Protests in Tbilisi ignited in Juneafter Russian lawmaker Sergei Gavrilov, deputy of the Russian State Duma, sat in the Georgian parliamentary speaker’s seat and addressed the audience in Russian. Protesters were not only angry about the Kremlin’s overreach into Georgia, but also with the Georgian Dream Party, which protesters claim has failed to adequately protect the country from Russian aggression. “The Russia factor was the trigger for this crisis, but it was not the cause,” rather the breaking point was “very polarized domestic politics in which the opposition plays the Russian card to discredit the government” according to Georgia expert Thomas de Waal (Higgins).
Five months later, the protests continue with little sign of stopping. Protesters have pitched tents on Rustaveli Avenue in central Tbilisi, blocking traffic and putting up metal barriers. On the evening of November 25, police searched protesters’ vehicles to confiscate steel barrels and firewood, which protesters were using to build fires for warmth. Protesters said these seizures were illegal confiscation of private property and some women resorted to smuggling firewood in their purses.
The protesters’ primary demand is that Georgia switch to a proportional representation system, rather than the mixed electoral system the Caucasian republic currently uses. In a concession to protesters earlier this summer, Bidzina Ivanishvili, founder and leader of Georgian Dream, promised to make the switch this year, but lawmakers did not pass the bill in a November 14 vote (“Georgia protests resume…,” “Protests revived in…”).
Protesters say the Georgian Dream Party did not fulfill its promise because poll numbers indicated the party would lose dominance if the country switched to proportional representation. Because the party did not keep its promise, protesters are calling for snap elections. Ivanishvili’s decision not to switch was an attempt to “cling to power” and is “a pivotal point” in Georgia’s democratic development, according to a coalition of Georgian nongovernmental organizations (MacKinnon). The government also failed to meet protesters demands that interior minister Giogri Gakharia step down, instead promoting him to prime minister in September (MacKinnon).
Even some Georgian Dream members are calling foul. Tamar Chugoshvili, who lead Georgian Dream’s moderate wing, was among a number of party members who resigned following the vote. Chugoshvili made the decision to resign because she reported to “partners in the United States, Brussels and Strasbourg” and could not “explain to [these] partners why [Georgian Dream] failed to deliver on a promise that [it] made so eagerly” (“Protests revived in…”).
Relations between protesters and the government are hostile. When protests began in June, over 200 people were injured after police fired on the crowd with rubber bullets and “[a]t least two people lost eyes as a result, including a teenager and a journalist” (MacKinnon). Last week, a protester called police Ivanishvili’s “highway robbers” and “serfs” while the police tried to seize the protester’s firemaking equipment (“Georgia protests resume…”).
Where did Democracy go?
For the past decade, Georgia has been an exemplar for Western-style democracy and reforms in the former Soviet Union. The reforms started in 2004, with the presidency of Mikheil Saakashvili, a charismatic leader who made numerous anti-corruption reforms. His reforms in tax collection corruption led to “rapid growth of tax revenues,” which the government used to fund “public administration, including public services, education and police” (“From concentrated power…”). In the frenzy of corruption and economic reform, Georgia’s government neglected or failed to make other necessary reforms. Politically, the government did not create sufficient checks and balances. As a result, power became concentrated in Saakshvili’s circle and “this influence extended” to the Parliament and judiciary. This arrangement kept political opposition weak and “resulted in a lack of accountability at the top levels of government, creating extensive opportunities for abuse of power and political corruption” (“From concentrated power…”).
Ultimately, the abuse of power led Saakashvili to lose the 2012 election and Ivanishivli came into power in the “first peaceful transfer of power in Georgia’s modern history” (MacKinnon). Since Ivanishili’s 2012 victory, Georgian Dream has dominated Georgian politics and failed to put the political checks and balances the developing democracy requires.
Ivanishvili returned to the private sector after serving only a year in 2013, but remained influential in politics. In 2018, he became chairman of Georgian Dream, the party he founded. His net worth of $4.9 billion amounts to about one-third of Georgia’s GDP. During last year’s elections, his charity promised debt relief for about 17 percent of registered voters, seemingly buying votes. Raising additional concerns of voter intimidation, party representatives stood outside polling stations, tracking voters. In this election overall, “[c]andidates campaigned freely in competitive Georgia runoff, though one side enjoyed undue advantage” according to a report by the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (“Candidates campaigned freely…”).
