COMMENT: Democracy is struggling in Georgia

COMMENT: Democracy is struggling in Georgia
By bne IntelliNews March 3, 2021

Georgia faces an internal political crisis. The arrest of the leader of the main opposition party – United National Movement (UNM) – at his party headquarters by government security forces reverberated across the democratic world. Narratively as well as purely propaganda-wise the opposition managed to gain the upper hand as the scenes of the storming damaged the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party’s international standing.

Though it remains to be seen whether this crisis will reinvigorate support for the party among other groups of the population beyond hardcore opposition supporters, it could be argued that the opposition managed to re-invent itself and put itself again into the spotlight – not long ago the UNM was a declining political force.

For many, Georgia is in the midst of a democracy-building crisis precisely because of the situation after the 2020 parliamentary elections when the opposition refused to acknowledge the results. But the roots of the internal troubles could be more far reaching. Ultimately it could be about how detached the political elites of Georgia have become from the demands of the ordinary people. 

Take the opposition, which is viewed with antipathy by wide sections of the public. A gradually decreasing number of supporters also characterises the governing party as long-term economic problems exacerbated by the pandemic constitute a major challenge. But little has been offered over the past few years from either side. For many, the current crisis is more about a GD-UNM struggle than a struggle for democracy and the economic development of the country. 

This explains the large abstention rate of voters during elections in Georgia. Large sections of the population do not see a preferred party with an appropriate programme amidst the increasingly polarised political climate.

Perhaps what Georgia lacked throughout its post-Soviet independence period was long-term policy planning to re-boot its fragile economy, a heritage of the troubled 1990s. What it needs is for attention to be shifted away from inter-party politics towards the needs of the economically poor population.

Democracy is struggling and it is not only about whether the arrest of the opposition leader was a lawful act or even an urgently necessary move in these circumstances. We are dealing here with what the Georgian public has been accustomed to since the country regained independence – the belief that a ruling party stands always above the law. This was the case with former presidents Eduard Shevardnadze and Mikheil Saakashvili, and this is a scourge that befell the current government, whether it wanted it or not. For ordinary citizens there has been no break in the repeated pattern of actions by Georgian political elites for the last 30 years.

But the crisis has a wider dimension. A regional outlook perhaps would shed some light. It is a region where two small and extremely fragile democracies – Armenia and Georgia – are located. The former took a major hit last year when its dependence on Moscow grew exponentially following Yerevan’s defeat in the Second Karabakh War. Now Russia is more capable of backtracking the reformist agenda of the Armenian leadership. Protests are staged – internally the prime minister is weak and facing challenges, Russia plays a long game, it navigates and kills the last vestiges of Armenia’s independent foreign policy.

Georgia too is hit. Internal challenges have been troubling the ruling party for more than a year now. And this is what Russia needs – internal differences in Georgia, a weakening of its international standing, hopes for Nato/EU membership dashed. In the age of reinvigorated efforts on the Trans-Atlantic partnership between the US and Europe, Washington’s larger support for Nato, and its possible enlargement into the former Soviet space, Georgia’s woes are a boon for Moscow and a propitious development for those in the West who are feeling fatigue towards EU/Nato expansion. 

Ivanishvili quits again

There are all indications that the current crisis in the country will be a recurring one. In many ways the basis for this lies in the resignation of Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgian billionaire and founder of GD. “I believe that my mission is accomplished, so I’ve decided to step out of politics for good and fully give up the reins of power,” said Ivanishvili in a letter that was released on January 11. He was replaced by Irakli Kobakhidze, who served as executive secretary of GD.

It is not Ivanishvili’s first departure. Several years back he did the same to only return to play an active part in the country’s chaotic political landscape. No wonder that there are many sceptics who question the seriousness of his decision. Many believe it is a ploy to continue governing the country from behind the scenes.

