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Georgia: Making Cohabitation Work
Georgia: Making Cohabitation Work
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
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?
Briefing 69 / Europe & Central Asia

Georgia: Making Cohabitation Work

Whether the smooth transfer of power Georgia achieved after October’s bitter election sets a standard for democracy in its region depends on whether the new government can strengthen the independence and accountability of state institutions in what remains a fragile, even potentially explosive political climate.

I. Overview

Georgia’s peaceful change of government after the October 2012 parliamentary elections was an encouraging and rare example of a democratic post-Soviet power transfer. President Mikheil Saakashvili and the new Prime Minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, each received well-deserved praise – Saakashvili for quickly accepting the defeat of his United National Movement (UNM), and Ivanishvili, who led his Georgian Dream (GD) coalition to victory after a bitter campaign, for saying he was ready to work with his arch-rival during a delicate year-long “cohabitation”. The new government now needs to use the ten months before the 2013 presidential elections to prioritise reforms that strengthen the independence and accountability of state institutions.

Saakashvili, who is term-limited from standing again, is due to remain in office until October 2013, when presidential elections will be held and a new constitution will come into force. During this period, he should continue to honour his pledge to refrain from exercising the extensive powers still legally available to him under the old constitution, lest that lead, as it almost inevitably would, to a confrontation with unpredictable consequences. Given Georgia’s chronic, often violent disorder especially during its first decade of independence in the 1990s, any destabilisation of this still delicate situation could entail serious risks.

The new Ivanishvili government has an opportunity to win broader trust by demonstrating that it is concentrating on critical governance issues, not political score-settling. This is a key to managing the extremely high expectations among those who voted for Georgian Dream. Many of his supporters – whether due to campaign promises, or as a consequence of his immense personal wealth – anticipate an unrealistically quick improvement in living standards. It is vital that the reform agenda be communicated regularly to the public, for instance through cabinet meetings whose deliberations are reported in all media outlets. Regular, publicised meetings between the president and prime minister, however distasteful both may consider them, would boost stability.

Tensions have been growing between the new and old government due to the arrest of former and current officials with ties to the UNM on charges ranging from abuse of office to torture. While past abuses should be investigated, it is vital that arrests not be perceived as selective, victors’ justice, and so detract from the need to build support for institutional reform. Investigations should prioritise severe crimes; a criminal cases review commission and amnesties and compensation should be considered, so as to ensure that the still fragile judiciary is not stretched to the breaking point addressing complaints related to the past government’s behaviour. President Saakashvili’s legacy and that of his UNM party would also suffer if he and his closest allies were to attempt to portray every examination into possible misdoings as politically motivated.

The immediate priority of the new government should be to build trust in the judiciary, the penal service and the powerful interior ministry. The courts, as well as prosecutors, must be given real independence from political pressures. Without viable recourse to a legal system enjoying broad public acceptance, other state institutions will not be able to develop properly, and politicisation will continue to affect the entire governing system. Business and investor confidence, vital to economic stability and growth, requires an unbiased legal system that provides protection and guarantees against harassment from the authorities. Encouragingly, the Ivanishvili team has already prepared far-reaching legislation aimed at de-politicising the judiciary, including the High Council of Justice.

Georgia has an ethnically mixed population. Some 15 per cent are minorities, including 12 per cent who are ethnic Azeris or Armenians, so the Ivanishvili government also needs to take bold steps to make clear that inter-ethnic or inter-confessional confrontations or xenophobic manifestations – largely dormant in recent years – will not be tolerated and will be prosecuted under statutes outlawing hate crimes.

During the campaign, many Georgian Dream officials had promised to quickly improve relations with Russia, but the new government has already indicated it will not significantly change its Euro-Atlanticist foreign policy focus. It flatly rules out a full resumption of diplomatic ties with Russia while Moscow maintains “embassies” and a large military presence in breakaway South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Rather than attempt to tackle these difficult issues first, the new government is pragmatically seeking common ground in less controversial spheres. This includes boosting the Georgian economy through the full resumption of normal trade relations. The appointment of a special representative and offer to engage in unconditional dialogue with Russia was a positive initial step.

If Georgia’s leaders succeed in overcoming the challenges of the next ten months with vigilance and patience, the country will be able to serve proudly as a true development model for the region. Compromise, considerable restraint and hands-on diplomacy are necessary to prevent squandering of fragile democratic gains or, worse yet, re-ignition of the often violent instability that marked the first decade of independence. More specifically, it will be important to:

  • abide by the spirit of the new constitution that officially comes into force only in October 2013, including by holding well-publicised meetings between the president and prime minister. If amendments to the new constitution are necessary, they should start with those recommended by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission to strengthen the parliament’s oversight powers;
  • ensure that the judiciary and the prosecution services are immune from political interference by reforming the High Council of Justice (HCOJ) and the chief prosecutor’s office;
  • focus, while investigating former officials, on their involvement in severe crimes, and consider setting up an independent criminal cases review commission and an amnesty and compensation program to help address the thousands of complaints being received.
  • de-politicise the internal affairs ministry (MIA) by legislating maximum civilian oversight and transparency and accepting capacity building and monitoring by local and international expert groups; and
  • focus on non-political areas where progress in outreach to Russia is attainable in the short term, for example, by both countries, as a first step and even while diplomatic relations remain frozen, opening trade liaison missions in Moscow and Tbilisi respectively.

The EU, U.S. and international organisations should help to mitigate tensions during the cohabitation period by:

  • maintaining constant diplomatic engagement.

Tbilisi/Istanbul/Brussels, 18 December 2012

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