27.03.23 Analytics

The ‘Georgian Dream’ Cycle: Why the Political Situation in Georgia Will Continue to Heat Up, And European Integration Will Stall

Re: Russia
The visit of German Foreign Minister Annalena Berbock to Tbilisi is unlikely to help mend the rapidly deteriorating relationship between the EU and the Georgian government, currently  controlled by the ruling Georgian Dream party. At the same time, the withdrawal of the ‘foreign agents’ law as a result of protests and clashes with police does not signal an end to Georgia's political crisis. On the contrary, the crisis is only likely to intensify further. Just as in Ukraine in 2014, Russia and the EU remain the two fundamental poles within Georgian public policy. The ruling coalition emphasises economic pragmatism, pushing Georgia to expand its ties to Russia, while the opposition insists on the importance of a fundamental civilisational choice in favour of the West and has alluded to the corrupt nature of Georgia's trade relations with Russia. However, the main thrust behind the Georgian standoff is an internal political struggle — the desire of the ruling coalition to finally establish its foothold in power, restricting opportunities for the opposition and independent media outlets ahead of the country’s upcoming parliamentary elections. The experiences of several other post-Soviet countries suggests that, sooner or later, this confrontation will lead to yet another ‘colour revolution’. 

During her recent visit to Georgia, Annalena Berbock, Foreign Minister of Germany, underscored Germany’s desire for Georgia to become a member of the EU. But for this to happen, Georgia needs to fulfil the EU’s 12 preconditions , the foremost of which is judicial reform. The visit of the Foreign Minister is a gesture directed towards the Georgian opposition and an attempt to mend the rapidly deteriorating relations between the Georgian government and EU institutions. Annalena Berbock's visit to the division line between Georgia and South Ossetia, where she expressed full support for the territorial integrity of Georgia, is also significant in this context. The ‘Russian threat’ remains one of the main concerns for the opposition, while the ruling Georgian Dream party prefers to avoid discussion of the Russian-Georgian war.

The dramatic escalation within Georgian politics was triggered by the ruling party's attempt to pass a law on ‘foreign agents,’ which would have required Georgian NGOs and media outlets which receive foreign funding to register as ‘agents of foreign influence’. In Tbilisi, protests against the law escalated into clashes with the police. As a result, the Georgian Dream party, accusing the opposition of deliberately discrediting the law, was pressured into not voting to pass the law in its second reading.

However, this is not a victory for the opposition but merely a temporary setback for the ruling party. A political crisis is brewing in Georgia, a symptom of which is these recent protests. The failure of the ‘foreign agents’ law in parliament does not eliminate the fundamental causes of the crisis. The following week, for example, after the street scuffles and the rejection of the bill, supporters of the Alt-Info movement and the Conservative Movement party took to the streets of Tbilisi in their thousands to demand a referendum on the ‘foreign agents’ law. Their rally ended with the removal and burning of the EU flag in front of the parliament.

The situation in Georgia is increasingly reminiscent of the situation in Ukraine in the run-up to Euromaidan in 2013. As in Ukraine, the main factors underlying this crisis are the desire of the dominant Georgian Dream parliamentary party to kneecap the opposition before the approaching elections, which is interwoven with the issues of European integration and the Russia factor.

The majority of the Georgian population, which lived through the Russian invasion of 2008, supports European integration and NATO membership. According to opinion polls, 85% of the Georgian population is in favour of EU accession, and 78% want NATO membership. Euro-integration is enshrined in Georgia’s constitution as one of the country’s goals. And, the official rhetoric of the Georgian Dream party had, until very recently, not challenged this objective. In 2017, the Georgian government achieved visa-free travel to the EU; and, as recently as early 2021, Georgia was considered the most advanced member of the Eastern Partnership, the EU integration project for former Soviet republics. However, over the past 18 months, there have been signs of a shift in Tbilisi's strategy towards the EU, according to European experts. 

