The ongoing political crisis in Georgia has been ramped up a notch over the last few days. The polarization of Georgian society, which is reflected at the political level, has reached a new high after the parliamentary elections last October, but especially so since the arrest and imprisonment of opposition leader Nika Melia and the raid on his United National Movement (UNM) headquarters on February 23. In a gesture of defiance, Melia threw away his police tracking bracelet, which he had to wear due to the charges of inciting violence during protests in 2019, when the opposition accused the governing Georgian Dream party of being pro-Moscow and demonstrated against what they believe is Russian occupation.
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Following the charges being brought against Melia, Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia resigned in protest. This has led to a situation now being described by people in Georgia as “hate being in the air,” drawing protesters into the streets in support of the opposition. While this has been a gradual development over the past decade, penetrating deep into the social fabric of Georgia, there is a looming danger of escalation today.
Turbulent Road to Democracy
Since the Rose Revolution in 2003, Georgia has been on a road to real reform and European integration. In January 2004, Mikheil Saakashvili became president and initiated, among other things, significant and wide-ranging reforms in justice and policing. Real change was visible and also felt by the population. Saakashvili’s UNM stayed in power until 2012, when it was voted out and replaced by the populist billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition, which continues to run the country. Even though Ivanishvili withdrew from politics last month, he has a history of pulling the strings from the shadows — an impression reinforced by the recent appointment of Irakli Garibashvili, former defense minister and close ally of Ivanishvili, as Gakharia’s replacement.
Nevertheless, even today, Saakashvili exerts influence on the politics of the UNM, despite having left the country in 2013 and having only stepped down as party leader in 2019. Saakashvili currently leads the executive committee of Ukraine’s National Reform Council, and his recent inflammatory comments mentioning civil war are clearly unhelpful and serve to further division in Georgian society. As is the case in most political crises, there seems to be no option for neutrality within Georgia at the moment. Even a new election, which the UNM is calling for, would most likely result in nothing but another 50/50 split.
While the governing Georgian Dream coalition has certainly acted irrationally in case of Melia’s arrest, to a certain extent, the events have been provoked by the UNM to further deepen the divide. These events come alongside accusations of Georgian Dream being too pro-Russian. Ivanishvili, the former prime minister the country’s richest man, made his nearly $5-billion fortune in the Russian Federation — a feat clearly only possible with close ties to the Kremlin. Yet the current government follows the approach of European integration and has even, rather optimistically, set a goal to apply for EU membership in 2024. This apparent disconnect can be explained by Georgian Dream trying to remain the party of the economy by maintaining open trade with Russia while embracing deeper European integration.
On the other hand, although the pro-European agenda of the UNM is beyond doubt, by undermining certain European values during its time in power, the party has shown its willingness to use authoritarian methods of governance, including human rights violations such as the Gldani prison scandal, which strongly contributed to its electoral downfall in 2012. It has since remained in opposition.
Volatility and Opportunity
The South Caucasus is becoming increasingly volatile. In September 2020, the hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan erupted once again in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, leading to a six-week war between the two countries. In the Russian-brokered ceasefire agreement signed on November 9, Azerbaijan gained control over the territories captured during the fighting, and beyond. Armenia’s prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, who came to power via peaceful protests in 2018 — the so-called Velvet Revolution — has now had to face protests himself. On February 25, the Armenian army demanded his resignation, which he refused, calling it an attempted coup.
Political instability in Georgia and Armenia, the persisting unsolved issue of breakaway territories and continued Russian involvement in the region, on top of the current COVID-19 crisis, make the region uncomfortably unstable at present. The pandemic has hit Georgia especially hard. As a country reliant on foreign tourism, many thousands in the industry have lost their jobs. With proportionally little government aid compared to Western European countries and with Georgian society only recently beginning to come out of a lockdown, societal tensions are running high and patience is wearing thin.
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However, with woeful tidings comes an opportunity for the European Union’s regional policy in Georgia. On March 3, the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, will visit Georgia. Once again, this will be a delicate mission, as the main task must be to call on all parties to calm down, and the EU will need to take the lead in facilitating that process. While the recent attack on the opposition should be condemned, it is possible that this could be interpreted by supporters of Georgian Dream as Brussels backing the UNM. Such as scenario needs to be avoided at all costs in order to prevent further escalating the conflict.
The EU finds itself in a uniquely advantageous position in Georgian politics. Both the UNM and Georgian Dream are committed pro-European political parties and actively seek EU membership for Georgia. If the EU were to engage both sides bilaterally, it could calm political nerves and potentially lead to it mediating a dialogue. Georgia has long looked to Brussels as a democratic role model to fulfill its European aspirations. In offering to mediate, the EU could incentivize both sides to come to the table and demonstrate their political maturity.
Although EU foreign policy has often struggled to find a common approach supported by all member states — still the dominant players in the external relations of the bloc — Michel might just be the right person. As Belgium’s former prime minister, he has at least some experience in mediating internal political and societal polarization. And while Georgian politics is a far cry from the halls of Brussels, Michel can make use of the fact that both the UNM and Georgian Dream would bolster their pro-European credentials significantly if they were to heed Brussels’ advice in this matter.
Staying on Course
Ultimately, if this political crisis cannot be solved, authoritarianism will be the only winner in this situation. Georgia’s authoritarian neighbors — Russia, Azerbaijan and Turkey — have made it through the pandemic politically unscathed, while Azerbaijan’s recent victory in Nagorno-Karabakh has strengthened the Aliyev dynasty and left Armenia’s extremely vulnerable democracy in peril. If Georgia’s dwindling beacon of democracy, human rights and the rule of law were to falter, there may be little hope in salvaging its remarkable advancements the country made over the last 20 years.
If the EU truly values the Eastern Partnership and shares Georgia’s vision for eventual EU membership, more than warm gestures will be necessary on its part in this crisis. In order to save democracy in the Caucasus, the EU may have to show its mettle and get creative, for only it can provide the necessary incentives, be they political or economic, to inspire Georgia to stay on course.
In order to remind ourselves why events in this lesser-known region carry a wider significance, it is worth looking at its history. Almost to the day 100 years ago, the Red Army entered Tbilisi and Georgia lost its independence. Although the Soviet Union is long gone, there is a real danger that Georgia may lose its political independence if all parties involved do not find a way for a real dialogue.
Another conflict in the South Caucasus might just set the necessary precedent for another regional power play. We should not forget that the Russian army has been present on Georgian territory since the five-day war of 2008, with Moscow supporting Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s declaration of independence. The Kremlin has always been quick to seize an arising opportunity. It will surely be ready to reassert itself over Georgia and to restore fully its sphere of influence in the Caucasus.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.