Ivanishvili created the Georgian Dream party before the 2012 parliamentary elections when Saakashvili’s UNM was defeated. Having presided over the party, Ivanishvili has dominated Georgia’s political landscape ever since. In 2014, he founded the 2030 public movement, then the Citizen non-governmental organisation, however, in 2018 he formally returned to politics to become the chairman of GD. Ivanishvili’s resignation could have thus triggered critical changes not only to the fabric of the ruling party, but also to the balance of power between the political parties, namely it emboldened the opposition parties.

His resignation caused infighting among party leaders. This was apparent in the unexpected resignation by Giorgi Gakharia, who refused to take part in the arrest of Melia. There are three strong groupings within the party: one around Tbilisi mayor Kakha Kaladze, the second around Kobakhidze, though he is politically unpopular among the population. The third is around the current PM Irakli Garibashvili with his so-called clan of Kakhetians (Kakheti is a region of Georgia).

The potential struggle will not be open and acrimonious, at least at first. Each grouping will try to have its associates appointed to crucial government positions, win tenders for the biggest projects, etc. Eventually, the weakening of the power vertical in Georgian Dream will lead to internal crises and conflicts, which will be manifested first latently and then openly. Among them, there will be tendencies to rearrange interests and powers according to corruption/personal interests, which can manifest itself even at the institutional level, for example in the form of conflicts between different agencies or ministries. 

Another factor leading to the weakening of GD is the non-existence of ideological ties, no consolidated political interests, and no real, living practice of political unity. Moreover, no long-term development of the country’s economy and political system is being proposed. The emphasis is still on portraying the UNM as a destructive political force, and not on actual reforms, for instance, in the judiciary, education or economic spheres.

One of the theories behind Kobakhidze’s appointment was Ivanishvili’s idea of having as many poles of political power as possible so that nobody could garner enough momentum to challenge his legacy and the working of the party.

The leaders of the three groupings are personally associated with Ivanishvili. His influence on them is lasting, which means that technically he would be able to influence overall developments within the party. It is exactly because of this vertical of power that various sources familiar with the internal operation of the party claim that it is almost impossible to consider GD without Ivanishvili whether he is in charge or has relinquished de-jure political power.

Another possibility is that Ivanishvili has resigned for good. In fact, some logic could be seen in this thinking considering his political passivity in the last few years and the very difficult pre-election period. There are signs of a certain political fatigue and even frustration with the overall process of keeping the opposition at bay, fighting off Western criticism and keeping the economy afloat.

Pressure from the West

There is also a question of Western political pressure. Constant criticism of Georgia being run by a shadow figure often undermined expectations among Georgia’s foreign partners on the country’s democratic future. Rumours still swirl around in Tbilisi that Ivanishvili was likely to be targeted by US sanctions that would seriously constrain his actions and have a bearing on Georgia’s internal politics. His decision to quit for good could therefore be a permanent decision.

The timing of his resignation is also indicative of probable foreign pressure in this process. The elections held in October 2020 and won by GD are contested by the opposition spectrum. What is crucial in the negotiations held between the ruling party and opposition forces and moderated by ambassadors in Georgia is the West’s tacit support for GD. Many in Georgia believe this could have been an informal arrangement whereby the West approves of GD’s victory, but in exchange Ivanishvili should have left, removing an important obstacle for Georgia-West relations.

Others offered a different explanation. Amid a dire COVID-19 situation and a struggling economy, Ivanishvili’s decision could have been motivated by saving himself to avoid public outcry for upcoming troubles.

Non-political reasons too could be at play. After all, Ivanishvili has not always been a politician. A billionaire who, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, is the richest man in Georgia with an estimated wealth of about $5.7bn, always claimed to be in politics only temporarily. A lover of animals and owner of a collection of rare paintings, Ivanishvili has always been famous for his distaste for public life, a life that he had to lead since he came to power in 2012. The 65-year-old could indeed be thinking of a permanent break.

But perhaps the biggest trouble for the ruling party is that Ivanishvili’s quitting emboldened the opposition. In many ways, the current political crisis is a result of a power vacuum in Georgian politics no leaders could fill in. The opposition sees the possibilities of fracturing within GD which could be accelerated only with street demonstrations, picketing of administrative buildings and calling for Western involvement.