In May 2022, a Tbilisi court sentenced Nika Gvaramia, the owner of the oppositional TV station Mtavari, to three and a half years inprisonment on charges of abuse of power during his tenure as head of another TV station, Rustavi 2. This conviction, which has been deemed inconsistent with the severity of the charges and is widely considered to be politically motivated, came just a day before Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili was due to travel to Brussels to discuss the next steps in Georgia's bid for candidate country status. According to one EU diplomat, the court ruling in the Gvaramia case was seen by Brussels as an attack on freedom of the press. Prior to this, in the autumn of 2021, Georgia had turned down the second tranche of a €75 million EU concessional loan because it stipulated a judicial reform as one of its conditions, which the Georgian Dream party opposed. As a result, five weeks after the Prime Minister's visit, the European Commission put forward a 12-point list of conditions that Georgia had to fulfil to gain candidate status.

There are two tightly interwoven strands in the emerging Georgian crisis. The first involves the interests of the Georgian Dream Party, patronised by Bidzina Ivanishvili. If the party wins the upcoming elections in 2024, it will mark its fourth term as a dominant force in Georgian politics. This will enable it to gain an even stronger foothold in the administrative and economic system. The country's economic success may be the most important factor behind such a victory. 

Meanwhile, by not participating in Western sanctions against the Kremlin, the Georgian government has been able to achieve significant economic successes over the past year. Before the war, the IMF forecast for Georgian GDP growth for 2022 was 5.9%, this was later raised to 8.8%. The economy ultimately grew by 10% that year. Unemployment has fallen significantly; the national currency has stabilised. Trade between Georgia and Russia increased by 1.5 times in 2022, and Georgia was able to increase its exports to Russia significantly, which is especially important for a country that traditionally has a large trade deficit. Imports of oil and oil products from Russia have also increased sharply, quadrupling year-on-year. Moreover, given the context of sanctions, there is the opportunity for Georgia to partially replace Western alcohol in the Russian market. Re-export to Russia of goods that Russia cannot buy in Europe also plays an important role; for example, the re-export of cars from Georgia to Russia has almost quadrupled in the past year to $45.7 million.

Paradoxically, the Georgian Dream-controlled government has been able to benefit from both improved trade relations with Russia and its role as a ‘safe haven’ for the large number of Russian relokanty who fled to Georgia after the start of the war and as a result of the increased repression of the Russian political regime. In 2022 the number of Russians permanently residing in Georgia totalled approximately 112,000 people. It is suspected, however, that this figure is grossly underestimated. In September 2022 alone, some 222 thousand Russians crossed the border into Georgia. In any case, of the $4.3 billion that was transferred into the country from abroad (a fivefold increase on the year before), more than $2 billion of this was transferred by Russians to Georgia in 2022. Of this, $1.1 billion was transferred between September and December after the announcement of mobilisation in Russia. 

Meanwhile, the Kremlin appears to be not in the least bit concerned about the fact that Russian relokanty are settling in Georgia. And, the Georgian government periodically denies entry for Russian opposition journalists and social activists, thus demonstrating its political loyalty to the Kremlin and signalling that granting asylum to Russians is a purely pragmatic measure. 

As a result, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov has spoken in favour of restoring diplomatic relations and direct flight services between Moscow and Tbilisi, and has praised Georgia for its ‘courage’ in resisting the dictatorship of the West. Georgian Dream Party Chairman Irakli Kobakhidze responded by stressing that the government acts ‘in the interests of Georgians living in Russia’ and does not look at how its actions are judged by ‘North, West, South or East.’ At the same time, Georgian news agency OC Media has estimated that between February and July 2022, the chairman of the Georgian Dream coalition Irakli Kobakhidze criticised Russia just nine times, while he publicly criticised the West and Ukraine 57 and 26 times, respectively. At the rhetorical level, the statements of Georgian Dream’s leaders are becoming increasingly ‘anti-Western’, and the topic of ‘Georgian interests’ and ‘Georgian sovereignty’ is emerging more and more clearly. In early March, Kobakhidze explicitly referred to Ukraine's territorial losses as a consequence of Euromaidan.

The pro-Russian drift within Georgian politics raises suspicions and has led to attacks by the opposition. This is heightened because the main patron of the Georgian Dream party and Georgia's richest man Bedzina Ivanishvili made his fortune in Russia and, as his critics believe, managed to sell his business for a profit as part of a large-scale political deal with the Kremlin just before his entry into Georgian politics. The European Parliament adopted a resolution back in July 2022, calling on the European Commission to introduce sanctions against Ivanishvili for his ties to the Kremlin, and, in early 2023 a second resolution was adopted demanding sanctions against him for the fact that Georgian authorities continue to hold ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili in jail ‘as part of a personal vendetta’ by Ivanishvili. 

