“Make Georgia great again”

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

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

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

Elections (not) stolen

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

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

Georgia’s American model

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

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

Gone with the propaganda

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

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

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

The article was originally published by New Eastern Europe.

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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.

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