As elections draw near, increased tension at the line of separation with South Ossetia has helped put the future of normalisation with Russia in doubt. But whoever wins at the polls should not abandon dialogue, but rather build on it to frankly discuss these problems.
Originally published in U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs
Originally published in EUREN Brief
Originally published in World Politics Review
Amid rising COVID-19 cases, political tensions subsided in lead-up to 31 Oct election. Tensions emerged ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for 31 Oct: small-scale scuffles, which started late Sept, 1 Oct continued between ruling Georgian Dream party and opposition United National Movement (UNM) supporters in Kvemo Kartli region, particularly in areas mainly populated by ethnic Azerbaijanis; no reported casualties. Meanwhile, COVID-19 pandemic continued to spread across country, with average of over 1000 new daily reported cases throughout month; govt 16 Oct tightened restrictive measures to fight virus, including prohibition of public gatherings of more than ten people. Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights 11 Oct stated that it will limit election observation mission deployment to core teams of experts and long-term observers due to pandemic. Central Elections Commission (CEC) 31 Oct reported preliminary results, which gave significant lead of over 40% to ruling Georgian Dream party, with opposition United National Movement taking over 20% of votes; some opposition parties called elections illegitimate and planned street protests; according to CEC, more than 46%cast vote in elections. In Abkhazia, amid sharp rise of COVID-19 cases, members of opposition early Oct criticised de facto authorities for apparent lack of sufficient measures to combat pandemic. De facto President Aslan Bzhania 13 Oct introduced additional restrictive measures, such as ban on mass gatherings and closure of schools and kindergartens. In South Ossetia, press service of de facto President Anatoly Bibilov 17 Oct confirmed he had fallen ill with COVID-19; 30 Oct reported he had fully recovered. At request of de facto leadership, Russia deployed military and opened field hospitals to treat COVID-19 in Abkhazia 19 Oct and South Ossetia 27 Oct.
Informal trade is increasing between Georgia and the breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and between Abkhazia and countries outside the region. Trade alone cannot transform the parties’ core political differences. But talks among them on mutually beneficial commerce could open lines of communication long cemented shut.
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.
On the third anniversary of their war over South Ossetia, talks between Georgia and Russia are needed to create positive momentum in a still unstable environment.
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.
The historically coveted region of Abkhazia has become even more dependent on Moscow since Russia’s controversial recognition a year and a half ago.
The Georgian government has been in crisis for quite a long time. Mr. Ivanishvili’s comeback and popular protests are just symptoms of this process.
Over the last three years, we have been seeing a serious decline in the situation in the districts [of South Ossetia] mainly populated by ethnic Georgians.
There was a social media campaign two years ago [in Abkhazia] encouraging people to boycott the funerals of anyone who died after seeking medical care in Tbilisi.
Renewed fighting in eastern Ukraine is quickly turning into a litmus test of Russia’s intentions in backing Ukrainian separatist rebels, and the real willingness of the West, in particular the United States, to support Kyiv. Fears over Washington’s wavering may also cause positions to harden in the protracted conflicts in Europe’s East, most immediately in Georgia.
Unresolved conflicts and breakaway territories divide five out of six of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership countries, most of them directly backed by the Russian Federation. But a policy of isolating the people living in these conflict regions narrows the road to peace.
Originally published in Today's Zaman