The aftermath of ex-president Saakashvili's hunger strike - what will happen next?
What will happen after the end of Saakashvili’s hunger strike?
Before Mikheil Saakashvili’s arrival, arrest, and subsequent hunger strike in Georgia, people used the word crisis to describe Georgia’s internal political environment but the following fifty days gradually turned it into a nightmare.
During the last two weeks, it appeared that Georgia’s third president was prepared to die in prison and the authorities were going to allow it to happen, reiterating that going on hunger strike was his personal decision, and, by implication, so would be the dying.
On November 11, Saakashvili’s reduced his demand to being treated in a civilian clinic, rather than a prison one, which looked pretty minimalistic – but he was denied that too.
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The stand-off left the political sphere and became predominantly moral and psychological.
When we learned that the authorities did, after all, move Saakashvili to a more suitable clinic, while the latter agreed to end the hunger strike, everyone felt relieved.
But immediately after, a new set of questions emerged: what happens after this? What did Saakashvili achieve by returning to Georgia and acting as he did after being arrested – if anything at all? Now we are back to trying to answer “normal” political questions.
What did Saakashvili achieve?
Saakashvili’s return to Georgia was unexpected – despite his promises, or exactly because he had not kept such promises before – and, to many people, irrational. The government was clear in saying that he would be arrested as soon as he arrived. So, what was his reasoning in returning?
Some people believe he came back to get arrested and thus put the Georgian government in an awkward position. Maybe, but I am not sure. It seems more likely that he hoped to galvanize, by the very fact of his presence, a mass protest movement that would not allow the government to arrest him but force it to make fundamental concessions, and eventually leave. But this was the best-case scenario from his perspective: he obviously understood that arrest was quite probable and was prepared for it.
This best-case scenario failed to materialize. Despite Saakashvili’s arrival, the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party showed a result that was almost as high as in the parliamentary elections a year before; moreover, comparisons with pre-election polls allowed some analysts (including myself) to reckon that the “Saakashvili arrival effect” actually helped the ruling GD to mobilize its support and obtain higher results.
Apparently, the rally in support of Saakashvili on October 14 was the largest since GD came to power (maybe, one of the largest in Georgia’s history) – but it was still just a rally; there was no roadmap from that to a political change. Saakashvili saw that from his prison cell well – that’s why he reduced the initial demands of his hunger strike, those of the immediate release or fair international trial, to that of moving to a proper clinic.
However, he probably achieved a result that was important for him personally: he reinstated himself at the center of Georgia’s political life and increased his legitimacy as the most important opposition figure. This was not only about being in the center of attention during these fifty days, and probably sometime after. The myth of ‘Saakashvili the coward’ and ‘opportunist’, which had not only been spread by the GD but shared by quite a few people in the opposition, was dissipated. Once arrested, Saakashvili demonstrated special strength of character combined with political realism: he did not crack under extraordinary pressure but eventually accepted a reasonable compromise.
This moment will pass and he will not be the number one news forever; but nobody will be able to reproach him that he is calling the Georgian people to action from relative safety in Ukraine, while some of his political comrades served lengthy prison sentences. In the long-term perspective, he became a more powerful political player than before.
Where does Georgian opposition stand?
It might be another effect of Saakashvili’s return that the standing of his party, the United National Movement (UNM), as the predominant force within the opposition, was strengthened even more. The results of the municipal elections, as compared to those of the 2020 parliamentary elections, clearly point to that.
But this does not mean that the opposition, in general, is becoming stronger vis-à-vis the ruling party – which is all that counts in the end. Therefore, the opposition, including both the UNM and other opposition parties, should reinvent itself in order to do better.
If we put the Saakashvili hunger strike into a broader perspective, it can ve viewed as the climax of a crisis caused by the opposition’s refusal to take up its seats in the parliament in wake of the October 2020 elections. The essence of this decision was to radicalize one’s strategy in a hope of changing the situation by means other than “normal” institutional mechanisms. In doing this, the opposition mirrored changing moods of the Georgian society:
More people were increasingly exasperated by the deteriorating trend of the GD governance and increasingly unfair playing field of the electoral sphere; they were impatient to see their country more democratic soon. However, while these assessments and the change of mood were perfectly understandable, the fact of the matter is that so far, neither boycott nor Saakashvili’s arrival has brought any tangible results. The Georgian people obviously have no taste for another “color revolution”; the opposition’s radical turn was met with disapproval and dismay by the democratic West, which is a natural ally of all pro-democracy forces in Georgia.
The understanding of this has already shown itself in the opposition behavior. The latest municipal elections were hardly fairer than the parliamentary ones a year ago – but no calls for the boycott ensued. The government actions during Saakashvili’s hunger strike created an impression that it was trying to provoke the opposition into some kind of violent response – but the UNM leadership proved mature enough to steer clear of that.
But what next? The opposition will have to brace itself for the GD government being there for quite some time and act based on more long-term strategies. The non-UNM opposition is in an especially difficult situation as it faces marginalization. It would be childish to blame its misfortunes on Saakashvili stealing the show: like him or not, he plays his game as he knows best. The non-UNM opposition has to recapture its identity after having nearly lost it during the last year. This will be important not only for these parties: whatever the Saakashvili effect, UNM will hardly ever be able to defeat GD on its own. The strength of the different parts of the opposition and cooperation between them will continue to be necessary, as it used to be before.
Where does Georgian government stand?
During these fifty days, the GD government lost a moral battle to Saakashvili. Its “restoration of justice” agenda had always been about pure vindictiveness; but now it also looked cruel, confused, isolated, and plainly inadequate. In the end, it still had to accept Saakashvili’s rather basic demand, but along the way, it alienated itself to the maximum.
The most important result of government’s actions during this whole year was Georgia distancing itself from Europe and the West in an unprecedented way. The government’s pro-western stance has remained purely declarative. For the first time, western politicians have started to question whether Georgia is still on the pro-European trajectory of development.
Arguably, Ivanishvili’s team had never been genuinely pro-western, but in the first years after coming to power its declarations were still backed up by some actions, such as carrying reforms necessary for signing the Association Agreement with Europe and securing a visa-free regime within the Schengen zone. But, apparently, GD leadership treated these issues as purely technical ones: European values remained foreign and impenetrable to them. Initially, it included some people who understood what Europe is really about and genuinely wanted to make Georgia come closer to that; if there are still any such people in its ranks, they kept silent.
However, another question is whether GD’s moral defeats will lead to political ones as well. I believe that eventually, they will and I hope it is not wishful thinking on my behalf. Sometime later, we may look back to the episode of Saakashvili’s hunger strike as a stage towards the GD downfall. However, come what may, the road to that outcome is not clear at all. The hunger strike is over, but Georgia has not gotten back to normal yet.