JAMnews editor Dimitri Avaliani for the Carnegie Moscow Centre on Georgia’s current political crisis
Georgia’s informal ruler Bidzina Ivanishvili has found himself in a trap that has been in the making for many years.
The political crisis that has recently erupted in Georgia has simultaneously destroyed two myths on which his authority rested: a special humanity in domestic policy and alleged unprecedented successes in normalizing relations with Moscow.
This greatly undermines the legitimacy of the regime and may make retaining power in the future very difficult.
On June 20, a rally which began spontaneously as a protest against Russian MP Mikhail Gavrilov speaking in the parliament from the speaker’s chair turned into a real clash in the center of the capital, as a result of which more than two hundred people were injured.
The reason behind the outburst of violence was perhaps not so important – sooner or later it had to happen. The question was only when and what will be the occasion. Dissatisfaction with the authorities, which has accumulated in society for a long time and not found any outlets, finally broke out in this way. And the question of relations with Russia was not the main irritant here.
A government that “would not raise its hand against the people”
The brutal dispersal of the protest rally in Tbilisi on the night of June 20 to 21 closed an entire page of the era of Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream party.
Earlier the government positioned itself as relatively “herbivorous”, unlike the government of President Mikhail Saakashvili in 2003–2012. Now this legend has come to an end: the new authorities, while they may not have surpassed their predecessors, did not ‘underperform’ either.
However, in a country that dates its independence back to the tragedy of April 9, 1989, when Soviet troops dispersed a peaceful demonstration and killed 21 people, the attitude towards the dispersal of demonstrations is very sensitive.
Saakashvili fell largely because he was not forgiven for the dispersal of demonstrations on November 7, 2007 and May 26, 2011.
This time, security forces showed unjustifiable cruelty, going far beyond the task of preventing the demonstrators from entering the courtyard of the parliament building – they cleared the entire avenue and pursued demonstrators running away and fired rubber bullets in their faces.
It is still unclear why the authorities took such a politically suicidal step. Judging by the statements of Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze and other representatives of the Georgian Dream, they mistakenly thought that Saakashvili’s United National Movement party had organized a large-scale protest that would involve thousands and thousands of people, largely youth.
According to this logic, those in power may have thought that it was possible to retain power only by defiantly punishing the supporters of this party. The fallacy of this approach was confirmed the next day when even more people came to the rally without any intervention by the United National Movement than the day before.
Ivanishvili and Russia
Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s, made the improvement of relations with Moscow one of the main topics of his rhetoric after his appearance in politics in 2011.
He managed to do this while simultaneously rallying for integration with NATO and the EU.
One of the main accusations of Ivanishvili against President Mikheil Saakashvili was that he started the war with Russia in 2008, and with his short-sighted policy deprived Georgia of the Russian market.
When Ivanishvili began negotiations between Tbilisi and Moscow on economic, humanitarian and cultural issues (the Abashidze-Karasin format), it was possible to resume the export of wine and agricultural products and regular transport links. Russia made getting a visa for Georgians slightly easier, but the visa regime was not cancelled.
Tbilisi and personally Ivanishvili, in turn, softened the rhetoric addressed to Russia and its authorities. Personally, Ivanishvili has always refrained from publicly criticizing Putin, even on obvious questions.
Russia opened its market to Georgia, but export growth, as well as an increase in the number of Russian tourists in Georgia (and therefore Russia came out on top in Georgia) return the country to the times when Georgia was critically dependent on Russia.
However, politically, the parties have not moved closer towards an agreement: Russia still insisted that Abkhazia and South Ossetia are independent states, and Georgia “must recognize the new realities.” Tbilisi, in turn, insists that there can be no three Russian embassies in Georgia – bearing in mind that diplomatic relations will not be restored until the Russian recognition of the Georgian regions is in force.
However, this did not prevent the fact that under Ivanishvili, Russian state-owned media and pro-Russian organizations flourished in Georgia: the Society of Irakli II, the Eurasian Choice, funded by the Russian state. Primakov, etc. The activities of such organizations are mainly aimed at promoting non-participation in NATO and the EU and the resumption of diplomatic relations with Moscow.
In Georgia, events with the participation of representative Russian delegations began to be held more and more often, one of which was the fateful meeting of the Inter-Parliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy with the participation of Sergei Gavrilov.
Outlet for discontent
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov said that the protest demonstrations and subsequent events in Tbilisi were “Russophobic provocations.”
Putin later banned flights to Georgia, allegedly for the safety of Russian citizens.
In fact, so far no Russian citizen in Georgia has been hurt.
