Georgia: to be or not to Be

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is having a considerable impact in the former Soviet countries. In many of them, it is reflected in a political crisis, open in Georgia, latent in Central Asia. Public opinion may be mobilized in favor of Ukraine but governments are choosing to be cautious and are trying to find a way out. The case of Georgia is particularly interesting. The Ukrainian tragedy is reviving the trauma of the Russian-Georgian war of 2008. It has forced the current government of the “Georgian Dream” to throw off its mask and reveal its vassalage to Russia by refusing to join the sanctions adopted by the West. It was in Georgia that Putin inaugurated his policy of using violence and terror to tame a rebellious country. This policy was a success for Russia, thanks to the complacency of the West caught up in the euphoria of the “reset”. The Georgians who had chosen the West felt betrayed. Moscow took advantage of this demoralization, financed and propelled to power the oligarch Bidzina Ivanichvili, supported by a coalition of cynics and corrupt people: the sociological base on which Russia is counting in the whole of the former Soviet space. Today Putin intends to repeat in Ukraine this policy combining terror and demoralization, which in his eyes has proved its worth in Georgia. This is why the Georgian issue is so important at the moment: it is a question of proving to Putin that it is impossible to build durably on intimidation and venality.

In Georgia, there is a widespread sentiment that the country is on the verge of failure as a nation. The initially reluctant government had to comply with mounting public pressure to follow Ukraine and Moldova and submitted Georgia’s EU membership application in March, but Georgia was the only one among the trio to fall short of the status as the Western allies have begun realizing the scale of recent democratic backsliding as well as the malign political and economic influence of the Russian oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili on the Georgian government. Georgia, until recently a long-time regional leader, was granted a European perspective and promised candidate status as soon as it implements reforms underlined by the European Commission. The reforms aim for strengthening democratic institutions, deoligarchization, and depolarization in Georgia, and the country is given a six-month observation period. The democratic camp believes any reform and depolarization of the political class is impossible without deoligarchization first, a reference to Ivanishvili, the sole Georgian billionaire whose assets equal 35% of Georgia’s GDP.

Bidzina Ivanishvili made his fortune in Russia. He has been the face, funds, and brains behind the current Georgian government since the governing Georgian Dream (GD) party was set up. Lately, however, Ivanishvili swears he has quit politics, although his claims are increasingly untrustworthy. The European Parliament even adopted a resolution to sanction Ivanishvili on June 9, when the Georgian Dream officials began openly attacking and rejecting the very idea of Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration, which is virtually the only consolidating topic for Georgians. It is also enshrined in the country’s constitution. Interestingly, the government decided it was the appropriate time to jail the director of the biggest opposition TV channel in what is suggested to be a politically motivated case by the Department of State just weeks before the EU decision on Georgia’s candidate status.

In the last decade, the Georgian political spectrum has often been described as a two-party system with deep inter-party polarization. Such categorization is imprecise as there are various small parties, but, indeed, two-party dominance has often accumulated the most votes to the detriment of small and newer parties. The current political situation has its roots in the parliamentary election of October 1, 2012, when the GD defeated the then-incumbent United National Movement (UNM), the party of then-President Mikheil Saakashvili. Saakashvili conceded on the same night, marking the first peaceful transition of power in the country’s history. It did not seem a problem to most voters that GD was consolidated around a Russian-made oligarch. After all, it was a vote against Saakashvili and his poor human rights performance more than a vote for Ivanishvili that ensured the decisive swing, and Ivanishvili promised the embattled nation that he knew just how to walk that fine line of pursuing Euro-Atlantic integration and not irritating Russia. Ever since, demonizing the UNM governance and intimidating people by their alleged revanchist return and subsequent repression has remained GD’s core identity and main mobilizing force, although most UNM critics of Saakashvili’s authoritarian tendencies are now in opposition to the GD, thus finding themselves on the same side as the UNM. Meanwhile, the UNM established itself as the single largest opposition party with a steady share of around 27% of the votes during elections. This is largely due to the personal popularity of Mikheil Saakashvili in that segment of the population.

