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Welcome back. Georgia, a territorially, ethnically and politically divided state in the south Caucasus, stepped back this month from the edge of a dangerous confrontation between the authorities and street protesters.
The west’s instinct is to lay the blame for Georgia’s troubles at the door of a government viewed as drifting from democracy and friendly to Moscow — but I suspect a fuller explanation is needed. You can find me at [email protected]
Tensions ran high in Tbilisi in early March. The ruling Georgian Dream party was trying to push through parliament a “foreign agents” bill that looked like a weapon to crack down on independent media and non-governmental civic groups. Faced with thousands of demonstrators on the capital’s streets, the government withdrew the bill, which resembled a repressive Russian law passed under Vladimir Putin.
The western interpretation of these events was summed up in EU and US official statements issued just before the Georgian government backed down. Here’s what the EU delegation in Tbilisi said:
The law is incompatible with EU values and standards . . . It goes against Georgia’s stated objective of joining the EU, as supported by a large majority of Georgian citizens.
The US embassy in Tbilisi echoed this line:
Parliament’s advancement of these Kremlin-inspired laws is incompatible with the people of Georgia’s clear desire for European integration and its democratic development.
As far as they went, these statements were perfectly sensible. But they didn’t capture everything that is going on in Georgia. To fill out the picture, we need to take a closer look at Georgia’s politics, national minority problems and history under Soviet rule and in the post-communist era.
Georgia’s strongman: dream or nightmare?
For the past decade, Georgia has been under the de facto rule of Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire oligarch and founder of Georgian Dream. An authoritative summary of his career can be found in this essay by Régis Genté for the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank.
As Genté explains, Ivanishvili is an ambiguous figure, neither wholeheartedly pro-Russian nor incorrigibly anti-western. A year ago, Georgia’s government condemned Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. It also applied last year for EU membership — but, unlike Moldova and Ukraine, was told to wait until it reversed its democratic backsliding.
Still, it is significant that Ivanishvili has almost never come under criticism from the state-controlled Russian media. He made his fortune in the chaotic, corrupt Russian capitalism of the 1990s. Under his influence, Georgia has avoided joining western governments in imposing economic sanctions on Russia for its attack on Ukraine.
He seems flexible enough to simultaneously be: an oligarch who is close to the Kremlin; an independent actor who pursues his own financial and other interests; a politician who believes he cannot protect his status, and perhaps even his own life, if he breaks the rules set by the Kremlin; and a leader with a cultural affinity for Russia who is, nonetheless, open to working with the west . . . He has kept the door open to the west in case Russia loses its war in Ukraine.
Georgian democracy has undeniably gone backwards under Ivanishvili, however. He controls the ruling party, security services, judiciary and much of the economy. All of which raises the question: how mature is democracy in Georgia?
Vendetta: Georgia’s unwritten political tradition
Since breaking free from the Soviet Union in 1991, Georgia has repeatedly tried and failed to set up a stable, peaceful multi-party democracy. The Rose Revolution of 2003 and Georgian Dream’s electoral victory of 2012 each looked, to begin with, like a breakthrough moment.
Unfortunately, as Stephen Jones and Natalie Sabanadze wrote this month on eurasia.net, one of the best sites for analysis of Georgian politics:
The new regimes quickly reverted to the Georgian norm — a single dominant party using the resources of the state, co-opted businesses and the judiciary to control its citizens.
This was true not only for Ivanishvili but for Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s president from 2004 to 2013, who was once hailed by western leaders as a model democrat and economic reformer. As the FT wrote in an editorial in 2014, Saakashvili did indeed introduce some valuable reforms in Georgia, but the longer he stayed in power the more he tarnished his record on democracy and the rule of law.
Not that this in any way excuses Ivanishvili’s government for throwing Saakashvili into prison, where his health appears to be in serious decline.
But each leader’s career underlines the points made by Kornely Kakachia and Shota Kakabadze in this trenchant piece for the Georgian Institute of Politics:
Georgia’s political history is replete with examples of powerful officials who end up in prison or otherwise repressed after losing power . ..
Since regaining independence, each new government that came to power on promises of consolidating democracy has ended with a slide towards authoritarianism . ..
The precedent of the past 30 years has been that the loss of power and moving into opposition subjects (former) ruling parties to the threat of falling victim to a political vendetta.
Abkhazia and South Ossetia
The catastrophic event of Georgia’s post-communist era was a short war in 2008, when Putin set a trap for Saakashvili and punished him by seizing control of the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia’s dismemberment of Georgia set a precedent for what is happening now in Ukraine.
However, Abkhazia and South Ossetia were restive regions, resistant to central control from Tbilisi, long before Putin’s neo-imperialism took shape. Under communist rule, each territory had the status of an autonomous republic within the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic — and each had reason to be dissatisfied.
In his 1989 book The Making of the Georgian Nation, the historian Ronald Grigor Suny wrote that Georgians occupied a privileged place in their multi-ethnic republic. They took “the leading positions in the state and the largest subsidies for cultural projects, while Armenians, Abkhazians, Ossetians, Adzharians, Kurds, Jews and others were at a considerable disadvantage in the competition for the budgetary pie”.
Georgians had undoubtedly fought hard for their privileges. A defining moment of the Soviet era arrived in 1978, when Moscow tried to elevate the Russian language to equal status with Georgian in the republic’s constitution. Mass protests erupted, rather like earlier this month, in Tbilisi.
Remarkably, the Soviet authorities backed down. But the episode paved the way for a militant form of Georgian nationalism which, in the late Soviet era, caused elites and many ordinary citizens in Abkhazia and South Ossetia to fear for their political and cultural rights in an independent Georgian state.
These tensions turned violent in the early 1990s after the rise to power of Zviad Gamsakhurdia, a former nationalist dissident and Georgia’s first post-communist president. Russia exploited the tensions to gain influence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Lessons for Georgia’s future
Thirty years on, there are important lessons to be drawn from this history. First, the unsettled questions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia kept alive Georgian nationalism in a form that disrupted the young state’s path towards democracy and the rule of law.
Second, no matter how strong the pro-western inclinations of Georgian society, any prospect of joining the EU or Nato will require much greater evidence of mutual tolerance and respect for the law among political actors.
Lastly, all these shortcomings have given Russia not only a foothold in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but the opportunity to keep meddling in Georgian public life as a whole.
Georgia deserves a better future, but the road ahead will not be smooth.
Tony’s picks of the week
The decision of Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore full diplomatic ties caught many in the Middle East by surprise, but each side is cautious about what benefits might come from the breakthrough, the FT’s Andrew England, Samer Al-Atrush and Najmeh Bozorgmehr write in a news analysis
Central and eastern European countries are in the vanguard of developing the EU’s relations with Taiwan, Matej Šimalčík explains in an article for the Central European Institute of Asian Studies
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