In turn, the opposition demands that the government scale back its economic ties to Moscow and introduce a visa regime with Russia, a measure which is supported by 66% of the population. According to opinion polling, 80% of Georgians see Russia as a major economic threat to the country, and 89% view it as a political threat. After the Russian invasion and massive migration influx, the percentage of those categorically opposed to a dialogue with Moscow rose from 11 to 30%, while the proportion of those in favour of establishing contacts between the two countries fell from 56 to 34%.

However, attitudes towards Russians vary greatly depending on the party affiliation of respondents. The statement that citizens of Russia should not be allowed into Georgia until Russia leaves the ‘occupied territories’ is supported by 54% of those who support the ‘United National Movement,’ the main opposition force in Georgia, but only by 20% of those who support the ‘Georgian Dream’ party. 40% of the ruling party’s supporters and only 16% of opposition supporters agree that Russians should be tolerated, because they are useful for the country’s economic development.

A surprising paradox of current Georgian politics is the fact that Russians in Georgia who are in opposition to Putin's regime are more likely to sympathise with the Georgian opposition, despite the fact that they advocate for a tougher stance towards Russians, whereas the current government’s policy is more tolerant.

Just as in Ukraine in 2014, Russia and the EU remain the two fundamental poles within Georgian public policy. The ruling coalition emphasises economic pragmatism, pushing Georgia towards expanding its trade and economic ties with Russia, while the opposition insists on the importance of a fundamental civilisational choice in favour of the West, and alludes to the corrupt nature of Georgia's trade relations with Russia.

Like several other countries within the post-Soviet space — Armenia, Moldova, Ukraine — Georgia is prone to the ‘regime cycle’ syndrome. The lack of an independent judiciary, and presence of weak political parties, and clan traditions in these countries mean that almost every coalition which gains control of the executive branch develops administrative and economic clientelism and seeks to consolidate its position. As a result, it takes steps to limit the political resources of the opposition and media independence. Moscow acts as an additional lever of its economic and political influence, while the opposition seeks support from politicians and structures in Europe. As a rule, the fractured nature of the local elites, not interested in the monopolisation of power, and the relatively high level of political pluralism lead to an attempted ‘usurpation’ which culminates in yet another ‘colour revolution’ — peaceful protest rallies that topple the previous ‘party in power’. These cycles are clearly visible in the ups and downs of the democracy index in these countries.

V-Dem Democracy Index in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova and Russia, 1991-2022

Tensions within Georgian politics and the relationship between the Georgian government and the EU are, therefore, likely to continue to rise over the next year and a half until the parliamentary elections in October 2024. This, however, assumes that there will not be another attempt by Georgian Dream to limit opposition, with the aim of guaranteeing future electoral victory. This would likely lead to the development of an even earlier crisis. This is what happened in Ukraine, where Yanukovich's indication that he would refuse to sign the association agreement with the EU but would take a loan from Putin was the catalyst for the Euromaidan.

The situation in Georgia is complicated by the fact that its main opposition force, the United National Movement, has also been partially discredited in the eyes of Georgian society. Its leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, has also been accused of reinforcing authoritarian tendencies within the country’s politics during his final years in power. According to recent surveys of Georgian public opinion, 72% of respondents would like to see a new political party in Georgia. The percentage of those who believe that no existing party represents their political interests stands at 42%. Only 22% of respondents are satisfied with the country’s existing political parties. This is another problem inherent within countries prone to this regime cycle syndrome — new ad hoc party coalitions must be created for almost every election. As a consequence, these parties are dependent on their leaders and are thus not sustainable.

Can Georgian Dream and Bidzina Ivanishvili gain an even stronger foothold in Georgian politics after 10 years of dominance, by exploiting the opposition's weaknesses and the advantages gained from sanctions that have been imposed against Russia? The Kocharian-Sarkisian clan in Armenia was in power for 20 years but was, nonetheless, still swept away by the 2018 revolution.