Traditional political ideologies and economic preferences play a minor role in Georgian party life. What matters more is opposition to Saakashvili, opposition to Ivanishvili, a party’s positioning toward the EU and NATO, and a good honesty record of a party’s leader. The government condemns any and all real opposition as Saakashvili followers, and the opposition increasingly calls the GD a Russian regime. Currently, GD support is mostly comprised of the huge public sector unenthusiastic for regime change, pro-Europeans who see no salvation in the opposition, pro-Russians, and those for whom the post-Soviet corrupt and stagnant lifestyle is comfortable. The government, together with the highest hierarchs of the Church of Georgia, protects and makes use of openly pro-Russian violent groups. One of such groups, the “Alt-Info” TV channel crew (now a political party), violently attacked more than 50 journalists preparing to cover the Tbilisi Pride 2021 march on the capital’s main avenue on July 5, 2021. One cameraman, Lekso Lashkarava, later died of his injuries, although the government blamed his death at lightning speed on an alleged drug overdose. The police seemed non-existent, and the government did not make enough inquiries to uncover the key figures behind the assault. Many believe it was the government’s and the Church’s revenge against critical media. Georgia went down 29 at 89th on Reporters Without Borders’ media freedom index in a single year because of this incident.

Demonstration in Tbilisi on June 20. Photo : Guram Muradov / Civil.ge

The opposition, largely defeated by the oligarchic state capture in the 2019-2021 protests, allied itself with civil society. Together, they were able to hold “Home to Europe” demonstrations of 100,000–160,000 protesters in a country of 3.7 million (according to various sources such as Euronews, CNN, or Netgazeti) on June 20, 2019 which marked 3 years from when large-scale protests first broke out against the Georgian Dream government. The chairing of a session inside the Georgian parliament by Russian parliamentarian Mikhail Gavrilov was the trigger of the protests and the decisive moment in the lives of many young Georgians that day. According to many who have taken to the streets since the twilight of the Soviet Union, June 20 was the largest rally Georgia has ever seen. Even more importantly, the rally consisted mostly of residents of Tbilisi, who are known to never protest en masse, relying instead on the organized provincial support of the opposition parties to protest on Tbilisi’s main avenue on their behalf. But this time there were no buses carrying the provincial protesters, it was Tbilisi that protested. The current protest wave has finally spilled over into the more moderate supporters of the governing party as well and has the potential to become a truly national struggle because never has the nation’s European choice faced the real prospect of betrayal from the Georgian government. The June 20 demonstration was the embodiment of support for Europe for the government to consider, which Georgians believe to be their future and their home (hence the name of the protest). The crowds gathered again on June 24 in almost similar numbers to express the demands of civil society vis-à-vis the government, carefully coordinated with the opposition behind the scenes. The demands are the following: resignation of the cabinet and appointment of an interim national unity government that is to be comprised of the governing party and civil society technocrats. The interim government is to implement reforms necessary to receive the candidate status and prepare a free and fair atmosphere for the next parliamentary elections. Since only few people in Georgia expect the government to comply or even to leave without bloodshed, the movement “Home to Europe” needs to be very careful in order to maintain public enthusiasm and ensure the continuation of the country’s European future as Ukrainians did in 2014, if necessary. The choice of violence is up to Bidzina Ivanishvili alone. The Prime Minister and the cabinet vow to implement all the necessary reforms to be granted the status but simultaneously deny there are any problems with democracy and rule of law in Georgia, or that Mikheil Saakashvili and Nika Gvaramia are political prisoners.

Support for Ukraine and the understanding of the common fate work to the advantage of the democratic opposition. According to polls, 87% of Georgians consider the war in Ukraine as their own. In addition, more than 2,500 Georgian volunteers are fighting in Ukraine, and the bodies of around 20 dead warriors have been welcomed back home as heroes, with hundreds of people gathering at Tbilisi International Airport in the early morning to honor their memory. Many see their sacrifice as compensation for the government’s lukewarm behavior toward Ukraine. But the government rhetoric is that if there is to be any instability in the country, war with Russia will follow, and the fear is deeply engrained in Georgian society, especially since the Russian occupation forces stand a mere 400 meters from the country’s main east-west highway and about 50 kilometers from Georgia’s capital.

