Georgia: trapped in a spiral of escalation

Georgia has been unable to find peace since the parliamentary elections in the end of October 2020. The resignation of Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia, respected for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, in conjunction with the imprisonment of opposition leader Nika Melia on 23 February 2021, is merely another low point in this trend. The neoliberal political elite are uninterested in the needs of a society stricken by a pandemic. Their egotism favours informal structures leading to a creeping "Russification" of the country.

Article was first published on March 3, in German;

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Thousands protest in Tbilisi.February,2021

The third electoral victory of the governing party Georgian Dream (GD), followed by a series of manipulations and violations[1], have led to the opposition parties rejecting the results. Initiated by the largest opposition party, United National Movement (UNM), the seven other parties with a claim to seats in Parliament (with a few exceptions) have declined to accept them. They are calling for  snap elections and accuse the GD of manipulating the election on a broad scale. The chief opponents, GD and UNM, have been radicalising for months. Players who were ready to make compromises, such as former UNM chairman Grigol Vashadze and former Prime Minister Gakharia, have left their parties entirely. What remain are the hardliners who are driving the escalation further.

Polarisation as mobilisation

The dichotomy, according to which the UNM supports integration in the West while the GD, and its founder Bidzina Ivanishvili, aims for closer ties with Russia, falls short.[2] Both parties are mainly defined by the egoism of the Georgian elite, self-enrichment and neoliberal policies with negative socioeconomic consequences for the majority of the population. In this regard it was no surprise that one of newly elected Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili's first acts in office would be to imprison opposition leader Nika Melia for violating the requirements of his probation from a questionable court verdict. In so doing he played into Melia's and the UNM's hands – they can now cast themselves as martyrs and victims of the ruling party.

Neither party is concerned with the country's future, or even with choosing between Russia and the West. Rather they care far more about their own paths to power. They both operate in terms of absolute power and a winner-takes-all mentality, and immediately upon acceding they would utilise administrative resources, courts and security apparatus against political opponents to maintain their hold on power while enriching themselves. Transparency International has revealed that among the largest donors to the GD for 2019/2020, 9 individuals and 15 companies underwent simplified procedures for winning state tenders.[3] While the richest man in Georgia, Bidzina Ivanishvili, makes all of the important decisions for the GD behind the scenes, former President Mikheil Saakashvili drives the polarisation and prevents compromises from his exile in Ukraine. None of them, are elected by the Georgian people. Ivanishvili just recently announced his complete withdrawal from politics. It appears all the more surprising that persons loyal to him assumed crucial roles in his party and the government after the election. New Prime Minister Gharibashvili exhibited two major defining characteristics during his first premiership (2013–2015): absolute vassal loyalty to Ivanishvili, and no interest whatsoever in compromises with the opposition. He will not make any important decisions without first coordinating them with Ivanishvili.

Egotism, corruption and informality

The fact that Georgian society has been ravaged by a social and economic crisis caused by the pandemic, in a country mainly dependent on tourism and the service sector, appears to be of no concern to the competing parties. According to the National Statistics Office, nearly 20 per cent of people in Georgia live below the poverty line.[4] A considerable portion of the population works in the informal sector and has received no social assistance benefits during the pandemic. Both parties represent the elite who privatised the country and hold out the best pieces of the pie for the highest bidder or themselves. Resigned Prime Minister Gakharia enjoyed high approval ratings because he managed the pandemic well during the spring and tried to dampen the economic ramifications of it.[5] He had to resign when he opposed the imprisonment of the opposition leader and showed some independence from both the party line and Ivanishvili, partially so as not to discredit himself. We have observed this pattern before over the years: once a prime minister or minister acts independently of the party founder, he or she has to go.

However, the accusation against the GD and Bidzina Ivanishvili – who became wealthy in Russia in the 1990s – that they wish to bring Georgia into Russia's orbit is misleading. The GD has certainly tried to peddle a more cooperative Russia policy than Mikheil Saakashvili in his final years in office, and thus achieved a certain loosening of tensions with Moscow. But the goal of transatlantic integration was never officially given up; in fact, an application for EU membership for 2024 is currently being prepared. What we have been observing in Georgia for some years now is worsening corruption and the strengthening of informal structures. The governing party is increasingly instrumentalising the security services and courts in its own interest, using them against the opponents. This utilisation of the courts and security structures was present in Mikheil Saakashvili's second administration, in keeping with the ruling party at the time, the UNM. By the end of Saakashvili's term, Georgia was among the countries with the highest incarceration rates per 100,000 residents.

