The political standoff in Georgia (see EDM, February 24, March 1), temporarily mitigated thanks to European Council President Charles Michel’s mediation between the government and the opposition in Tbilisi on March 2, is highly likely to resume and intensify in the coming days or weeks.
On March 6, TV Pirveli—an independent station critical of the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) and rumored to be affiliated with the leading opposition party, United National Movement (UNM)—aired recordings of an alleged telephone conversation between members of the current government and Bera Ivanishivili, the son of GD’s founder, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. The released tapes appeared to feature Bera, in 2017, tasking his father’s close confidants, Irakli Garibashvili (former minister of interior and the current prime minister) and Anzor Chubinidze (then and now serving as the chief of the Special State Guard Service), with cracking down on some youths who made online posts insulting him and the Ivanishvili family. In the recorded conversation, Garibashvili seems to encourage the punitive actions after learning of the disparaging posts. The highly sensitive leaked audio sent shock waves through Georgian society and put GD in an awkward political situation (Civil.ge, March 6).
The taped conversation surfaced a day after the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) issued its final report regarding the October 31, 2020, parliamentary elections in Georgia. With some reservations, the ODIHR report overall evaluated the Georgian elections as “competitive and administered efficiently despite challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic” (Osce.org, March 5). The conclusive international legitimation of the election results should presumably have strengthened GD’s position in its negotiations with the United Opposition (which includes UNM). Thanks to mediation by the European Union’s Charles Michel (Civil.ge, March 1), the two sides agreed to a six-point agenda for negotiations, with one of those points being potential snap elections. In order to create a conducive environment for dialogue, the United Opposition altered the format and schedule of its pre-planned rallies. Georgia is expected to present a progress report of the government-opposition talks during the EU-Georgia Association Council Meeting in Brussels in mid-March.
Despite GD’s rebuff when it came to holding snap elections, some sources suggested there was still room for consensus with a moderate wing of the United Opposition to potentially conduct a plebiscite about early elections instead (Civil.ge March 3, 6; Rezonansi, March 6; Interpressnews March 7). However, Ukraine-based former president of Georgia and de facto leader of UNM, Mikheil Saakashvili, sharply criticized the idea of a plebiscite, calling it a trap and warning against giving GD any more time for such maneuvers (Agenda.ge, March 4). Saakashvili’s statement was rejected by the moderate wing of the opposition; yet this was followed shortly thereafter by the aired tape allegedly featuring Beka Ivanishili, Garibashvili and Chubinidze. The scandal upended the talks between GD and the United Opposition: the latter reverted to a more confrontational stance vis-à-vis GD and stated that only pre-term elections could resolve the ongoing political crisis.
The leaked audio recording has also further increased the polarization and confrontation between supporters and opponents of GD, which incurred a barrage of sharp criticism from civil society. Critical Georgians repeatedly accused GD’s leadership of state capture and of establishing an informal governance style. The opposition called for an impartial investigation into the tape and the immediate resignation of Prime Minister Garibashvili (TV Pirveli, Interpressnews, March 6–7).
The barely begun rapprochement between Georgia’s main political adversaries—who have proved unable to negotiate productively without the facilitation and mediation of external actors— already appears to have largely collapsed. Although both GD and the opposition say that they remain committed to dialogue, the perspectives for such talks going forward are unclear.
The Russia factor has become a substantial and integral component of this continued political rivalry (see EDM, February 24). Both GD and the united opposition proactively accuse each other of playing a Russian game, though often without offering any conclusive evidence. Analysts broadly warn that Russia is likely to capitalize on the current political enmity and deepening social polarization in Georgia. To this end, the calls from some opposition politicians for a more radicalized stand vis-à-vis GD unwittingly play into the hands of Moscow, which seeks to portray Georgia internationally as a failed state.
The longer the current cycle of instability and political stalemate persists, the more Georgia will unintentionally distance itself from the doors of the Euro-Atlantic community while increasing the chance it will fall prey to Russian manipulation (Gpi.ge, Civil.ge March 3). Although Moscow claims it is staying neutral regarding the Georgian political crisis, it could attempt to covertly offer support to one of the major political players in exchange for some political favor.
Russia may capitalize on the current instability by using economic leverage and its control over Georgia’s secessionist regions (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) to channel the political situation in Tbilisi in a desirable direction. For the last several years, Russia has firmly maintained the position of Georgia’s second-largest foreign trade partner. At the same time, the growth of Russian soft power on the ground is also evident (Geostat.ge, Emerging Europe, August 7, 2020; Democracyresearch.org, August 25, 2020; Ponars Eurasia, January 13, 2016; iFact.ge March 2, 2021).
Research by the Liberal Academy Tbilisi and the Center of Social Science reveals asymmetric Georgian attitudes toward the West and toward Western values. While the majority of Georgians consider European integration one of the means of protecting the country from the Russian threat, part of them doubt the EU is ready to defend Georgia from Russia out of fear of spoiling relations with Moscow (Ei-lat.ge, September 18, 2020; Css.ge, March 1).
Russia can be expected to try to capitalize on this ambivalence toward the West among Georgian society and elites. A large proportion of Georgians retain emotional and mental ties with the Soviet past, Orthodox Christianity, social conservatism, financial-economic connections to Russia, and people-to-people contacts with Russians. Their belief that Russia is a bulwark of Orthodoxy and conservative values and an economic lifeline for Georgia are thus important enduring sources of influence for the Kremlin.
The level and nature of the political infighting in Georgia vividly demonstrates that the pace of the “Westernization” of Georgian political elites lags behind their declarative aspiration to join the Euro-Atlantic community. Protracted political upheavals and a weakening of state institutions may, instead, pull the country back to the period when Georgia had to seek a balance between the West and Russia to survive.