Mayoral Wins Spark Protests in a Polarizing Georgia

Mayoral Wins Spark Protests in a Polarizing Georgia

Divisions over the results and the return of a controversial ex-president could further fray Georgia’s ties with the West.

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

Wins in 19 out of 20 mayoral races in the October 30th runoff local elections in Georgia cemented the ruling Georgian Dream party’s sweep of the country’s major cities. The opposition immediately decried the election as rigged and announced a series of large-scale protests.

KEY INSIGHTS

– Most of the opposition will likely retain their parliamentary mandates and focus their efforts on the ongoing protests, court challenges and impeachment efforts
– With the end of ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili’s hunger strike, the opposition will likely refocus its attention on snap election demands in protest efforts in the near term
– Saakashvili’s apparent push to give the protests a revolutionary character will likely further divide the opposition
– Increased political divisions and polarization, perceived democratic backsliding and uncertainty will likely further erode ties with the West and shift the US’s focus away from democratic development and toward military cooperation

LOCAL ELECTIONS WITH NATIONAL RESONANCE

Although EU observers stated that the second round of local elections was competitive and generally well run, they also noted a major imbalance of resources in favor of the ruling party, the presence of alleged voter intimidation and an escalating atmosphere of negative rhetoric. Given the narrow margin of Georgian Dream’s wins, Transparency International stated that physical confrontations outside polling places and other violations may have swayed the election results.

According to an EU-brokered deal in April – which Georgian Dream later withdrew from in July – a win of less than 43% in these local elections for the ruling party was to have prompted snap parliamentary elections. These did not occur, as the deal had collapsed, but the local elections retained their national domestic significance. Opposition parties had boycotted parliament for seven months after contesting the results of the parliamentary elections the previous November, and multiple EU and US efforts to negotiate a deal for their return failed. All but two elected opposition MPs eventually returned to parliament.

The local elections were also marked by the return of a key political actor. The day before the first round of local elections occurred in early October, former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili illegally entered the country. He had been on a hunger strike and in failing health since his subsequent detention and imprisonment by authorities per his in-absentia conviction for abuse of power. He agreed to end his hunger strike upon his transfer to a military hospital, a step which Georgian authorities had proposed on November 19. Saakashvili, who founded the United National Movement (UNM) opposition bloc, is a polarizing figure who has long been a bugaboo for the ruling Georgian Dream party, which is backed by powerful oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Indeed, both the opposition and the ruling party held rallies in the run-up to the election supporting and decrying the ex-president, respectively. The opposition Lelo – For Georgia party announced that they would boycott parliament until Saakashvili was transferred to a non-prison clinic that could adequately treat his acute health issues and one MP who never returned to parliament after the previous crisis began a hunger strike in his name. Saakashvili himself had called for all opposition MPs to refuse to participate in parliament in protest of the election results, although he later reneged on this position on the grounds that politicians could more easily visit him in prison if they retained their mandates.

FRACTURING FACTIONS, FUTURE TACTICS

UNM members Nona Mamulashvili, Ana Tsitlidze and Levan Varshalomidze resigned three days after the elections. However, it seems much of the opposition has begun to change its tactics since last year’s parliamentary elections. In November 2020, not only did the opposition reject or vow to reject their mandates immediately following the runoffs, but they also boycotted the second round of elections entirely. Given the major wins-by-default that the election boycott brought to Georgian Dream and the fruitlessness of over a half year of negotiations with the ruling party, much of the opposition is likely disillusioned with these methods for gaining political leverage. Also at play are the upcoming constitutional amendments that will come before the parliament. UNM member Nika Oboladze stated that his party members would remain in parliament in order to participate in the amendment approval process, and only one Lelo-For Georgia MP has so far abandoned their mandate.

In 2020, the opposition also halted month-long protests due to COVID-19 restrictions. With restrictions eased somewhat since that time and plans for ongoing, “permanent” demonstrations throughout the country, it seems that the opposition is committed to embracing this model in the coming months. In combination with appeals against alleged election violations in Georgia’s district commissions and courts and pushes to impeach mayors in key cities, much of the opposition will likely quietly continue their work in parliament while relying on protest and judicial measures to pressure the government. Nevertheless, the focus of these protests and the merits of a parliamentary boycott will likely continue to divide the opposition at such a crucial time.

