October 1 marked five years since the Georgian Dream (GD) coalition, led by Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, won its landslide victory against the ruling United National Movement in the 2012 parliamentary elections (Cec.gov.ge, 2012). GD ended UNM’s nine-year rule, representing modern Georgia’s first ever peaceful transfer of power.
GD rode to victory on dramatic promises of bringing more democracy, rule of law, improved relations with Russia, and rapid economic growth. Logically, GD’s pledges resulted in high public expectations of fundamental and swift political and socioeconomic changes in the country. And now, five years on, it is possible to assess whether GD delivered on its promises.
On the democracy front, arguably the biggest achievement of the last half decade has been the fact that, after the peaceful transfer of power, Georgia did not descend into bloodshed and civil war, despite occasional clashes and larger brawls between government supporters and opposition activists. Furthermore, since 2012, the country held presidential (2013), municipal (2014) and parliamentary (2016) elections, all of which were assessed largely as free and fair by the international community (Civil Georgia, October 28, 2013, June 17, 2014; October 9, 31, 2016)—although, Georgian opposition parties, as usual, cried foul (Netgazeti.ge, October 12, 2016). The next test for Georgian democracy will be the upcoming municipal elections, scheduled for October 21, 2017 (see EDM, June 28).
Moreover, even though the level of press freedom in Georgia has remained the same this year compared to last, according to Freedom House (Freedomhouse.org, accessed October 5), the country visibly enjoys more media openness now. Political talk shows have proliferated, and people debate more freely in different public forums. It deems mentioning, however, that most of these talk shows are still chaotic, often devolving into verbal insults, threats, and even fist fights on live TV (Maestro TV, June 9, 2016; Channel One TV, September 22). Yet, the biggest deficiency in Georgian democracy, as many Georgians believe, is the fact that Ivanishvili, a former prime minister but now a private citizen, remains the de-facto ruler of the country from behind the scenes, thus undermining any sensible notion of democratic governance and rule of law. Moreover, nepotism, favoritism and inefficiency are rampant at all levels of government, while corruption is making a gradual comeback: Georgia’s corruption score worsened from 52 (in 2012) to 57 (in 2016), according to Transparency International (Transparency.org, accessed October 5).
GD is also being heavily criticized by opponents of the previously ruling UNM for failing to prosecute former high-ranking officials who were in government during the rule of then-president Mikheil Saakashvili for alleged abuses of power and corruption. Although, the GD-led government did prosecute some of them, it is being reproached for not bringing more Saakashvili-era officials to trial, thus failing to deliver on one of its key electoral promises—restoring justice and the rule of law (Newposts.ge, October 1, 2016; 1tv.ge, October 4, 2017).
Other political reforms on the domestic front were even less successful, to date. Territorial-administrative reform of 2014 did not go far enough to grant more self-governance to local municipalities. Additionally, it failed to cut the number of territorial-administrative units, and did not allow for the popular election of regional governors (Parliament.ge, accessed October 5). Furthermore, constitutional reform—adopted by the GD supermajority in parliament last month (see EDM, September 28)—produced another botched version of the constitution, which mostly serves to solidify the ruling party’s power (Civil Georgia, September 27). It was largely rejected by the country’s opposition (Rustavi 2, September 22, 23).
In foreign relations, the government has little to show, as well. The normalization of ties with Russia proved a failure: Although Georgian wines, mineral water, and agricultural products did return to the Russian market, as Moscow finally lifted the trade embargo, bilateral discussions regarding the Russian-occupied Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Tskhinvali Region) have gone nowhere. In fact, Moscow has an even tighter grip on both regions now than it did five years ago, after signing a so-called “Agreement on Alliance and Strategic Partnership” with each separatist enclave. These Agreements envisage the merger of their law enforcement, military, customs, and various socioeconomic agencies with those of Russia, thus paving the way for their eventual annexation into Russia proper (see EDM, October 29, 2014; November 24, 2014). Moreover, Moscow has continued its creeping annexation of Georgia (also referred to as “borderization”), slicing off additional Georgian lands adjacent to occupied South Ossetia. Today, Russian occupation forces are stationed just a couple hundred yards from the country’s strategically important East-West Highway (see EDM, July 20, 2015).
One bright spot has been Georgia’s deepening military cooperation with the United States and the signing of an Association Agreement (AA) with the European Union, which introduced free trade between the two sides and granted visa-free travel to Georgians (Eu-nato.gov.ge, June 24, 2014). Nevertheless, as Brussels has made clear on numerous occasions, the AA does not guarantee, nor does it even imply eventual EU membership for Georgia (EDM, May 29, 2014).
The Georgian economy has not fared much better, either. Since 2013, the Georgian lari has been hit by a series of massive devaluations, caused by a strengthening US dollar, a decrease in foreign investments, and an increase in domestic spending. Early last year, the Georgian currency went from an initial 1.63 against the US dollar to 2.53 (see EDM, February 2, 2016). Overall, the country’s GDP grew on average by 3.3 percent per year since 2013—which, in a country as impoverished as Georgia, largely amounts to economic stagnation (Worldbank.org, accessed October 5). Moreover, formal unemployment figures still stand at 11.8 percent (Geostat.ge, accessed October 5); these would be even higher, possibly reaching 60–65 percent, if Georgia’s National Statistics Office counted as unemployed those who reside in rural areas on impoverished farms. Currently, they are officially registered as “self-employed.” Furthermore, instead of the promised decrease, utility prices on natural gas and electricity increased nationwide, in some cases five-fold (Channel One TV, July 18).
Five years after taking power, Georgian Dream has failed to deliver on most of its promises, increasing public disappointment and political apathy across the country. With municipal and next year’s presidential elections approaching, GD may find it increasingly difficult to come up with new promises and convince the public to trust them. It remains to be seen what new tactics Ivanishvili’s ruling party will seek to employ to rebuild its popularity among the electorate.