The protests and political drama that have engulfed Tbilisi over last week or so has highlighted all of the flaws of Georgia’s ruling Georgian Dream party (GD). While the image of a pro-Kremlin Russian parliamentarian holding court in Georgia’s legislature was to many Georgians a troubling symbol, that event, and the political outrage it evoked, is less emblematic of Russian sway as much as a reminder of Georgia’s fraught and paradoxical political balancing act.
The decision to invite Russian politician Sergey Garilov to address the Georgian parliament was more likely an honest, if stupid, mistake than an effort to somehow cosyd up to Russia, but it was a grave and avoidable misstep. The unnecessarily violent reaction to the demonstrations in front of parliament showed how GD feels increasingly embattled and, despite consistently winning elections, increasingly disconnected from the Georgian population. The unclear and confusing response by the GD government to the demonstrators and their demands showed a government that is more inept than venal. Even the announcement by Bidzina Ivanishvili—the billionaire GD founder, onetime prime minister, and current party chairman—that the 2020 elections will be entirely proportional, a key demand of the demonstrators, was evidence of both a lingering commitment to democracy, but also a reminder that Ivanishvili remains the prime mover in the GD universe.
While the most proximate cause of the demonstrations that are still occurring in Tbilisi was Garilov’s presence in the Georgian parliament, the Georgian people, who came to the streets, were also motivated by a more general discontentment with their government.
The GD has now been in power for six and a half years – a long time in Georgian politics. The previous administration, Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM), was in power for slightly longer. Thus, for many Georgians, the Georgian Dream’s signature achievement, of bringing down the unpopular UNM, has receded into the past. Like all citizens of countries that have at least some democracy, the Georgian people have begun to ask the ruling party: “What have you done for me lately?” and what they have heard back has been distinctly underwhelming.
The key to understanding events in Georgia is to recognize that these demonstrators have come to the streets not just because they don’t feel elections have allowed them to effectively express their discontent with the GD government, but also to understand why that is the case. To do that, it is essential to understand the role that the UNM, as the largest opposition party, has played in Georgian politics since leaving power in 2012.
As the de facto leaders of the opposition, the UNM, and related parties such as European Georgia led by former UNM stalwarts like Giga Bokeria and David Bakradze, have crafted a critique of the GD that is half hard-hitting, but nonetheless reasonable. This critique includes the argument that the GD has not done enough to develop the country economically, accelerate democratic reforms or restored Georgia’s territorial integrity.
The GD record on these issues is no worse that of the UNM when they were in power, but that does not undercut the potency and validity of this view. Additionally, the UNM, and related parties, have consistently highlighted the role Ivanishvili has played in Georgia, painting him as the true leader of the country who governs capriciously despite holding no elected office. This line of attack is not wildly inaccurate either. However, the rest of the UNM assessment of the GD is a little less grounded in reality. Their insistence that Ivanishvili is a Russian oligarch steering Georgia back to Moscow and towards becoming a dictatorship, or that elections are fraught with widespread fraud and are prima facie stolen are, at best, dramatic overstatements, and more usefully understood as overheated political rhetoric.
Thus, since leaving power at the end of 2012, the UNM has maintained its position as the second most powerful political force in the country while never being able to break out of that role both because of their radical approach to Georgian politics and the electorate’s reluctance to return to a period of UNM rule, whether by the UNM, European Georgia or some combination of the two. This means that the central dynamic of every recent election in Georgia has been the Georgian people choosing GD; not because they like them, but because GD is a bulwark against the UNM returning to power.
This is why despite demonstrable, and indeed demonstrated, dissatisfaction with the GD government, the likely outcome of last week’s events will not be a transition of power, but a GD that is weaker and less effective remaining in power.
There are two things that could change this. First, if the UNM could step aside and allow this movement to be led by leaders from civil society and the like, the movement could gain even more momentum and could lead to bigger changes in Georgia. However, from what we have seen over the last week or previously, it is unlikely that the UNM leadership would be content to let that happen. If the UNM’s goal were to get the GD out of power, they would let Georgia’s strong civil society and the smattering of other political parties who are not broadly disliked and feared take the lead in anti-GD demonstrations, but if they did that than the UNM would be minimized. This shows us that deposing the GD and reinstating the UNM are goals that overlap partially, but not at all completely. It is also evident that the UNM only wants the former if it brings about the latter.
Given that Ivanishvili has already conceded to proportional representation in the elections in 2020 with a zero per cent threshold – a concept that is a little vague as parties that get zero per cent of the vote should probably not get seats in parliament – new elections, as a result of a movement not led by the UNM (if that were to come to pass) would open the door for many small parties to chip away at what has become a UNM hegemony of the opposition vote.
Therein lies the central paradox of the GD’s ability to remain in power. Both the GD and the UNM benefit from the UNM being the second political force in the country. This allows the UNM to keep alive a hope of returning to power while simultaneously remaining deeply involved in the politics and the governance of the country. However, it also helps the GD remain in power because in any election, or even any standoff in the streets, they can use fear of the UNM returning to power to mobilize support.
Another scenario, the one that should cause the most concern among the GD leadership, is that if enough time goes by, the memory of the UNM period fades while age replacement takes its inevitable course, it is possible the GD’s ability to exploit the fear of a UNM return to power will stop working. If that were to happen, the UNM could return to power. That would almost certainly set off a period of intense conflict, instability and yet another round of reprisals that would set Georgia back politically and indeed economically, as investors would be scared off.
It is therefore very likely that the anger being expressed on the streets of Tbilisi will not translate into meaningful change. This may be disheartening for some but it shows us that at the moment, the events in Tbilisi are highlighting both dissatisfaction with the GD government as well as the power of the GD/UNM duopoly which is the political anchor of a status quo that works for elites of both parties but does little to address the needs and demands of the Georgian people.
Dr. Lincoln Mitchell is an Associate Research Scholar in the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University, and previously a 2017-18 EDSN fellow. Mitchell is the author of The Democracy Promotion Paradox (2016), The Color Revolutions (2012), and Uncertain Democracy: U.S. Foreign Policy and Georgia's Rose Revolution (2008). EDSN is an international research fellowship project of the Center of Social Sciences, Tbilisi and made possible with the support of the National Endowment for Democracy.