Georgia – at the edge of authoritarianism

(Considerations and analyses of political life between last two elections)

Parliamentary elections of 31 October, 2020 and Local Municipality elections of 2 October 2021 caused massive discontent and political crisis in the country. Unfortunately, the recent developments showed us that Georgia still is considered among the post-Soviet type republics where election fraud is seen as an important tool to retain power. This is a matter of concern given the fact that the country is claiming for European and Euro-Atlantic integration in the foreseeable future.

Georgia met both elections politically with a highly polarized society, supporting the ruling party (Georgian Dream) on one side and pro-western opposition parties (UNM, European Georgia, Girchi, Lelo etc.) on the other.

Unfortunately, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the international community was unable to monitor pre-election campaigns as well as the election process itself with sufficient number of observers.  According to the leaders of the opposition parties, the created extraordinary situation encouraged the ruling party to act by all means (Allowed and disallowed) in order to gain the elections.

Opposition claimed that the elections were far away from democracy and transparency. According to them, there were many cases of different kind of electoral dirty tricks and manipulations, such are: voters bribery, intimidation of rights of voters at the polling stations by criminals, temporary lending of ID cards at the election day, so-called carousels (When a person votes at several polling stations with several ID cards), disbalances between the voters and the ballot papers, as well as disbalances in Summary Protocols of polling stations among which hundreds of “corrected” dates were discovered etc.

It is noteworthy to mention that the entire opposition expressed their concerns and distrusted the election processes. In both cases that manifested in mass street protests in which the united opposition demanded resignation of the administration of the Central Electoral Commission (CEC), to draw a new electoral law, which would be a prerequisite to set up a new electoral commission with active involvement of representatives of society and the civil sector. All the above mentioned had to be served to hold snap parliamentary elections. According to the opposition, the ruling party wasn’t going to leave the government through elections, consequently, a strong and massive protest of the people was needed in order to press the government to make relative decisions.

The government’s answer against opposition demands was to suppress protests by using Police units and Special Forces (So called “Robocops”) which was even negatively received in the society as the forces responded very hard; the impression was that law-enforcement representatives were protecting not the public order but the interests of one particular side – the Georgian Dream. In some cases, Special Forces even used disproportionate power, for instance, in 2020 after Parliamentary election street protests in front of CEC, Police and Special Forces without no reason, fired water cannons and launched tear gas against thousands of protesters and opposition supporters. And during the protest rallies after the 2021 local elections hundreds of protestants were fined by court, citing inappropriate resistance to police.

The political crisis in the country was deepened at the beginning of 2021, the several factors caused the mentioned crisis: The first was the statement of the founder and leader of the ruling party – Georgian Dream, Mr. Bidzina Ivanishvili, to leave politics; The second important reason was the arrest of Mr. Nika Melia, the General Secretary of the United National Movement – UNM, the main opposition party, at the Party’s Headquarter office, and third – the resignation of Prime Minister Mr. Giorgi Gakharia, who refused to give the order to arrest the opposition leader, Melia. It turned out that the main leaders of the Georgian Dream, Ivanishvili and Gakharia, who enjoyed great sympathy from the voters, left the team a few months after the victory of the Georgian Dream at the Parliamentary elections.

As for Nika Melia, according to the prosecutor’s office (Supported by the political leaders of the ruling party – Georgian Dream), he was detained for non-payment of bail. This statement by law enforcement officials gave the public a sense that the arrest of the UNM leader had political implications. The same feeling was in the eyes of Georgia’s international friends who were trying to get Georgia back on track of democratic development.

Added to this the United Opposition (Except for a small number of representatives), refused to enter parliament, which literally meant a one-party Parliament and which was not perceived as democratic in the eyes of the West. 

It was obvious that Georgia, which was perceived as a star of reforms in Eastern Europe, has experienced a significant regression in terms of democracy. Accordingly, Brussels attempted to somehow facilitate the resolving of internal political crises with the mediation between the opposing parties. This mission was even taken over by the President of the European Council, Mr. Charles Michel, who had to visit Tbilisi two times in early 2021.

Finally, with great effort by the President of the European Council, an agreement was reached, which was called “the April 19 agreement”. At first glance, it seemed that this was a way out from a hopeless situation, however, subsequent events revealed that the country was still experiencing a deep political crisis:

To everyone’s surprise, 100 days after “the April 19 agreement”, Georgian Dream leaders announced that the agreement was useless from the beginning, moreover, shortly after the signing it had exhausted itself, in addition, since the main opposition party (UNM) had not signed the agreement, the Georgian Dream decided that there was no longer need to stay in the agreement. The mentioned announcement came as a big surprise, both inside and outside the country – Especially in the eyes of international friends, as it was perceived as a certain disrespect for the EU, which desperately tried to pull the country out of the political crisis.

As the 2021 local municipality elections approached there were vivid signs of intensification of language of hate, especially from the leaders of the ruling party. This was mainly reflected in offensive statements against opposition parties from TV channels as well as the billboard campaign throughout the country with the horror images of the opposition leaders. Opposition did not try to defuse the situation either, which unfortunately, generally indicated a low political culture in the country.

