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Georgia: Securing a Stable Future
Georgia: Securing a Stable Future
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 58 / Europe & Central Asia

Georgia: Securing a Stable Future

Georgia has maintained political and economic stability despite the shock of the 2008 war with Russia, but the government needs to use the two years before the next elections to create public trust in democratic institutions by engaging in meaningful dialogue with the opposition over further reforms.

Overview

Two and a half years after the war with Russia, Georgia’s political life is increasingly turning towards preparations for the 2012-2013 elections and debates around divisions of power after a recent overhaul of the constitution. The substantial amendments, which come into force in 2013 at the same time as President Mikheil Saakashvili steps down due to a term limit, will give much greater power to the prime minister. The next two years will go a long way in determining whether the country progresses toward a truly stable, modern democracy, or deteriorates into a fragile, pseudo-pluralistic and stagnating system. The government and political opposition movement need to use that crucial period to create public trust in democratic institutions. The best way to achieve this is by engaging in meaningful dialogue to ensure a fair election cycle, strengthened rule of law, economic stability and the legitimacy of the future government.

Much speculation centres on the role Saakashvili will play after he leaves the presidency. Detractors allege that the constitutional amendments are intended to allow him to continue to dominate the country from the newly empowered position of prime minister. He denies this, says that he has not decided on his future course, and the amendments were not made for any specific individual. His ruling United National Movement (UNM) argues that the constitutional changes were necessary to improve the balance of power and facilitate the implementation of reforms and that they meet long-held demands of opposition parties to cut back presidential powers. The changes in fact did very little to create a more parliamentary-based system, and the haste in which they were pushed through was criticised by international observers.

Saakashvili’s government defied widespread speculation that it would be driven from power after the 2008 war with Russia. Instead, the UNM greatly solidified its position in May 2010 local elections. It comfortably won the Tbilisi mayor’s office and a majority in all 69 municipal councils. Nevertheless, polarisation between the government and the ideologically diverse opposition parties – and the latter’s inability to formulate any common agenda or message – remain serious impediments for implementing reforms and establishing a mature democratic system. Only seventeen opposition deputies are taking part in the 150-seat parliament, while sixteen others who won seats are boycotting. Positively, the government and fifteen opposition parties agreed in November 2010 to begin negotiations to overhaul the electoral code.

The generous $4.5 billion Georgia received from 38 countries and fifteen international organisations over three years to help post-war recovery – a mix of direct budgetary assistance, humanitarian aid, loans and support to infrastructure development – guaranteed economic stability in the short term, but these funds are running out, and neither foreign direct investment nor exports have picked up. Tbilisi is thus likely to face substantial challenges to repay the foreign debt and cover the trade deficit. The government also needs to do more to support local entrepreneurs.

Over the past two years, the government initiated important reforms in the judiciary and the media, but more is needed to build public confidence in local institutions. Many Georgians still perceive judges as dependent on the executive branch and overly respectful of the prosecution, especially as the acquittal rate in criminal cases is 1 per cent. Property rights abuse continues without effective legal redress. The media is freer than elsewhere in the region but deeply polarised along political lines and tends to emphasise editorial opinion more than straight reporting; the most important TV outlets are still heavily influenced by the government.

The authorities should address these shortcomings together with those raised by international observers of the 2010 local elections, so as to facilitate smooth conduct of the next electoral cycle in 2012, as well as promote stability over the longer term. More specifically, they should:

- engage in a good-faith dialogue with opposition groups regarding electoral reform; take up recommendations from international and local organisations on the electoral code; investigate previous election violations and intimidation cases; and eliminate partisan abuse of public resources during elections;      

- develop a fully independent judiciary, including by taking steps to ensure that high-profile political, human rights and property usurpation cases are fairly reviewed; and

- pursue substantive, productive dialogue with multiple political forces, civil society representatives and business leaders while designing and implementing key reforms.

In return, opposition groups should:

- contribute actively to the work of the electoral reform group and to a wider dialogue by putting forward practical action plans on issues of concern; and

- publicly disavow violence, while using only legal means to address grievances.

The international community, including the European Union (EU), U.S., Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and other relevant organisations, should contribute to domestic progress by:

- prioritising in discussions with the government issues such as fair elections and close monitoring of the electoral process, as well as independence of the judiciary, rule of law and a fully free and transparent media environment.

This briefing concentrates on the domestic situation and recommends areas of needed reforms as the country heads into a crucial political cycle. Subsequent reporting will examine the continuing conflict with Russia, including the presence of thousands of Russian troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in violation of the 2008 ceasefire agreements. While President Saakashvili usefully announced in November a unilateral non-use-of-force policy, applicable to those troops, this military presence contributes to an atmosphere of uncertainty in Georgia, as do occasional violent incidents near the Administrative Boundary Lines (ABLs). The international community needs to continue to press Moscow to withdraw to positions held before the 2008 conflict, facilitate the return of displaced ethnic Georgians to their homes in those two territories and allow access to the EU Monitoring Mission (EUMM). A recent spate of bombings in Tbilisi, which the Georgians said had been ordered by a Russian military officer in Abkhazia – a claim denied by Moscow – adds to the uncertainty.

Tbilisi/Brussels, 13 December 2010

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.

Contributors

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