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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 151 / Europe & Central Asia

Georgia: What Now?

Georgia’s political crisis, which climaxed in the forced resignation of President Eduard Shevardnadze on 23 November 2003, is not over yet and could still lead to violence and the country’s disintegration. Georgia, in other words, is still pre-conflict, not post-conflict, and exceptional international action is required to contain the potential for chaos.

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Executive Summary

Georgia’s political crisis, which climaxed in the forced resignation of President Eduard Shevardnadze on 23 November 2003, is not over yet and could still lead to violence and the country’s disintegration. Georgia, in other words, is still pre-conflict, not post- conflict, and exceptional international action is required to contain the potential for chaos. Washington, which quietly supported what U.S. media called the “Rose Revolution”, has promised aid for organisation of the presidential election on 4 January 2004, as has the European Union; other donors should follow suit, and the international community should maintain this support through the equally important and potentially more contentious legislative elections in the spring.

The immediate cause of the crisis was the massive rigging of the 2 November 2003 parliamentary elections, which caused a deep reservoir of broad popular discontent to bubble over. The electoral abuse took place despite concerted international pressure on the Shevardnadze government to observe democratic standards. While significant progress was made in electoral laws, they were simply not implemented on the ground. Some parties accepted the government-declared results, but others, led by outgoing speaker of parliament Nino Burjanadze and opposition party chieftains Mikheil Saakashvili and Zurab Zhvania, refused and launched street protests that demanded official recognition of their victory.

In less than a week, these protests were transformed into a revolt. President Shevardnadze, who had displayed supreme self-assurance until the opening of parliament on 22 November, was overnight forced to resign: the crowd occupied his office, the security forces did not intervene, and Washington, and especially Moscow (with a flying visit by Foreign Minister Ivanov), played an important part in concentrating his mind. The Supreme Court invalidated the fraudulent election, thus keeping the old parliament alive. Now that the regime has collapsed, Georgia has to find a way through a risky transition period, in which the interim president, Burjanadze, and the full term president to be elected in January must work with that body until new legislative elections can take place.

In the next days, finding temporary compromises with the former ruling elite will be a top priority for the new authorities, in order to ensure state continuity. Any deep purge in the administration at this stage should be avoided. The viability of the state is at stake. Georgia, which already lost the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions, apparently permanently, in the early independence years, is now in danger of losing the autonomous region of Ajara. Negotiations and compromise with these regions are essential, as is a Western effort to persuade Russia to cooperate constructively in supporting Georgia’s territorial integrity – not Moscow’s highest priority in the past.

The next challenge for the interim leadership is to ensure that the coming presidential and parliamentary elections are free and fair. For that to happen, it will need strong support from the international community. Donors should cooperate with the Georgians to set up an Emergency Elections Task Force (EETF), under the aegis of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), to supervise those elections, especially the parliamentary vote, which is likely to be the occasion when all political forces will be most tempted to pull out every stop to ensure their position in the new constellation. All external powers should be involved, including the Russian Federation.

Georgia needs a strong and genuinely popular government to deal with the country’s difficult economic and social situation and to re-establish its territorial integrity. A stable Georgia is in the interests of all, including Russia and other neighbours, and the EU and the U.S. The opportunity now on offer must not be missed.

Tbilisi/Brussels, 3 December 2003

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