Therefore, the "creeping Russification" is more one of a breakdown of successful reforms, the weakening of formal institutions in favour of informal ones, and more corrupt practices. The current policies of Georgian Dream and the Georgian political elite is thus moving away from the values and principles of the EU without the country having altered its geopolitical alignment.

Lack of political alternatives

What Georgia lacks is a third power that can represent policies other than the elitist egoism of the current leading parties. Polls show that the population wants this. According to a poll by the NDI/CRRC in the end of 2020, 30% of voters don't relate to any party.[6] The hope leading up to the parliamentary election that the new party Lelo, under its founder Mamukha Kazaradze, could be this third power quickly dissipated. Kazaradze, a former banker and businessman, was initially able to recruit many young, progressive and leftist supporters for his party. Yet it was quickly discovered that he would pursue policies similar to the GD and the UNM, more in the interest of preserving his business interests and less concerned with intra-party democracy. Lelo obtained just over 3 per cent of the votes in the parliamentary election. As long as Georgia is unable to establish alternative political movements with grassroots foundations, the business elite will continue to determine the country's fate in their own interests. One small glimmer of hope may be the founding of "The Greens" in late 2020, an offshoot of the youth organisation Young Greens. Yet this initiative may also have great difficulty establishing itself in the Georgian party system without considerable financial support and meeting its own demands for transparency and intra-party democracy. Like in other post-Soviet countries, parties in Georgia are usually electoral associations for (wealthy) individuals who change their agenda to suit the current political climate without a lot of fuss.

These circumstances make it difficult for the EU to mediate in the current conflict and support a comprehensive transition to the rule of law and democratic institutions. Such reforms are still at odds with the interests of much of the elite. One important and dominant Georgian policy in the last 15 years was integration into transatlantic structures. The USA and the EU always held great influence over political decisions in Georgia. In the current political crisis, too, it is US Ambassador Kelly Degnan and EU Ambassador Carl Hartzell who are trying to mediate between the conflicting parties. But for the first time we are witnessing, in the lead-up to the parliamentary election in 2020, Western players being criticised for their activities and involvement. In November 2019 Bidzina Ivanishvili, then Chairman of the GD, criticised US institutions such as NDI and IRI as partisan as they disseminate misleading polls to detriment the GD.[7] On the one hand Western partners are asked for support in the current political crisis, while on the other hand they are accused of being partisan if one's own interests in power are disadvantaged. EU and US representatives have thus become part of the spiral of escalation in Georgia without being able to resolve it. Re-elections would not put an end to this polarisation without an alternative power in play.

Chancing more EU

Ultimately, the EU is increasingly losing its transformative power due to its own internal crisis, the crisis in transatlantic relations under Trump, and its absence as a security power in a region where security is critical. The absence of the EU and the USA in the second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020 has had profound effects on the geopolitical situation in the South Caucasus. It has become clear to all three states that they cannot rely on Washington and Brussels when it comes to their security situation. This was a bitter realisation for the democratic forces and civil society in Armenia and Azerbaijan in particular. The stationing of "Russian peacekeeping forces" in Azerbaijan – previously the only country in the South Caucasus without Russian troops on its soil – and Turkey's interference in this war will lead to a stronger alignment toward Russia and Turkey in these three countries. This power shift and lack of prospects for joining the EU and NATO are worsening the disorientation in Georgia, once the country with the greatest transatlantic perspective in the region. Coupled with the increase in informal structures and corruption, the country could stray further from its democratic path.

The consequence for EU member states cannot be less, but rather more engagement. The European Neighbourhood Policy finally needs a stronger security policy component that both helps Georgia reform its security and legal structures and strengthens political engagement for mediation in regional conflicts. The willingness to strengthen multilateral platforms, provide peace missions, and expand the role of the EU Special Commissioner for the South Caucasus in the regional conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia could be among these tasks. Various elements of EU policy, such as the establishment of infrastructure, promoting rule of law and economic investments should be incorporated in a comprehensive Eastern Neighbourhood Policy strategy that also entails more effective conditionality. Furthermore, Georgia should be offered prospects for membership; however, that will look in 10 to 15 years. Georgia needs a compass that parts of the EU can outwardly provide. However, without a political transition within the country and with real political alternatives, the spiral of escalation will continue to spin.