Parliamentary elections are coming to Georgia. This Saturday, Georgia’s electorate will go to the polls to define the country’s future for the next four years. While Georgian and foreign officials have been mostly positive in their assessments of the election environment (“the most democratic elections ever”), the tone and content of the election campaign makes it clear that there is something fundamentally wrong with Georgian politics.
This year, it is the absence of a “Messiah figure” who will “save the country”, as well as the obvious crisis of the country’s political party system. For years, Georgian society has been consolidated around the prospect of finding a “saviour”, which, in turn, has undermined the role of parliament, and left the country’s party system underdeveloped. Indeed, Georgia’s voters are used to choosing political figures rather than political blocs.
Nowadays, when Georgia’s “Messiah era” has come to an end and it is up to political parties to lead the state, the political establishment has nothing new to persuade voters that the old promises are still achievable. The electorate is confused. And this leads to an election campaign organised around mutual accusations, absurd initiatives, conspiracy theories and dangerous incidents.
A short history of Messiahs
The unexpected break-up of the Soviet Union left Georgia in dire need of re-shaping its domestic political culture. While there were attempts to make the transition to a “western political system”, political memory, in combination with the political, social and economic instability of the 1990s, led to the formation of a Messiah-centered presidential system.
Georgian society sought a “firm hand” from within the political establishment who would rescue the state from its deep political, social and economic crisis. In this situation, the main purpose of elections in Georgia was to consolidate society and find the “chosen one” who would oppose the existing repressive regime and rebuild the state.
Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Georgia’s first post-independence president, is a classic example. In May 1991, Gamsakhurdia, an ultra-nationalist dissident, was elected by 87% of votes after campaigning on the grand goal of leading the nation. When he failed to meet his promises, Gamsakhurdia was overthrown by militants. The country was on the edge of a full-scaled civil war.
Soon enough, Georgian society found a new “saviour” — Eduard Shevardnadze, a representative of the Soviet nomenklatura, who was elected in 1992 with 77% of the vote. Later on, in September 1993, when rumors began to emerge that Shevardnadze was planning to leave, protesters gathered outside the parliament, kneeled and begged him to stay in power. Ilia II, Patriarch of All Georgia (and the most trusted person in the country), personally called Shevardnadze a “nation leader”. He was re-elected in 2000 by 79% of votes.
Much like his predecessor, however, Shevardnadze was unable to fulfill society’s aspirations and, by the end of 2003, Georgia was on the edge of collapse. State institutions were weak and corrupt. And this was the moment when another “saviour” appeared — Mikhail Saakashvili, who, backed by the US, initiated a new campaign to save Georgia. After pushing Shevardnadze to resign, Saakashvili was elected as president with 96% of the vote. Later on, his political team, the United National Movement, took a constitutional majority in Georgia’s parliament and he became the undisputed leader of the nation.
Saakashvili’s aggressive rhetoric and authoritarian nature pushed him to resign and set new presidential elections in 2008, which he won with a smaller majority. By 2012, Georgian society had come to a critical point, when United National Movement changed the constitution and turned the state towards a parliamentary system. This reform should have ended the era of Messianism in Georgia, but there were fears that Saakashvili was planning to continue governance by simply switching posts.
Once again, the electorate was looking for another leader to save Georgia’s fragile democracy. Bidzina Ivanishvili, a Georgian tycoon, appeared to be the last Messiah who managed to consolidate society once again, defeating Saakashvili’s government in the 2012 parliamentary elections.
The transformation of Georgia’s political system from presidential to parliamentary model and the defeat of Mikhail Saakashvili’s government reflected the end of a long-lasting culture of Messianism. It was time for the political party system to take the lead.
Big trouble in little Georgia
Assessing the pre-election process in September, US Ambassador to Georgia Ian Kelly noted: “I wish the election campaign to be as good in the United States as it is in Georgia”. Even though local government took the statement as a compliment, the election campaign that can hardly be called a success.
Indeed, the campaign started not with political debates or programmes, but a fistfight in Samegrelo. On 22 May, 2016, members of the United National Movement were attacked and brutally beaten by unidentified persons in the village of Kortskheli in western Georgia. While the participants were later detained, the UNM accused Georgian Dream of initiating the incident. The ruling party responded by publishing documents that verify close ties between the attackers and the UNM. The investigation is still in progress.
At the beginning of August, leaders of Georgia’s Centrist Party, Lado Bedukadze and Nikoloz Khachisvhili, hit the stage by offering “Russian pensions” (i.e. significantly higher payments) as an election promise to every pensioner in Georgia. Moreover, the party’s election campaign video footage promised to legalise the future presence of Russian troops in the country. Even though this initiative was absurd and unachievable, it got a wide-range reaction. The party was later expelled from the race.
An equally absurd initiative was proposed by David Usupashvili, a prominent Georgian politician who recently resigned from the position of parliamentary speaker. Usupashvili, leader of the Republican Party, promised to establish an “American base” in Georgia in the run-up to joining NATO. The idea contradicts the foreign policy that the coalition Georgian Dream government has pursued until recently. For years, Georgian Dream, in cooperation with US advisors, has tried to move Georgia-Russia relations out of the US-Russia relations context. The mere possibility that a US base would appear in the South Caucasus would definitely backfire and, of course, escalate the situation in the region.
By the beginning of September, the election campaign had come to entertain conspiracy theories, after an audio recording that allegedly reveals Saakashvili’s plan to overturn the election results was leaked to the press. The recording supposedly documents a conversation between the ex-president of Georgia and fellow members of UNM in which they plan for mass riots and political disturbances in the post-election period.
Moreover, Giga Bokeria, a prominent figures in the UNM and former secretary of the National Security Council, is allegedly heard to propose a “revolutionary scenario”, which is approved by Saakashvili. The security services have summoned the alleged participants for questioning, and an analysis of the tape’s authenticity is currently taking place.
The election campaign has now entered the stage of various local confrontations and serious incidents. On 2 October, three members of the youth wing of Georgian Dream were hospitalised after they were physically assaulted allegedly by UNM supporters (again in Samegrelo). The next day, shots were fired at a campaign meeting of Irakli Okruashvili, a past ally of Saakashvili, in Gori. While one of the former defence minister’s security team and a supporter were wounded as a result, Okruashvili claimed that responsibility for the attack lies with local Georgian Dream activists.
On 5 October, Georgia witnessed a terrorist attack. Givi Targamadze, a leading UNM official and former defense and security committee chairman, was lucky to survive a car bomb in Tbilisi. UNM leaders indirectly blamed the government. The ruling party immediately struck back. In an urgent address to the nation, prime minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili promised to punish the initiators, saying that “foreign citizenship” will not protect them. Thus, Kvirikashvili indirectly accused Saakashvili, who accepted Ukrainian citizenship to avoid criminal charges in Georgia, of an attempt to destabilise the state prior to the elections. Saakashvili, of course, then promised his victorious return from Ukraine after the election.
The whole election campaign and the events of the past week reveal that there is a big mess in little Georgia. These “Messiah-less” elections make it clear that Georgia’s mainstream political parties have more or less the same “ideology” and the same goals, while parties with opposite approaches lack necessary financial and human resources.
What remains to be seen is how this crisis will develop and how it will influence the post-election environment. Currently, there is only uncertainty.