Russian Flight Ban
The Kremlin has made no hesitation to capitalize on Georgia’s political chaos. In July, the Kremlin banned all in and outbound flights between Russia and Georgia. While the Russian Transport Ministry cited aviation security concerns and overdue debts to Russia’s State ATM Corporation, the timing and type of this ban made it appear political in nature. Georgia’s tourism sector relies heavily on Russian tourists. Certain business and political circles in Georgia “improved economic ties with Russia as a priority” and by cutting these ties, these factions are inclined to apply pressure on the pro-West factions. This conflict would cause more political and economic chaos in the country, increasing Georgia’s vulnerability to Kremlin control.
Whatever the Kremlin’s intentions behind the ban, the ban has “has seriously damaged the country” according to Georgia’s Economy Minister Natia Turnava (“რუსეთთან ფრენების აღდგენა…”). Georgia had a record number of tourists in July and August, but airline revenue decreased by 8.6 percent in July and 6.8 percent in August over the previous year (“Georgia protests resume…”). The drop in airline revenue despite the increase in visitors can be explained by Russian tourists’ tendency to spend more on flights than tourists from other countries. The Georgian government provided loan assistance to 166 small- and medium-size hotels that could not meet payments due to the ban.
Russia renewed the flight ban on November 28. Russian senator Grigory Karasin, blaming mass protests in Georgia, said the Kremlin would not lift the ban until at least after the new year (“Карасин прокомментировал возобновление…”). Keeping the ban through the new year will hurt both airlines and winter resorts in Georgia, which “are waiting for tourists” according to Turnava.
Georgia’s Democractic Future
Parliamentary elections in 2020 will be an indicator of the direction of Georgia’s political orientation, whether it be towards the West or Russia, according to Eka Gigauri, the executive director of Transparency International Georgia (MacKinnon). Despite economic troubles the Kremlin is giving Georgia, Georgians remain largely supportive of maintaining a pro-Western foreign policy course. An October 2019 survey in Georgia found that over 75 percent of respondents supported a pro-Western foreign policy course. 77 percent of respondents saying that Russian aggression is “still going on” in Georgia, another 15 percent saying it was “over but likely to resume,” and only 4 percent saying it was “over and unlikely to resume” (“Public Opinion Survey…”).
Given the poll numbers indicating Georgian support for pro-West policies, it is unlikely that the protests will end until Georgian Dream makes concessions granting smaller political parties more representation. The poll numbers cause the Kremlin concern that it is losing control over its neighbor. In the lead up to the 2020 parliamentary elections, the Kremlin will likely apply more economic pressure on Georgia to sway politicians towards pro-Russian policies to bring Georgia back into its sphere of influence. However, as recent protests and the 2004 Rose Revolution, which brought Saakashvili into power, show, Georgians will continue fighting until they get the political results they demand.
“Candidates campaigned freely in competitive Georgia runoff, though one side enjoyed undue advantage and negative character of campaign undermined process, international observers say.” November 29, 2018. OSCE PA. https://mailchi.mp/oscepa/2781-press-release-2785069?e=0b205e9d35.
“From concentrated power to state capture: Georgia’s backsliding anti-corruption reforms.” February 14, 2019. Transparency International Voices. https://voices.transparency.org/from-concentrated-power-to-state-capture-georgias-backsliding-anti-corruption-reforms-c94d76bb2b21.
Higgins, Andrew. 2019. “Georgia Stages Protests While Its Relations With Russia Are in a Tailspin.” June 22. New York Times.
Lomsadze, Giorgi. 2019. “Protests revived in Georgia following election reform failure.” November 15. Eurasianet. https://eurasianet.org/protests-revived-in-georgia-following-election-reform-failure.
Lomsadze, Giorgi. 2019. “Russia reportedly extends Georgia flight ban.” November 28. Eurasianet. https://eurasianet.org/russia-reportedly-extends-georgia-flight-ban.
Mackinnon, Amy. 2019. “A Flickering Beacon of Democracy in Russia’s Backyard.” November 27. Foreign Policy.
“Public Opinion Survey Residents of Georgia.” October 2019. Center for Insights in Survey Research. https://www.iri.org/sites/default/files/wysiwyg/georgia_poll_11.18.2019_final.pdf.
Zvereva, Anna. 2019. “Russia bans passenger flights to and from Georgia starting July 8.” June 24. Aerotime News Hub. https://www.aerotime.aero/ruta.burbaite/22771-russia-bans-passenger-flights-to-and-from-georgia-starting-july-8.
“Карасин прокомментировал возобновление авиасообщения между Россией и Грузией.” Novmber 28, 2019. Izvestia. https://iz.ru/948450/2019-11-28/karasin-prokommentiroval-vozobnovlenie-aviasoobshcheniia-mezhdu-rossiei-i-gruziei. “რუსეთთან ფრენების აღდგენა ცალსახად პოზიტიური სიგნალი იქნება — ნათია თურნავა.” September 30, 2019