This spring, Georgia marked—with understandable pride—the centennial of the first democratic republic founded on May 26, 1918. This brief, but shining, moment in the nation’s history, the beginning of a three-year period between its occupation by Czarist Russia and later the Soviet Union, sets it apart from the rest of the Caucasus region.
But more recently, the resignation of Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili and the ascension of 36 year-old former Finance Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze as his replacement demonstrates the all-encompassing role of the billionaire oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili in the country’s politics and the façade of Georgian democratic governance. Georgia is and continues to be the “Jewel of the Caucasus,” but considering the neighborhood, it has always benefitted from a low bar. The greater challenge is to determine what more will be done, either by Georgia or the West, to realize the goal of Georgians and their governments to gain entry into the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). With the rise of Euroscepticism, a growing Russian threat, and an uninterested United States, one must wonder which direction Ivanishvili will push Georgia. Will he continue his commitment to liberal Western values or indulge his instincts and demonize political opposition, among other things?
Assisting Georgia’s Democratization No Longer a Western Priority?
While there have been many positive statements and declarations about Georgian democracy recently, a more even assessment is required to understand the current state of Georgia. Reasonable people can disagree over the current state of political dialogue, but an oligarchy of one man, former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, inevitably has undermined institutional development, making Georgia more of a monarchy than parliamentary democracy.
Despite U.S. President Donald Trump’s advocacy for Russian President Vladimir Putin rejoining the G-7 and contrarian approach in Ukraine, the most illuminating view into the U.S. approach with Georgia comes from Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to Tbilisi in 2017. While there were positive pronouncements about Georgia’s Western aspirations, there was only the briefest reference to democratic development. It was an articulation of security and sovereignty as the primary priority to the point of being the exclusive basis of Western, or at least U.S., engagement. Georgia fits nicely into Trump’s “Great Powers” narrative, with its implicit acceptance of spheres of influence, while minimizing the importance of democracy to that engagement. It also allows for the U.S. embrace of oligarchic, illiberal, but anti-Russia, Poland. Trump’s alignment with the xenophobic and pro-Russian governments of Italy, Hungary, Austria—and U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell’s explicit advocacy of U.S. political support for xenophobic, pro-Russian political movements—have all occurred while the European Union is wracked with internal controversies around its immigration, financial, and democracy advocacy policies.
Ivanishvili Out of the Shadows
Amidst the challenges to and re-framing of Western priorities with Russia, Georgia has given up any pretense of demurring the inseparable nature of Bidzina Ivanishvili’s decision making to its governance. One of the more troubling aspects of Ivanishvili’s power came in April 2018 when then-Prime Minister Kvirikashvili made clear the oligarch’s extraordinary influence. On national television, Kvirikashvili told viewers that, “[Ivanishvili] is best equipped to strengthen the political team in his capacity as the party chairperson and to add more and new dynamism for further development, [and contribute to] more effectiveness and more progress to executive and legislative branches, as well as municipal bodies.” Despite being the head of government, whose party controls parliament by a 3 to 1 majority, Kvirikashvili admitted that the Georgian Dream’s (GD) ability to govern required the public acknowledgement of Ivanishvili’s supremacy. After years of running GD from the shadows, Ivanishvili returned as its official chairman in the spring of 2018.
Ivanishvili’s third reason was a “detrimental misunderstanding with the Georgian Dream” that might complicate his hegemony on political power. Despite nearly six years of repeatedly defeating UNM and EG, polling by the International Republican Institute shows that popular confidence in the national government has declined consistently and significantly. The 2017 ascension of former soccer star and Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze to Mayor of Tbilisi has tracked with parliamentary factional backbiting. At the nexus of these intersecting matters is Parliament Chairman Irakli Kobakidze, who served as Kaladze’s mayoral campaign manager, and despite holding the highest office in an aspiring parliamentary democracy, is not seen by anyone as the leading decision maker in the make-up of the government. Ivanishvili’s public “return” serves to diminish the profile and power of these elected officeholders, including newly installed Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze.
Ivanishvili’s return to a public-facing political role fomented or coincided with two spontaneous demonstrations against government action in less than a month. The protests erupted as a result of the government’s failure to keep the citizenry unharmed in a highly polarized political environment, where official retribution is understood as being primarily directed at political opponents. It was this type of transgression in societal “rules” that fomented the popular revolt against prison torture and decisively contributed to Saakashvili’s parliamentary defeat in 2012.
On the same night Ivanishvili assumed the GD party chairmanship, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) launched simultaneous raids on the most popular hotspots in the capital of Tbilisi. The raids by balaclava-wearing, assault-rifle-armed special-forces units began to hit their peak in the early morning hours. Unexpectedly, the club-goers chose to launch a spontaneous pre-dawn rally in front of the parliament, despite arrests at the club and the demonstration. Although the ostensible reason given for the raids was the culmination of a months-long investigation, the eight alleged drug dealers that were arrested informed the Public Ombudsman that they had been detained hours before the raids were conducted. No sooner had the nightclub demonstrations ended, another spontaneous protest erupted following the botched prosecution of what became known as the Khorava Street murders of two teenagers. Led by a mourning father, the protests alleged systemic corruption since the court had meted out sentences for the murder of one teenager, but only attempted murder regarding the other dead boy, suggesting a third assailant unmentioned by the prosecution. Over the course of several days, the Chief Prosecutor resigned, and a member of his staff was arrested for having interceded with a witness on behalf of a family member suspect.
While the nightclub raids announced Ivanishvili’s “Godfather II” role with authority, the response to the Khorava Street murders presents a potential long-term challenge to Ivanishvili and his latest loyalist-turned-prime minister with a constituency of one.
In Georgia, with an oligarch and compliant corporate community, the funding for continued support of Georgian democratic development is more likely to fall to an increasingly divided European Union, rather the Trump administration. Regardless, the current public accountability measures attempting to keep Ivanishvili in check are civil society’s ability to inform and advocate on issues, citizens to rally around them, and a critical media to report on them. While one party rule and rule of law have been perennial challenges for Georgia since independence, these three elements have been fundamental to the landmark successes in Georgia’s democracy, from an independent but failed state, to a modern but compromised state, to an Eastern European but shadow democracy, like Poland, Ukraine, and Moldova, where grey cardinals outside of government office determine the major personnel and priorities in public policy. The difference in eventual outcomes will depend on the continued faith Georgians have placed in aspirations of Western integration and their willingness to engage in civic participation to achieve them.