Positioning itself as the guarantor of peace and stability in a war-torn country has always been the pillar of the GD’s marketing strategy in addition to the demonization of the UNM. For many, however, stability has become stagnation and “peace” has become capitulation before increased Russian influence in the country. Georgian government officials accuse Ukraine, the European Union, and the West in general of plotting a revolution and launching a second front in Georgia in cooperation with Georgian opposition. The Chairman of the governing GD, Irakli Kobakhidze, indirectly stated that the Ukrainian cabinet is a UNM member. The problem with Ukraine, Kobakhidze said, “is that those who are in the opposition in Georgia are members of the government in Ukraine.” Ukraine is unhappy with Georgia’s refusal to join international sanctions against Russia, not allowing volunteer fighters to board a plane to Ukraine, and Georgia’s alleged help to Russia to evade sanctions. President Zelensky even recalled the Ukrainian Ambassador from Tbilisi. On June 24, Zelensky addressed Georgian protesters and vowed to stand with the Georgian people and help them with European integration. After an extremely critical European Parliament resolution, the government officials formed a queue to blame the EU for wanting to sanction Ivanishvili and not wanting to grant Georgia EU candidate status because Ivanishvili refused to drag Georgia into the war, and war is why Ukraine and nearby Moldova were “encouraged” with the candidate status. “If war and humiliation is the price to pay to get the status, then we don’t want it,” is the rhetoric of the Georgian Dream. For those who are not satisfied with such an explanation, the Georgian Dream began exploiting Emmanuel Macron’s statement on Georgia being in a geopolitically different situation from Ukraine and Moldova — claiming the EU did not give Georgia the status because of its geographic location as well. On June 13, the government propaganda media TV Imedi published the results of their poll conducted by GORBI. One of the questions asked people if they were willing to go to war with Russia “if the West demanded so from Georgia.” According to the poll, 83.6% of those polled were against launching a war against Russia. The European Parliament makes a distinction between the Georgian government and the Georgian people, whom MEPs see as worthy of the EU integration.

Nowadays, the only political party whose approval ranking is increasing compared with previous polls is Droa (which translates as “It’s Time”) with its leader Elene Khoshtaria. Droa was established in 2021 and Khoshtaria comes from the UNM like most pro-Western Georgian politicians who entered politics in the 2000s. The party got 2.2% of the votes during the 2021 Tbilisi municipal elections. Khoshtaria has the reputation as a fierce fighter and a hard worker. She was the first person to protest against Gavrilov’s sitting in the Speaker’s chair in 2019, and many admire her for this. Unsurprisingly, Khoshtaria is deeply disliked by hardcore GD supporters, and she has become the favorite target of government propaganda in recent weeks. Lately many traditional supporters have grown to distrust the UNM for their perceived lack of potential and action, and it is obvious from private conversations that these people often swing toward Droa. The resource disparity between the oligarch-led government and the democratic camp has long forced a large part of the opposition to be reactive, restricted, and sometimes even apologetic instead of proactive and risk-taking. The moral restriction of opposition has further succeeded by dubbing them all “war parties.” Some politicians fear that since Georgia is not immune to a Russian attack, the informationally vulnerable people might blame not just specific parties but the entirety of pro-Western forces if an invasion does occur. This neutralized a significant portion of the opposition during the first months of the war in Ukraine, but the urgency to save the country’s European future has forced them back into resistance. Droa is also one of the few parties that have always refused to be forced into inaction. It currently works on mobilizing people in the country and on ensuring sanctions for Ivanishvili, his business elite, corrupt judges, prosecutors, and security services officials.

Despite Georgia’s struggle for democratization and their defending their free choice in bloodshed in the 1990s and 2008, the country has been consumed by the political and security vacuum in the region that resulted in the oligarchic state capture. For Georgia not to fail as a nation and not to become another major security threat to the whole of Europe, its Western supporters should help Georgians deter state capture and get back on the democratic track. The top priority is to sanction the oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili and his oligarchic system of executives, then to nurture and invest in groups of ideologically coherent and enthusiastic pro-Westerners who are unyielding to undemocratic pressure. Georgia’s new national movement “Home to Europe”, which is comprised of civil society and the opposition, also needs to develop a clear agenda, communicate it to the general public and stay loyal to their promises so that they can inspire people and motivate those who are willing to fight for change for the lengthy period of time necessary to influence the oligarch and his government into action, but they need robust political backing from the West. This would aid Georgians in harmonizing their vision and ensure that a significant number of them do not succumb to “divide and rule.”

Young Georgian researcher and political activist. She specializes in hybrid threats, governance issues, national identity, and security. Lives in Tbilisi.

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