Irreconcilable street protests in Georgia have continued into their sixth straight week, with demonstrators demanding the resignation of Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia. Opposition and civil society activists accuse Minister Gakharia of ordering the brutal dispersal of a mass rally on June 20 (see EDM, June 24).
After the so-called “Bloody Night” on Rustaveli Avenue, in downtown Tbilisi, the police arrested and charged 19 protesters, including several opposition party leaders, with violence (Civil.ge, July 27). The chairperson of the political council of the United National Movement (UNM), Nika Melia, was sentenced by a court to house arrest (Kommersant, June 27). Meanwhile, the founder of the opposition party Victorious Georgia (VG) and former minister of defense, Irakli Okruashvili, is in jail, awaiting trial (Civil.ge, July 28). All defendants, including the aforementioned opposition leaders, could face a harsh sentence of up to nine years in prison for allegedly using force against police during the protests.
The same threat of arrest also hangs over several other opposition politicians. One of the leaders of the European Georgia (EG) party, former Tbilisi mayor Gigi Ugulava, was called in for questioning by the Ministry of the Interior. The authorities suspect Ugulava, Melia, Okruashvili, as well as about ten other opposition politicians of launching the street protests (originally sparked by public anger at the government’s invitation of Russian parliamentary deputies to Tbilisi) in order to attempt a coup d’état on June 20 (Kommersant July 4)
A few days before his arrest, VG leader Okruashvili warned the chairperson of the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, that he would “drink tea” from Ivanishvili’s cup (tabula July 31). In Georgia, the expression “to drink tea” is an allusion to the 2003 Rose Revolution, in which Okruashvili took an active part
Okruashvili recently also become an important player in the brewing confrontation around the opposition TV channel Rustavi 2. The opposition politician contends that he is legally the rightful owner of this popular Georgian media outlet. However, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) recently agreed with an earlier decision by the Tbilisi City Court that Rustavi 2lawfully belongs to businessman Kibar Khalvashi. The businessman is affiliated with GD and Ivanishvili personally (Georgian Journal, July 18). Rustavi 2’s journalists do not believe Khalvashi’s promises that he will not interfere in the editorial policy of the TV channel and fear coming changes (Civil.ge, July 19).
One of UNM’s leaders, former Georgian ambassador to the European Union and a current member of parliament Salome Samadashvili, told this author that Rustavi 2 is the main “platform” for the opposition. The ruling party was afraid of Okruashvili’s influence over the television channel, she added. This, according to Samadashvili, explains the authorities’ decision to detain the former minister of defense (Author’s interview, July 30).
A few days prior to his arrest (Civil.ge, July 28), Okruashvili presented to the press a document dating back to 2010 in which Khalvashi apparently admits that he is only a formal owner, and the television company actually belongs to Okruashvili (Agenda.ge, July 19). But Khalvashi himself claims the document is “fake” and called Okruashvili “the nastiest person I have met in my life” (Radio Tavisupleba, July 24).
These contradictions and mutual accusations could be resolved in the courts without prejudice to Georgian democracy or domestic political stability if the Georgian courts enjoyed sufficient authority in society, political scientist David Avalishvili argued. But, he added, the “Achilles’ heel of Georgian democracy is its judiciary system. “Weak social trust in the independence of the courts [constantly] transforms the political struggles and legal disputes of various parties into an existential crisis for Georgian statehood,” Avalishvili asserted (Author’s interview, July 30).
Moscow, in turn, has been actively exploiting the political turbulence inside Georgia to achieve its broader geopolitical goals in the South Caucasus. In particular, the Kremlin is trying to put pressure on the Georgian authorities to force them to pursue a more loyal policy toward Russia. For these purposes, the Vladimir Putin administration is applying economic and financial leverage.
Illustratively, amidst the street protests in Tbilisi, Moscow decided to ban direct flights from Russia to Georgia during the peak of the summer holiday season (RFE/RL, July 8). The Georgian tourism industry experienced a devastating shock from this sudden sharp decline in Russian tourists. And the damage spread to the rest of the economy: the rate of the Georgian national currency, the lari, dropped to its lowest level in the last 24 years—3 lari per $1 (Bpn.ge, July 30). The opposition has vigorously criticized the government of Mamuka Bakhtadze for the devaluation of the currency, high inflation, and the decline in the standard of living. Some opposition leaders are demanding the resignation of the government.
At the same time, President Putin declared he would not impose additional sanctions if the Georgian authorities take measures against the “anti-Russian forces” (i.e., political opposition) inside Georgia (Agenda.ge, July 9). The Russian leader was hinting that Russia could prohibit not only air travel but also land communication between the two countries through the Upper Lars checkpoint. Closing the border would likely cause a complete collapse of the lari and catastrophic inflation in Georgia. The current economic shock may also intensify if Putin follows through on imposing a ban on the import of Georgian wine, mineral water, fruits and vegetables to Russian markets. In this case, the Georgian government will be forced to capitulate before the pro-Western opposition and call early elections.
A paradoxical situation has thus been generated: Moscow is creating problems for the (relatively) acquiescent sitting Georgian government by reinforcing the arguments of the radical pro-Western opposition, including the UNM party of Mikhail Saakashvili, whom Putin, it is widely perceived, considers his main enemy in the post-Soviet space. And the weaker the Georgian government becomes, the more it will try to avoid Russian sanctions in order not to perish completely.
As a result of Moscow’s tumult-inducing strategy, the GD leaders have already made a number of loyal statements toward Moscow and condemned the pro-Western forces as well as Rustavi 2, which recently “insulted Putin” (Kommersant, July 8). Meanwhile, Georgia’s de facto ruler, Bidzina Ivanishvili, finds himself in a hopeless situation. He faces one of two terrible scenarios: either uncontrolled inflation leading to revolution or social rebellion, or the government, fearing the Russian embargo, will be forced to send Moscow even more signals of loyalty. In either case, Russia wins.