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After a Summer of Protests, Can Georgia’s Government Regain Its Lost Trust?
After a Summer of Protests, Can Georgia’s Government Regain Its Lost Trust?
Report 159 / Europe & Central Asia

Georgia: Avoiding War in South Ossetia

A precarious peace is back in place between Georgia and South Ossetia after the long-frozen conflict nearly became a hot war again and drew in Russia when dozens were killed in August 2004 fighting. President Saakashvili tried to break a twelve-year deadlock and take another step to restore Georgia's territorial integrity by undermining the regime in Tskhinvali, but seriously miscalculated.

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Executive Summary

A precarious peace is back in place between Georgia and South Ossetia after the long-frozen conflict nearly became a hot war again and drew in Russia when dozens were killed in August 2004 fighting. President Saakashvili tried to break a twelve-year deadlock and take another step to restore Georgia's territorial integrity by undermining the regime in Tskhinvali, but seriously miscalculated. A more comprehensive approach is needed to resolve this conflict peacefully. The onus is on Georgia, with help from its international partners, to increase the security and confidence of people living in the zone of conflict, promote economic rehabilitation and development, ensure the right of Ossetians to return to South Ossetia and Georgia proper, and create arrangements guaranteeing South Ossetia effective autonomy. South Ossetia must enter a real dialogue with Georgia on its status and not use the winter to force Georgian villagers still in South Ossetia to leave their homes.

After peacefully resolving its decade-old conflict with Ajara earlier this year, the Georgian decision-makers turned their attention to South Ossetia. In May 2004 they believed their Ajarian success could easily be repeated. They considered that South Ossetia's de facto president, Eduard Kokoity, had little democratic legitimacy or popular support and that, as in Ajara, the people would rapidly switch loyalty from Tskhinvali to Tbilisi.

The initial strategy aimed to address the political-economic causes of the conflict through an anti-smuggling operation, aimed primarily at closing the sprawling Ergneti market on the outskirts of Tskhinvali, in the Georgian-South Ossetia zone of conflict. The theory was that Kokoity and a small circle of officials around him were maintaining control over South Ossetia through their involvement in black market trade. In parallel, the Georgian side organised a humanitarian "offensive" to provide people in the region with the benefits of economic and cultural projects.

The strategy backfired. Rather then capitalising on real popular discontent, it caused many average citizens who depended on illegal trade for their economic survival to regroup around Kokoity. Ossetian de facto authorities successfully portrayed Georgian moves as aggressive first steps towards a remilitarisation of the conflict that had enjoyed a ceasefire since 1992. Kokoity's popular support rose as he described himself as the only leader capable of guaranteeing Ossetians' security, as well as their political, economic and cultural interests. Assistance sent by Tbilisi was portrayed as a cheap attempt to buy support.

The Georgian approach failed in large part because it was based on a limited analysis of the causes of the conflict. Since 1992 little progress has been made to bring Ossetians and Georgians closer together. Many of the grievances and ambitions developed during the war that broke out as the Soviet Union was dying remain tough obstacles to peace. Unless they are addressed, efforts to re-integrate South Ossetia into Georgia are almost certain to lead again to violence.

In the past few months Georgia has shifted gears and begun to emphasise the geopolitical nature of the conflict, terming it "a problem between Georgia and Russia". Russia does play a special role. But it is unlikely that Georgia can successfully persuade the U.S. or European Union to duel with Moscow over South Ossetia.

A new ceasefire holds since 19 August 2004. At a high level meeting between Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania and South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity on 5 November in Sochi, an agreement on demilitarisation of the zone of conflict was signed. Some exchange of fire continues in the zone of conflict, apparently primarily initiated by the Ossetian side, but there is still cause for optimism that the conflict will be resolved non-violently since all sides seem to be reconsidering their policies. Georgia's legitimate insistence on the preservation of its territorial integrity needs to be balanced with the Ossetians' concerns for the protection of their national minority rights.

For the negotiations that are needed with Russia, South and North Ossetia to succeed, Georgia must show it is putting in place political, economic, legal, and social conditions to guarantee Ossetians equal rights in a multi-national and democratic state. The greatest lesson from the May-August period is that attempts to resolve the conflict swiftly will lead to war. President Saakashvili seemed to recognise this when, at the UN General Assembly, he pledged to engage in a "stage-by-stage settlement plan". To avoid further casualties and displacement, Georgia, together with its international partners, must implement a comprehensive strategy to resolve the root causes of the conflict and make non-violent re-integration possible.

Tbilisi/Brussels, 26 November 2004

After a Summer of Protests, Can Georgia’s Government Regain Its Lost Trust?

Originally published in World Politics Review

This summer’s protests in Georgia led to changes to the country’s electoral system. But the country’s new Prime Minister, Giorgi Gakharia, is a man protesters wanted ousted from the last government, in which he led the Interior Ministry. In this interview with World Politics Review, Europe & Central Asia Program Director Olga Oliker and Analyst for EU Eastern Neighbourhood Olesya Vartanyan consider what Gakharia’s tenure will bring, and how the parliamentary elections next year might play out in this atmosphere.

