November is often a turbulent month in Georgia: most famously, that was when the Rose Revolution began in 2003. But November has come early to Tbilisi this year, and the acrimony that fuels so much Georgian politics is already escalating dangerously.
On October 24 the Georgian State Security Service (GSSS) announced the launch of a probe into media reports that former president Mikheil Saakashvili, who came to power in the Rose Revolution, was plotting a coup against the authorities. The investigation follows the publication of an exchange the now-exiled Saakashvili allegedly had with his former national security advisor, Giga Bokeria, in Istanbul airport, with the two reportedly discussing plans to trigger mass civil protests aimed at overthrowing the government.
The conversation surfaced on “Ukrainian WikiLeaks,” an obscure website registered in Russia with a track record of publishing stories against the former Georgian leader, who is wanted in Georgia on charges of abuse of power, which he deems politically motivated. Bokeria was summoned as a witness and questioned but he ridiculed the transcript and called the issue “foolish [and] absurd”.
The interrogation capped a week of political mud-slinging in Georgia which has monopolised the media, inflamed social networks, and will do little to attract the foreign investors that the South Caucasus nation sorely needs.
In one sense, it is just a continuation of the polarisation that has characterised Georgian political culture since Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition came to power in October 2012. But coming on the back of the government’s poor showing in recent polls, amid the country’s current economic difficulties, and with Georgia due to hold parliamentary elections in mid-2016, the antagonism has assumed a renewed intensity.
The Georgian Dream coalition came into being with the express purpose of driving Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) from power. But since winning power, it has struggled to replace opposition to the UNM with a coherent ideology or vision. Saakashvili’s current high profile in driving reform in Ukraine may have made matters worse. As the parliamentary elections begin to loom, reminding voters of the UNM’s misdeeds in power therefore may be one way of resuscitating Georgian Dream’s support.
The rollercoaster began on October 17 when graphic videos showing prison inmates being sexually abused in 2011 were leaked to the public on an Ukraine-based video sharing website. The footage sparked rallies outside offices of the UNM, in power at the time of the offences – doors were nailed, red paint was thrown at walls and windows were shattered.
The confrontation reached its zenith on October 22 when Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, leader of Georgian Dream, labelled the UNM as a “criminal” organisation with “no rights to remain in politics” and added that “aggression” against the party is “natural”.
The remarks caused an uproar. President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who has had frosty relations with the premier since last November, criticised the comments as “add[ing] tensions in an already tense situation”. The usually cautious parliamentary speaker Davit Usupashvili, one of the leaders of the Republican Party, which is part of the ruling coalition, stated he would not cooperate with those politicians encouraging violence – no names needed.
International criticism poured in, with former Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt calling the statements “outrageous” and “well outside democratic decency”.
Yet some analysts believe the premier’s tactics might be successful.
"The statement is indeed outrageous, but it may be effective in what it is seeking to do – limit the appeal of UNM," explains Hans Gutbrod, a long-term Georgian analyst. "Say something that is beyond the pale, to get people to talk about it, is a strategy that can work in the short-term."
The leaked videos tainted further the image of the UNM, whose fall from grace in September 2012 is widely blamed on similar footage of sexual abuses in prison leaked a few weeks before the ballot Georgian Dream won.
The government needs all the help it can get as a recent survey conducted by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) shows, though it was dismissed by the ruling coalition. According to the NDI poll, Georgian Dream is neck and neck with the UNM, with 42% of voters undecided.
"For the undecided, these kinds of polemics may turn them away from politics altogether, thinking that all of it is dirty. That might help Georgian Dream, as the UNM hasn't yet managed to build an emotional connection to a broader section of society," notes Gutbrod.
This kind of mud-slinging has also diverted attention away from what the government is actually doing.
“There is little attention to the programmes, if none at all,” a diplomatic source who doesn’t want to be identified told bne IntelliNews. “This government did bring tangible changes in a few sectors which were previously neglected like education, health care, agriculture, but instead of publicising them politicians simply blast at the opposition’s past and present. Whatever they’ve achieved gets lost in translation, irritating voters who turned to Georgian Dream as they sought for change.”
Media freedom row
The polarisation has also politicised a legal battle over the ownership of pro-UNM television station Rustavi 2, the country’s most popular, which could damage media freedom in the country.
While the secret service was investigating the alleged planned UNM coup, hundreds gathered on October 24 in the capital Tbilisi to protest at what they called a coup by the government to shut down Rustavi 2. Demonstrators waved banners reading “Hands off from Rustavi 2” outside the TV stations’ studios and accused the authorities of undermining media freedom.
Rustavi 2 is currently tangled in an ownership row that has led to the freezing of its financial assets, thus threatening its capacity to broadcast. The management of the station has accused the government of blocking a funding deal necessary to continue its operations. Human rights groups as well as President Marghvelashvili have expressed concerns.
The OSCE Special Representative on the Freedom of Media Dunja Mijatović has warned that “if not lifted soon, the court order will entail serious restrictions on the diversity and plurality of the media in the country”, adding that “statements by some high-level government officials on the matter, might negatively influence the court proceedings”.
In an interview with bne IntelliNews on October 16 Prime Minister Garibashvili dismissed the accusation of meddling with the media, but support of Rustavi 2 has now spread beyond Georgia’s borders and senior officials are now asking for calm.
Giorgi Kvirikashvili, foreign minister and deputy premier, stressed that the government remains “deeply committed” to the freedom of media as “even the most biased broadcasting policy can bring much less harm to the country than our partners’ questions with respect to media freedom in Georgia”.
Georgia’s media landscape stands out for its pluralism in the region, but the ongoing saga around Rustavi 2 is worrying international allies: the US embassy called any actions that give the appearance of restricting media freedom “disturbing”.
The Rustavi 2 case has become overheated and some observers argue that the rhetoric has taken over the facts. “The narrative is all wrong,” said the diplomat. “There is a property dispute that dates back to alleged violations under the previous administration. But that doesn’t mean that the station should stop its operation and be closed. Unfortunately by now the case is so politicised that the evidence is no longer relevant for any of the parties involved and whatever the verdict will be, it will be used for political ends.”
In a statement released late on October 26, the EU delegation in Tbilisi and ambassadors from EU states said there are “concerns to be addressed”. Without commenting directly on the merit of the Rustavi 2 case, the release stressed that the “current political tension in Georgia” underlines the importance of building upon “the reforms achieved so far” and ensuring “fully functioning democratic institutions,” adding that as part of the implementation of “the Association Agreement, we have increased our support to Georgia, but also our scrutiny”.