The fate of Saakashvili during his hunger strike had also come to dominate the opposition’s next steps, which were originally focused on an election-centered narrative. The November 6 demonstration, originally planned to take place in Tbilisi, was instead held outside the prison in Rustavi where Saakashvili was held. There, opposition leaders gave authorities a 24-hour ultimatum: if the ex-president was not transferred to a civilian hospital, a mass rally would be held in Tbilisi’s Freedom Square. The government had continued to refuse the transfer, and the promised Tbilisi demonstration was slated for November 8. Contrary to the opposition’s demands, Saakashvili was eventually transferred to a prison hospital two hours before the November 8 rally. With the hunger strike now over and the ex-president’s transfer to a military hospital, protests will likely return to election-related demands.

Amid this show of support, domestic observers say the ex-president is pushing for demonstrations to take on a revolutionary bent. Saakashvili has called for ongoing demonstrations to follow what he terms the “Serbian model,” citing Serbian protest group Otpor’s initial efforts against Serbia’s former president Slobodan Milosevic. He also stated that Georgian society was more prepared for fundamental change now than it had been prior to the Rose Revolution, a Saakashvili-led movement that ousted President Eduard Shevardnadze in 2003. It is unclear the extent to which the opposition will embrace this approach to demonstrations, but it will likely contribute to divisions among parties and even individual members.

BUILDING FRUSTRATION, FRAYING TIES

Along with the frustrations surrounding the abortive negotiations on the opposition’s return to parliament, this year has seen several other key flashpoints that have contributed to the erosion of relations with the West. NATO and the diplomatic missions of the EU and the US in Georgia condemned attacks against journalists at an anti-LGBTQIA+ march in July, at which police largely stood by without intervening. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili of Georgian Dream said at the time that his government would obey the “95% of [the Georgian] population” who were against the planned pride parade. The US Department of State (DOS) suggested that “the credibility of democracy in Georgia” was at stake if the instigators and perpetrators of that violence were not brought to justice. Further, a DOS spokesperson did not refute a journalist’s claim that there were talks of imposing sanctions on Georgia over the incident. A NATO representative lamented: “I have worked for many years to support Georgia’s reforms and its progress towards Euro-Atlantic integration. I found these events deeply disappointing and a setback for Georgia.”

Another more recent incident that drew Western censure was the replacement of two judges on the High Council of Justice. EU and US representatives publicly decried the appointments as rushed, non-transparent and non-competitive. The Council’s administrative committee dismissed this public censure from the West as meddling in Georgia’s internal affairs, although multiple judges later distanced themselves from the statement.

With regard to the current political crisis, European Parliament member Viola von Cramon stated that Georgia had never been further from EU membership and that the EU “cannot allow money to go to a country that is not ready to fulfill its obligations on democratic reforms.” Both the EU and the US have also expressed concerns about Saakashvili’s treatment during his hunger strike.

It is evident that Western concerns with Georgia’s governance are mounting. However, the US will likely continue to bolster its military support for Georgia. On his October 18 visit to Tbilisi, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced the Georgia Defense and Deterrence Enhancement Initiative, an extended military support initiative that builds upon the longstanding Georgia Defense Readiness Program. The US has long trained and equipped Georgian forces, who fought alongside US and NATO forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. Military financing and aid make up the vast majority of US foreign assistance to Georgia, with the Department of Defense as the country’s top US partner agency. Increasingly polarized internal dynamics and stymied efforts in the civic sphere may push the US to concentrate its efforts and support on military issues to an even greater degree.

New rifts within the opposition, perceived violations of democratic processes by the ruling party, and the uncertainty of the outcome of what the opposition terms “indefinite” protests will likely continue to strain ties between Georgia and the West and further shift US support toward the military sphere in the near term.

Any views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Internews.