The situation was even sharpened by the arrival of the third president of Georgia, Mr. Mikheil Saakashvili just before the election at the end of September, 2021. Mikheil Saakashvili’s entry into Georgia looked more like a movie scenario as he entered the country illegally hiding in the truck crossing Black Sea by ferry from the Ukrainian Port Odessa to the Georgian Port Poti.

Mr. Saakashvili, who was convicted in absence by a Georgian court, moved freely for 3 days after entering the country. He was arrested by Police just the day before the elections. From the moment of his arrest, Saakashvili declared a hunger strike because he believed he was a victim of political justice. This was also stated by his party members and supporters, who believed that the third president of Georgia was a personal political prisoner of the Georgian Dream and its leader, Bidzina Ivanishvili. Although, Police managed to arrest Saakashvili a few days after his arrival, his presence in Georgia became a headache for the authorities – as for the last two months, Saakashvili has been creating a political climate in the country: His hunger strike, health conditions and court hearings are the main subjects of discussion on various talk shows and news on popular TV channels. The EU and the US also expressed their concerns on the conditions of the third president of Georgia as they saw signs of torture in his treatment in the penitentiary system. Saakashvili’s lawyers are already preparing a complaint to the Strasbourg court protesting the attitudes of the authorities towards the illegal political prisoner as lawyers consider him.

In addition to Saakashvili’s court hearings, there are other ongoing trials against leaders of other opposition parties, as well as owners of critical television channels. At the same time, the Government takes other challenging steps that raise questions about the ongoing democratic processes in the country – For instance, despite criticism from the international community and the local civil sector, the Georgian parliament recently appointed four judges to the Supreme Court. Many Western experts are already directly pointing out that Georgia is slowly moving away from the West, and on the contrary is approaching the Russian orbit which is very sad since the country was once perceived as a star of reforms in the Eastern European region.

After the 2020 Parliamentary election, the Georgian Dream won 48% of the votes (According to the official results) which meant 60 seats in the Parliament. Due to the boycott of the second round by the opposition, Georgian Dream additionally gained all majoritarian seats, all in all 90 seats which guaranteed them sufficient majorities in the main legislative body of the country.

As for the local municipal elections, here too the ruling party gained the main mandates in both – the mayoral elections, as well as in the city/governing councils. However, it should be noted that in 5 self-governing large cities (Tbilisi, Batumi, Kutaisi, Zugdidi, Rustavi and Poti), 15 municipalities and 24 election districts there was a necessity of holding a second round which took place in a very tense situation. However, according to the Central Election Commission, the victory in all municipalities went to the representatives of the ruling party. It must be said that the differences between the winner and the loser in some districts were so small that increased suspicion of election fraud. Finally, with the official results in mayoral elections the united opposition gained only one tiny city in Western Georgia.

What can we conclude from all of the above?

Indeed, it is no secret that the key reason for the “success” of the ruling party is its leader, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili and his money. Despite Ivanishvili’s announcement to leave politics, everyone knows that he has gone nowhere, just no longer seen so often in public. Unfortunately, he usually acts with the same method as Moldovan oligarch Vladimir Plahotniuk who was well-known for large-scale vote-buying in Moldova elections. In consequence, Plahotniuk had to flee the country because of his obvious open frauds which directly violated fundamental human rights and norms of the electoral law of Moldova. Ivanishvili also has the example of the leader of another post-Soviet republic, Belarus, Alexandr Lukashenko, who was “rewarded” by the West with sanctions for rigging the Presidential Elections in August 2020 and for brutal suppression of subsequent street protests.

It is obvious that Mr. Ivanishvili acknowledges possible consequences of a worse scenario, rigged elections which already brought unprecedented unity of the opposition parties, putting the ruling party in a difficult condition. It should be food for thought for him, as the polarization and radicalization of the situation could bring him to the dead end from which there will be no way out. Mr. Ivanishvili should also understand that the imprisonment of the third president of Georgia is perceived as a very bad image in the international eyes and it will bring nothing good to either him or his party. Mr. Ivanishvili is well aware that the West is smart enough to read out the pretexts of authoritarianism in his and his party’s actions. Relatively, most likely, he and his party will make some compromising steps in order to calm down the opposition protests.

Developments in the recent months show us that after radical demands a number of opposition leaders have expressed possibilities of resolving the situation through negotiations in parallel with street rallies. At the same time, the idea of universal reconciliation was put on the table, by Mikheil Saakashvili from prison. This definitely leaves good chances for everyone to lay aside their ambitions and think together about the future development of the country which desperately needs a new parliament and government whose main goal will be to put the country on the right track again.

Having in mind recent developments in the region as well as escalation of the situation along the Ukrainian border, it is extremely important for right politicians to raise state interests above the private and party interests. Internal confrontation and radicalization of the situation will benefit only a third party which strives to see Georgia as weak as possible in order to convert the country more easily under its influence.

P.S. On 16December the President of Georgia, Ms. Salome Zourabishvili pledged to initiate an inclusive process of national dialogue involving all spheres of society. The initiative was well-received by the opposition, including the third president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili who is currently convicted in the Georgian prison.

Will the mentioned initiative be a successful attempt? This question still remains to be answered…

Author: David Kapanadze, Senior Fellow, Georgian Strategic Analysis Center

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