Attack on opposition leader reignites fears over political violence in Georgia

Attack on opposition leader reignites fears over political violence in Georgia
Previous attacks on opposition that went unpunished are believed to have led to an armed attack on Alexi Petriashvili.
By Carmen Valache in Istanbul February 29, 2016

An attack on Georgian opposition leader Alexi Petriashvili, who was beaten and shot while visiting a friend's grave on February 26, has reignited worries about rising political violence in the country during a crucial election year.

While the perpetrators of the crime have not been identified and their motives could be apolitical, the growing number of attacks on Georgian opposition parties in recent years is worrisome for a country that purports to promote democracy and the rule of law, and is looking to join the EU and Nato.

Petriashvili is one of the leaders of Georgia's opposition Free Democrats and a former state minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration between 2012 and 2014. On February 26, masked attackers beat him up and shot at him three times while he was visiting the grave of former diplomat Levan Mikeladze at Tbilisi's Saburtalo cementery together with three friends. His three gunshot wounds are not life threatening, with doctors saying that he would make a full recovery after he underwent surgery over the weekend.

Attacks against individual politicians are still relatively rare in Georgia, the Caucasus' most democratic state, but political infighting between the ruling and opposition parties, especially the leading opposition party United National Movement (UNM), is often virulent and sometimes takes the form of political vendettas, which heightens a climate of fear. For instance, UNM's founder and chairman, former president Mikheil Saakashvili, who is now pursuing a poltical career in Ukraine, has had his citizenship revoked and a criminal arrest warrant issued against him. Furthermore, a series of attacks on UNM offices in late 2015, including involving firearms, have raised questions about political plurality in the country.

"The fact that political violence in Georgia often goes unpunished influences the perception of the attack on Petriashvili," Ghia Nodia, professor of politics at the Tbilisi-based Ilia State University, told bne Intellinews. "The public's perception is that violence is on the rise, not just in politics, but in other areas of society – crime is on the rise, violent crime is on the rise, which generates mistrust towards law enforcement and the government." 

Georgia's controversial former prime minister, Irakli Garibashvili – who in October 2015 stated that he personally understood if people would choose to pursue violent vendettas against the UNM for human rights abuses – stepped down unexpectedly in December and was replaced by the more inclusive and conciliatory figure of Giorgi Kvirikashvili, former foreign affairs and economy minister. The move was believed to have been prompted by the ruling Georgian Dream coalition's desire for an image makeover before October's parliamentary election.

However, Kvirikashvili has failed to dispel the perception of violence in the country, Nodia explains, because the real power rests elsewhere. "Everybody in Georgia knows that [billionaire businessman and former prime minister] Bidzina Ivanishvili rules from behind the scenes. Therefore, replacing one prime minister with another will have a little impact. Rather, the Georgian Dream needs to redefine its agenda and to actually stand for something, as opposed to merely standing against UNM".

Having won the 2012 election by positioning itself against the UNM, Georgian Dream is now struggling to reinvent its identity in a way that does not invite controversy and conflict. "The trouble is that Georgian Dream sees UNM as a criminal organisation, and not a legitimate opposition, making the transition to a less contentious political scene all the more difficult," Nodia opines.

The liberal and pro-European Free Democrats is the country’s third largest party and has been in opposition both during the Saakashvili administration and, since 2014 when it left the ruling coalition, to the Georgian Dream administration.

Prime Minister Kvirikashvili strongly condemned the attack against Petriashvili and expressed his "extreme concern" at events. "Law enforcement agencies are taking the necessary measures to investigate the case, to arrest the perpetrators and to bring them to justice as quickly as possible," he said on February 26.

But echoing criticism elsewhere, opposition MP Sergo Ratiani from the UNM accused the Georgian Dream administration of "creating an environment in which attacks on opposition politicians and opponents are encouraged".

While Kvirikashvili has made some progress in calming political tensions by reaching out to President Giorgi Margvelashvili, with whom Garibashvili also came into conflict, Georgian Dream has significant work left to do to improve the public perception of its administration. Seeing how a November 2015 poll revealed that half of Georgians were either undecided or did not want to say who they would vote for, Georgian Dream has less than eight months to reach the hearts and minds of the electorate if it wants to win another term in power.