus Gakharia

In accordance with a long-lasting tradition, the Georgian Orthodox Church has managed to prove that it is still the most influential institution in Georgia. The church has not only disobeyed restrictions set by the government, but they have actually avoided adhering to the majority of them, including the prohibition of mass gatherings, driving cars, curfew and even basic safety standards.

From the beginning a lion’s share of Georgian Orthodox priests resisted the restrictions, arguing that faith is above any law and spirituality will defend the flock from this misfortune. Moreover, they stated that an attempt to close churches is a direct path toward repeating a totalitarian, forceful policy preached by the communist regime. Thus, these religious leaders called on the followers to continue attending spiritual rituals despite the pandemic and existing strict regulations. The narrative was significantly softened after direct negotiations with the state officials and public negative outcry. And still, Georgian Orthodox Church managed to held Easter rituals with significant violations of the law while representatives of other religious denominations where diplomatically “asked” (actually, prohibited) not to do so; this is especially actual for the state’s Muslim community that is still unable to pray at mosques despite the Ramadan.

The government, which is unwilling to engage in a direct confrontation, especially in light of the upcoming parliamentary elections, has turned a blind eye to these transgressions. The political opposition and a significant part of local civil society members have criticised the government for its selective justice. They call it a grave breach of secularity principles, and thus, the constitution itself. At the same time, representatives of other religious denominations have raised reasonable concerns about double-standards, inequality and discrimination.

These attitudes were strengthened by Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia’s pre-Easter speech, when he called on citizens to avoid attending religious rituals, arguing that the violation of the curfew would not only hit the church as an institution but also push the state towards a larger coronavirus outbreak. Some critics, highlight signs of unwillingness by the government to lead the state and defend the law, while “rebellious” priests saw it as an attempt to blame possible negative outcomes on the church. But these critics have overlooked the similarities between Gakharia’s speech and what John F. Kennedy once said: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” The church is superior to the government, not because the Georgian Dream decided so, but, foremostly, because Georgian society gave it more legitimacy. It is up to the Georgian citizens to respect the role of the government and finally recognise it as a supreme institution.

The article was originally published by New Eastern Europe.

Tagged : / / / / /

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.

Tagged : / / / / / / / /

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.

Tagged : / / / / / /

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.

Tagged : / / / / /

The problem with Georgia’s political brand


Georgian security officers might have been complicit in the abduction of Afgan Muktarli, an exiled Azerbaijani journalist, which took place on May 29th in Tbilisi. Later on, Mukhtarli was found in a Baku detention facility. Local opposition and non-governmental organisations argue that the country is retreating from its democratic path and that the ruling Georgian Dream is supporting the regime in Baku.

This event, just like the 2008 August War, the recent clashes during an anti-homophobia rally and various other events, reflects the existence of two parallel Georgias: Georgia as a political brand, created by the former president Mikhail Saakashvili, and Georgia as a political actor of international relations which has to maneuver in the global and regional political environment. The brand is slowly being dismantled, as the country is increasingly failing to hide the real political processes underway within its borders. This in turn, has led to a painful disillusionment on the part of the local population.

Georgia’s political brand

Mikhail Saakashvili’s time in office was full of hope, reforms, achievements and, of course, misdeeds. Whether or not one positively assesses his two terms, it is clear that he was a well-educated politician and a brilliant PR campaigner. While in power he started building a new political brand of the country, which evolved over the years, reflecting the attitudes of the governing elite. The more Saakashvili’s political team was falling into authoritarianism, the weaker the brand was becoming. By the end of the Rose Revolution government’s time in office, when a new political grouping – the Georgian Dream coalition, defeated the president’s party in the parliamentary and presidential elections in 2012-2013, the brand began to lose its appeal.  

There are several reasons for this loss. First, the brand was based on the perception that the country is a beacon of democracy in the South Caucasus surrounded by close friends and strategic allies (Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan) and oppressed by its northern neighbour, the Russian Federation. Moreover, it was meant to be protected by the red line that Russia supposedly could not cross, drawn by the former US president George W. Bush. Second, Saakashvili managed not only to build a well-structured political brand but also to persuade the majority of local actors that it reflects the reality. In practice, however, this was only an illusion used by the Georgian elite, both governmental and non-governmental, to keep society misinformed and to attract foreign political and financial resources.

