Among the crumbling Imperial Russian architecture of Tbilisi and Batumi, the largest cities in Georgia, it is not uncommon to hear snatches of Russian amidst the guttural tones of Georgian. Russophone emigrés from all over the former Soviet Union, from Russia to Turkmenistan, flock to the South Caucasian country. They come for the warm weather and exquisite food, but also to live a freer life than is possible at home. Georgia’s relatively strong institutions have made it a beacon of democracy in the region.
Radical reforms instituted nearly 20 years ago by American-educated former president Mikheil Saakashvili turned Georgia from a typically corrupt post-Soviet autocracy into a poster child for democratic reforms, according to adoring Western politicians and think-tankers. Former US President George W Bush even termed Saakashvili’s Georgia “a beacon of liberty” in 2005.
Yet the opposition, today led by Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) party, regularly accuses the ruling party, Georgian Dream (GD), of abusing its hegemonic position to undermine the democratic institutions Saakashvili created – terming the process “state capture”. The charges include politicisation of the judicial system and intimidation of political opponents, plus an accusation of electoral fraud regarding the October 2020 parliamentary election. Claims that the vote was rigged led most of the opposition to boycott the new parliament for six months. The deadlock was partially resolved by an EU-mediated agreement signed in April, which included posting bail for Nika Melia, the leader of the UNM, jailed on charges Amnesty International characterised as politically motivated.
Opposition leaders and some observers now fear that Georgia may be going the way of neighbours including Russia, Turkey and Azerbaijan. Fears often centre around Bidzina Ivanishvili, the oligarch who founded GD. Though Ivanishvili was prime minister for only a year from 2012 to 2013, he is widely viewed as using his vast wealth and influence to control the party machinery behind the scenes. The fact that he made his fortune in Russia after the fall of the USSR tends to accentuate concerns among strongly anti-Kremlin Georgians.
In reality, the picture is more complicated. “Every ruling party in Georgia for the last quarter of a century has been tempted to use the state institutions for their own political gains, and GD is no exception to that rule,” points out Shota Kakabadze, an analyst at the Tbilisi think tank the Georgian Institute of Politics. “Weak and fragile state institutions have often not been able to constrain whoever is in government from abusing their position.”
GD, despite having a strong grip on virtually every lever of government, from the legislature to the courts, derives much of its legitimacy from signalling that it is open to compromise. This contrasts with Saakashvili’s often intransigent style, says Anna Dolidze, a former GD deputy defence minister who leads For the People, one of the innumerable small opposition parties. “The UNM fought to the end for every little thing, but GD knows when to retreat.”
The UNM remains strongly committed to Saakashvili, now living in exile in Ukraine. A placard currently standing in front of an opposition encampment close to parliament shows the smiling former president gesturing towards a vista of the hypermodern buildings that symbolise his presidency, and implores lawmakers to “start developing our country again”. Yet Misha, as he is universally known, is widely unpopular among voters, who recall human rights abuses committed by his security forces and what some consider a cult of personality that formed around him.
As long as voters are forced to choose between Ivanishvili and an opposition that worships Saakashvili, many will continue to choose GD, Dolidze says. She is hoping to break the duopoly, which she believes both sides encourage because it suits their own interests. As an activist lawyer who held Saakashvili’s government to account for alleged human rights abuses, she argues she cannot be presented as a UNM stooge. Yet her ambition of upending the two-party system stumbled last year when she failed to get elected to parliament in a first-past-the-post constituency, a result she blames on her well-resourced GD opponent.
Furthermore, all but the harshest of government critics admit that GD is genuinely popular and would probably win elections without the irregularities alleged, though perhaps not decisively enough to form a government alone. Indeed, a report from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, a regional body, found that the 2020 elections “were competitive and, overall, fundamental freedoms were respected”. Most of the opposition, having now taken their seats, implicitly recognise that the results have at least some legitimacy, says George Khelashvili, an MP for the ruling party.
Any democratic backsliding could be contained by the country’s geopolitical circumstances. There is an ongoing conflict over two territories internationally recognised as part of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which enjoy de facto independence with Russian military support. This means that virtually the entirety of the Georgian political spectrum is – rhetorically at least – viscerally opposed to Russia. As a corollary, they support Georgia joining Nato and the EU, which demand minimum standards from aspiring members. Any decline in democratic standards putting paid to these ambitions is more likely than any other issue to push Georgians to reject the party responsible.
Long-awaited electoral reform agreed last year could also make it more difficult to form single-party governments, especially if the opposition capitalise on fatigue with GD, now in its third term in office. This might make alleged “state capture” more difficult, but also means the risks for a party losing power are greater.
The EU has shown itself to be effective in projecting power in the region by negotiating the April agreement between the government and opposition. Georgia remaining democratic would demonstrate the success of Brussels’s eastern policy, of which the country is considered one of the key success stories.
But Georgia’s location within what is by any measure a tough neighbourhood is also in some senses a disadvantage. It need only be more democratic than its neighbours to be among the freest states in the region. Just ask the Russian speakers.