A series of turbulent political events, anti-liberal processes and degrading security conditions in the region that unfolded in 2019 have left Georgia at a perilous crossroads ahead of the parliamentary elections scheduled for October 31, 2020. The main question that many local politicians and experts are now asking is: can an awakened civil society help ensure that the upcoming elections are free and fair enough so as to consolidate Georgian democracy in 2020 while preserving the state’s security?
Arguably, the most significant event of not only last year but also of the entire eight-year reign of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream (GD) party was the cycle of fierce clashes (starting in June) in front of the parliament building between the special forces of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and opposition activists (see EDM, June 24, 2019). Protesters expressed anger at a visit to the country by members of the Russian State Duma and the attempt of “Christian Communist” Duma deputy Sergei Gavrilov to sit in the chair of the speaker of the Georgian parliament during the session of the Inter-Parliamentary Assembly of Orthodoxy (IPAO). As a result of the clashes, 240 people were injured. Two peaceful demonstrators (including an 18-year-old woman) lost their eyes to rubber bullet barrages fired by the security services. About 300 opposition supporters were arrested for resisting law enforcement.
A few days after those tragic events on Rustaveli Avenue, Ivanishvili appeared on television and promised to fulfill one of the most important demands of the opposition: to switch to a “fully proportional electoral system” and hold next year’s parliamentary elections using ballots with only party lists.
A compromise proposal by the billionaire chairperson of Georgian Dream ensured the stabilization of the situation in the country. And opposition leaders agreed to start negotiations with the authorities, although some of them were charged by the Prosecutor’s Office with organizing violence and attempting to seize the parliament building in downtown Tbilisi.
But on November 14, during a vote for a constitutional amendment that would have cemented Ivanishvili’s promised electoral system changes, many GD parliamentarians voted against the resolution. The opposition felt cheated and offended (see EDM, November 20, 2019). Subsequently, political activists, at the call of opposition party leaders, tried several times to peacefully and non-violently block the parliament building. Additionally, they organized “corridors of shame” for deputies from the ruling party who voted against the promised reform. The Ministry of Internal Affairs used special forces units twice to break up the street protests, ultimately arresting more than 30 people (see EDM, December 3, 2019).
Nonetheless, as the leading expert of the Georgian Center for Strategic Analysis, Gela Vasadze, told this author, “The opposition has gained a moral advantage.” He continued, “The rejection of the promised reform led to a very serious political crisis in the country, and this crisis is only intensifying. However, the mass protest and creative actions of the opposition led to the strengthening of civil society and its institutions through the confrontation between power [i.e., the authorities] and society. Therefore, the democratic movement in Georgia has great prospects—civil society was able to articulate its democratic demands well and called for a rejection of authoritarianism” (Author’s interview, December 15, 2019).
Opposition leaders plan to continue mass demonstrations in the new year. “We have the right to [engage in] peaceful protests until the government agrees to democratic reforms,” noted Salome Samadshvili, a parliamentary deputy with the Unified National Movement party (headed by former president Mikheil Saakashvili) and a previous Georgian ambassador to the European Union. She expressed hope that Western partners participating in the negotiations between the ruling party and the opposition “will put pressure on billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili to make concessions to the democratic forces” (Author’s interview, December 3, 2019).
The current situation in the Georgian media sphere is also directly related to the state of the country’s democracy. As such, a particularly important event of the past year was the change in ownership of opposition television company Rustavi 2, Georgia’s most popular media resource for more than two decades. In response to this shakeup at the top, all of the television company’s leading journalists left and went on to found two new media resources: Mtavari Arkhi (Main TV Channel) and Fortune. Last October, Nika Gvaramia, who was dismissed as the general manager of Rustavi 2 by the media outlet’s new owners, told this author, “The existence of several critical television companies in the country leaves hope for the salvation and success of the democratic process in 2020” (Author’s interview, October 30, 2019). But days later, the Prosecutor’s Office opened a criminal case against Gvaramia on charges of financial misconduct (Civil.ge, November 4, 2019).
Another important development that surfaced this past year was the growing conflict within the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC). One of the GOC’s top hierarchs, Bishop Petre Tsaava, accused the 86-year-old Patriarch Ilya II of “mortal sin.” The scandal loudly resonated in Georgia (Oc-media.org, October 31, 2019). According to expert Paata Zakareishvili, a “fierce struggle for power” has begun in the Georgian Church that will certainly affect the political situation in the country before the next parliamentary elections. “The hierarchs of the Church enjoy great authority with their flock, and the flock is made up of voters. Therefore, everything that happens in and around the Church reflects on the development of the Georgian state as well as attracts the attention of the press and the entire society,” Zakareishvili emphasized (Author’s interview, December 15, 2019).
The GOC as an institution is vulnerable to exploitation by Russia as the latter seeks to project “soft power” influence in Georgia (see EDM, July 16, 2019). Notably, and in line with the Moscow Patriarchate, the Georgian Church still has not recognized the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
Throughout last year, Russia additionally employed other levers of pressure against Georgia (see EDM, July 31, 2019), including the further militarization of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (see EDM, October 25, 2019). And crucially, following the outbreak of the anti-government and anti-Moscow protests in downtown Tbilisi, in June, Russian President Vladimir Putin banned direct flights from Russia to Georgian resorts. Georgia’s tourism industry experienced a devastating shock from this sudden sharp decline in Russian tourists. The Kremlin leader further hinted that Russia might prohibit not only air travel but also land communication between the two countries as well as ban the import of Georgian wine, mineral water, fruit and vegetables. Tbilisi-based political analyst David Avalishvili does not rule out that Moscow will introduce new painful economic sanctions in 2020 in an effort to support a victory in the October parliamentary elections for Georgia’s pro-Russian parties: Nino Burjanadze’s United Georgia and Irma Inashvili’s Alliance of Patriots (Author’s interview, January 5).
The government of Giorgi Gakharia continues to declare allegiance to the “pro-Western course of the country” (see EDM, October 10, 2019). But it is subject to growing criticism from Washington (Kommersant, November 25, 2019 and December 17, 2019). As the United States’ newly inaugurated ambassador to Tbilisi, Kelly Degnan, noted, “[The] parliamentary elections later this year are an important opportunity for Georgians to show the world that the progress they have worked so hard for cannot be reversed” Civil.ge, January 17, 2020). Indeed, the next 12 months, including the “fateful” October elections, will test the sincerity of Georgia’s ruling party and its leaders.