What has been beneath the perception is a harsh political, social and economic reality where Georgia is a relatively democratic state in a very complex environment and a geopolitically sensitive region. All the neighbouring countries are falling into authoritarianism, often trying to further their own national interests with the help of Tbilisi. Finally, in their actions, the ruling elite has to take into consideration the existing regional tendencies and political climate. Georgia, as a political actor, does not possess any significant political, economic or military power and, so far, is highly dependent on its Western strategic allies, especially the US.

The harsh reality

Despite the well-organised and structured nature of Georgia’s political brand, the country is unable to hide the political processes taking place on the ground. The harsh reality often resurfaces and causes sincere astonishment and uproar. Probably the most painful disillusionment came when society realised that there have been no red lines in the South Caucasus and that Russia is capable of crossing any border. George W. Bush’s statement was just a part of his PR campaign in the wake of the growing dissatisfaction of American electorate with his presidency.

The 2008 August War reflected Tbilisi’s deep vulnerability to Russian military force. It also painfully showed that NATO’s was unable to provide support that Georgians had hoped for, that is military units on the ground fighting along Tbilisi against the aggressor. Furthermore, the recognition of Georgia’s separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states by Moscow once again proved that the country has been as vulnerable as ever. Georgia might be politically and morally supported by the West, but it is still defenceless in the face of military and other challenges that global and regional processes may unleash.

Finally, Georgia’s allegedly established democracy is a myth. After coming to power, the pro-Western post-revolutionary government assured its strategic partners that it would put the country on a democratic track. The Western allies (especially, the US under George W. Bush) immediately began to praise Tbilisi’s democratic transition. Both governmental and non-governmental organisations were working hard to create the image of Georgia as a beacon of democracy in the South Caucasus.

Yet, a peaceful meeting of the LGBT community in the capital on May 17th 2013 to celebrate the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia turned into a violent confrontation. Thousands of conservative ultra-Orthodox demonstrators broke through police cordons, clashing with gay rights activists. Georgia’s civil society reacted by gathering signatures under a petition calling the government to punish religious figures involved in the incident. But the newly elected Georgian Dream Coalition turned a blind eye, which showed that while the country may be democratic in comparison with its neighborhood, it is still far from the type of democracy it aspires to be.

Allies and enemies

The political dichotomy of Georgia’s allies and enemies built by Saakashvili is slowly vanishing too. In this scenario, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan are presented as the country’s close allies and strategic partners, while Russia as the only threat to Tbilisi’s sovereignty, democracy and institutional stability. In reality, however, the dichotomy reflects rather the political correctness of Georgia’s elite and their attempts to avoid further escalation of the political situation in the region. The state is surrounded by authoritarian regimes that are trying to use Tbilisi to further their own national interests.

Istanbul, for instance, is pushing its neighbour to close all schools and organisations connected to the exiled Turkish politician, Fethullah Gülen. Following Turkey’s request, the Georgian government detained the manager of the private Turkish Demirel College. Moreover, at Turkey’s request, the authorities halted discussions in the Georgian parliament on making Didgoroba – the  celebration of the 1121th anniversary of the victory of the Kingdom of Georgia over the Great Seljuk Empire, a public holiday. According to official sources, the Embassy of Turkey in Georgia asked that the parliament stops the proceedings over the legislative proposal because the day marks a great defeat for Turks.

The case of Afgan Mukhtarli’s, an exiled Azerbaijani journalist who was abducted by members of Georgian and Azerbaijani security forces and sent to a detention facility in Baku, is another great example of Tbilisi’s vulnerability. Human rights activists argue that the Georgian government collaborated with Azerbaijan due to the pressure from SOCAR gas and oil company. It is not a secret that Saakashvili’s early attempts to free the country from Russia’s Gazprom leverage led to a dramatic dependence on Azerbaijan’s energy resources.

Finally, Armenia with its Russian military base located in Gyumri, constitutes another veritable Damocles’ sword hanging over Tbilisi.

All in all, while Georgia needs a brand that would help to promote its national interests, the local elite should not get deluded. The country is on the path to democracy, but one that is still far from the Western definition. Moreover, the situation in the region is fragile and Tbilisi must realise that an existing dichotomy of allies and enemies is no longer relevant. The neighbouring countries will continue to put pressure on Georgia to defend their authoritarian ends. This becomes clear, when the brand faces a reality check.

The article was originally published by New Easten Europe.

Tagged : / / / / / / / /
RussiaUSAGeorgia