Citizens in Georgia rebelled against the pro-Russian gestures of the government and the endless attempts to have it both ways: to pursue a policy of integration with NATO and the EU and at the same time to try to appease the Kremlin in every way.
It is logical that the majority of protesters were young people – a significant part of the present-day Georgian youth are completely unfamiliar with Russia and only know one thing about the country: that Russia is an occupier.
This is still the most popular political slogan in Georgia. Only a small percent of young people speak Russian or communicate with Russians, for example, those who are engaged in the tourism sector.
However, practically none of them has ever been to Russia, this generation does not have any sentiments left over from the Soviet era, and they have built an image of this country based on the local and international press, internal political realities and their views on the policies pursued by Moscow.
However, the theme of Russian influence in Georgia, most likely, was only an excuse to release a surge of long-accumulated discontent. Its growth can be traced at least according to NDI polls: the number of people who believe that the country is moving in the wrong direction grew from year to year and reached a record 46% in May.
The fact that the Georgian Dream is no longer so popular was shown by the presidential elections in November 2018 as well, when in the first round opposition candidate Grigol Vashadze received almost the same 40% as the candidate from the government Salome Zurabichvili (in the past, the Minister of Foreign Affairs in the government of Mikheil Saakashvili herself).
Zurabishvili managed to win in the second round only thanks to the Georgian Dream resources used to the fullest extent.
The mid-term elections of mayors of several municipalities on May 19 also showed an increase in discontent, although the ruling party won elections in all districts – also not without the use of administrative and financial resources.
In fact, the opposition does not currently have a single elective office of mayor or head of the municipal council (Sakrebulo). Thus, Ivanishvili, through his party, has concentrated all power in his hands, even at the local level.
As a result of complex judicial reform procedures, Ivanishvili’s party, with the help of loyal judges, has gradually established control over the courts at all levels.
It is this “plugging” of power, preventing competitors even in small doses, which has most affected the popularity of the Georgian Dream and created the effect of a steam boiler when dissatisfaction due to the lack of pressure valves simply accumulates inside, which means that sooner or later the boiler will blow.
And there’s a lot to be angry about: the economy is in actual stagnation, especially in comparison with the rapid growth rates during the times of Saakashvili’s presidency. In 2018, economic growth was 4.8%, the peak of growth in the Saakashvili period was in 2007 – 12%. The average salary in the country for 2019 is 1092 lari (about $400).
Crime has also increased dramatically (58% from 2017 to 2018). Cronyism has again become almost official, and corruption scandals are commonplace. In 2018, the mayor of Zugdidi, who was elected from the ruling party, was detained for bribery.
In April of this year, several high-ranking officials of Batumi, including the former mayor and deputy mayor, were arrested in a case of kickbacks. Journalists have found a lot of expensive real estate belonging to the former chief prosecutor, but no one has explained its origin.
One of the main reasons for discontent is the state of the law enforcement system and the courts. In May and June 2018, young people protested police raids in Tbilisi nightclubs and in support of Zaza Saralidze, the father of a teenager killed in a fight with his peers, whose murder (as proved by the parliamentary investigation commission) was not properly investigated.
But perhaps the main drawback of the system, created by the oligarch Ivanishvili ruling from behind the scenes, is that members of the government and deputies clearly do not consider themselves accountable to the people. They are accountable to a single person – Bidzina Ivanishvili.
The Georgian Dream tried to bring down the protests on June 21, dismissing the Speaker of Parliament Irakli Kobakhidze. However, this did not help them much.
A broken dream?
On the evening of June 21, Putin issued a decree banning Russian airliners from flying to Georgia.
In doing so, he almost reiterated his decision of thirteen years ago, when, due to the detention in Tbilisi of GRU officers in 2006, Russia imposed a strict embargo on all types of products from Georgia and stopped transport links with it as well.
Putin’s current decision threatens income losses in the first place in tourism in Georgia, which will inevitably affect the economy, the strength of the national currency.
By subjecting Georgia to such an exemplary execution, Putin could not help but realize that his step would further complicate the consequences of the crisis for the Georgian Dream, and that economic problems could provoke further protests.
This will further undermine the position of the government which has tried to be friendly with Russia for many years.
Either this is a lack of foresight, or the hope that, because of the economic interest of the population, the protest will dissipate before it leads to economic losses.
Or the Kremlin no longer wants to help the Georgian Dream, which “did not justify its high level of trust” and did not punish “Russophobes” as they deserved.
On the one hand are growing protests, on the other hand are Putin’s embargoes. This puts Ivanishvili and his party in a critical situation. The decisive parliamentary elections will be held next year, and today the likelihood that Ivanishvili’s power will end at that time is much higher than a week ago.