Earlier this month, Georgia’s Parliament approved a new government led by Giorgi Gakharia, a controversial former interior minister who was nominated by the ruling Georgian Dream party despite his role in a violent crackdown on anti-government protests that rocked the capital, Tbilisi, this summer. Gakharia will now try to restore public confidence in the government ahead of parliamentary elections that are expected to be held early next year. Meanwhile, the main opposition party, the United National Movement, or UNM, also has work to do if it hopes to retake power. In an email interview with WPR, Olga Oliker and Olesya Vartanyan of the International Crisis Group discuss the challenges facing both the ruling party and the opposition in Georgia.

What kind of message does the approval of Giorgi Gakharia as prime minister send to the opposition?

It’s something of a “put up and shut up” message from Georgian Dream, not just to the opposition in Parliament but also to protesters. During the mass demonstrations that took place last summer, protesters demanded changes to the electoral system to allow for more proportional representation, which the government agreed to. Protesters also subsequently demanded that Gakharia step down as interior minister, a role from which he had ordered the violent dispersal of the protests. But instead of being ousted, he was promoted to prime minister, in a vote boycotted by opposition parties. That’s a pretty clear message.

Gakharia’s appointment is also a message to the opposition and to the country as a whole that Georgian Dream is planning to win the parliamentary elections that are expected early next year. The party’s popularity has been declining for some time; in the 2018 presidential election, Georgian Dream’s preferred candidate, Salome Zourabichvili, only won after being forced into a runoff, a far cry from the landslide victories of years past. Gakharia is close to Georgian Dream’s founder and chairman, Bidzina Ivanishvili, as are the new defense minister, Irakli Gharibashvili, and the interior minister, Vakhtang Gomelauri. With these personnel moves, the ruling party is ensuring that the government is united going into the campaign.

The next election will be an important test for Georgian Dream. The recently passed electoral reforms eliminated the required minimum threshold for parties to enter Parliament, which means there will be a greater diversity of parties. The majority party will therefore need to work harder to secure majorities for its laws. But a unified party will not be enough for Georgian Dream to secure a win; it will also need a policy agenda that rebuilds its popularity. Whether its leaders have a real plan for that is unclear.

What policy issues is Gakharia likely to focus on as prime minister? What are the most pressing challenges he faces in implementing his agenda?

Gakharia and his team have two goals that don’t fully align with one another. First is to win in the upcoming parliamentary elections, which means we can expect the government to focus on social programs to help the most vulnerable. But voters are frustrated that Georgian Dream has failed to spur the economic development and growth they expected during the party’s seven years in power. Finally making good on that promise would require a different sort of reform agenda: one that could attract foreign investment but might also involve public sector spending cuts, which could prove less popular in the short term.

Implementing reforms in the midst of an election campaign would be difficult, but Gakharia may be up to the task. He forcefully pushed through reforms during his time as interior minister, including the creation of a human rights department, the professionalization of regional law enforcement investigators, and increased transparency for crime statistics.

He will still have to deal with the fact that protesters and the opposition blame him for the violent crackdown on protests, which caused several injuries and resulted in the prosecutions of some demonstrators. More protests are likely, and would test the government’s ability to respond appropriately.

The other question for Gakharia is how to deal with simmering disputes in the Russian-backed breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Tensions have risen again this year over a police observation station that Georgia placed along its administrative boundary with South Ossetia. The latter responded by closing border crossings and a war of words erupted between leaders on both sides, tempered only by Russian and European efforts to mediate. Gakharia and his team will need to prevent the dispute from escalating, while at the same time standing up to Moscow and repairing economic ties with Russia. Balancing those priorities will be a tall order.

Given Georgian Dream’s declining popularity, how well-positioned is the United National Movement to prevail in the upcoming elections?

The UNM has loyal supporters, especially in the western regions of the country. It hasn’t been able to garner enough support to win previous elections, but its fortunes could turn next year, depending on the strength of opposition to the Georgian Dream-led government.

But the UNM has its own problems. It remains unofficially helmed by the divisive Mikheil Saakashvili, who served as president of Georgia from 2004 until 2013. His supporters remember him fondly for the sweeping democratic reforms he implemented during the 2000s, but his detractors blame him for the many domestic challenges facing Georgia in the aftermath of the five-day war with Russia in 2008.

He has also been away from Georgia for more than five years, and during that time he has fallen out of touch with the country he once led, while gaining considerable international notoriety. In 2015, he switched his citizenship to Ukraine in order to serve as governor of the Odessa region under then-President Petro Poroshenko, but the two subsequently had a falling-out and Saakashvili was deported last year. His Ukrainian citizenship has now been restored by President Volodymyr Zelensky, but a Georgian court convicted him in absentia of charges related to abuse of power last year, so he cannot return to his country of birth. A UNM victory next year would likely result in that conviction being reversed, but Saakashvili’s personal travails do not help the party’s chances.

The UNM has a good chance at maintaining its position as the dominant opposition force, but in order to win, it will need to cooperate with other parties. In some ways, this could be easier with the new electoral system, as there will be more parties to align with after the elections. But those parties’ members and leadership will balk at diktats from Saakashvili, so the UNM will need to find a way to become more independent of his influence.


Program Director, Europe and Central Asia
Senior Analyst, South Caucasus