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Georgia vs. Its People

Georgia vs. Its People

The country’s ruling party is falling under Russian influence. Is Georgian society strong enough to confront its government?

Ghia Nodia

There is an argument currently circulating that while Russia may be failing in Ukraine, it is winning in Georgia. The evidence for such a claim looks strong: Even as Georgia was formally applying for EU membership, the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party’s course of action after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine constituted a reversal of the country’s traditional pro-Western course. Furthermore, the Georgian government is increasingly autocratic in its behavior, with its official rhetoric sounding like an echo of Russian propaganda.

The GD party is informally led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a secretive billionaire who got rich in Russia. After the Russian invasion began, the GD started promoting a ludicrous conspiracy theory that the United States, the EU, the Ukrainian government, and the Georgian opposition were plotting to drag Georgia into a war with Russia. Any GD critic within or without the country is now labeled a member of “the party of war.” This March, the GD tried to adopt a Russian-style “foreign agents” law, based on the assumption that by supporting its civil society and independent media, Western donors were trying to undermine Georgia’s sovereignty and peace. The message was clear: It is the West, not autocratic and neo-imperialist Russia, that is the enemy.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

But there is another side to the story. Since the very first days of the Russian invasion, regular Georgians have showed overwhelming support for Ukraine, and by all available means. Georgian volunteers constitute the largest contingent of foreign fighters for Ukraine, with forty-four of them having died so far. On March 7 and 8, large numbers of Georgians, mostly young people, took to the streets to protest the "foreign agents” law, which they referred to as “the Russian law.” The GD initially responded by violently dispersing the crowds. They’ve since backtracked and have rejected the draft legislation. Pictures showing a woman waving the EU flag while braving a police water cannon quickly became emblematic: there is hardly any other EU country where this flag produces comparable enthusiasm. And despite consistent government propaganda presenting the West as an enemy, the most recent public opinion poll carried out by the International Republican Institute showed that the traditionally high level of support for Georgia’s European and Euro-Atlantic integration has shot up even more, reaching 89 percent with regards to the EU integration and 80 percent for NATO integration.

Keeping this in mind, is Russia winning or losing in Georgia? There is no straightforward answer. Rather, Georgia is a battleground country. The Russia-Ukraine war has opened up a visible chasm between government and society that was not so previously apparent. While the Russian government has gained the support of the Georgian government, it has failed in its efforts to gain the support of Georgian society.

Against this backdrop, two follow-up questions must be asked: How should one define what Georgia truly stands for? And second, if Georgia’s government has strayed so far from the predominant public attitudes, why cannot Georgian society force it to take their desired path, or replace it?

The first of these questions is hardly abstract: European policymakers are also struggling with it. By the end of the year, Georgia expects the EU’s decision regarding its membership candidacy status. In June 2022, following the EU membership applications of Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia that they had filed in the wake of the Russian invasion, the EU granted all three countries a “European perspective,” that is, it recognized that they could become EU members once they had met all the requirements (before the war, no such option existed). However, Ukraine and Moldova were also granted formal candidate status, while Georgia was given more time to meet twelve additional recommendations. This was the EU’s way of saying that while Georgia was currently on the wrong track, the EU would still give it the opportunity to correct course.

Thus far, the GD has not exhibited any wish to address the EU recommendations in a substantive way, because that would mean changing its pro-Russia course. Many commentators (including myself) have presumed that there was zero possibility that the forthcoming EU decision would be positive. Nevertheless, over the last one to two months, we have seen signals from Brussels that Georgia may still get EU candidate country status. How can this be, if the preconditions are not going to be met, and if the government’s behavior is only getting worse? The only sensible explanation is that the EU wants to reward the Georgian people for their commitment to European ideals, irrespective of what their country’s government is doing. Viola von Cramon, an EU Parliament member with a long-term interest in Georgia, recently said this quite openly. To be sure, it may not happen; but if it does, it will be an extremely unusual decision based on the assumption that the current Georgian government cannot be considered the true representative of the Georgian people, and that the EU can speak to the Georgian public over its government’s head.

This would necessarily also imply that the EU and the West in general expect the Georgian people to change its government (which makes the latter’s current hostility to the West quite understandable). Will Georgian society accomplish this task in the parliamentary elections expected to be held in October 2024? This we do not know. The Georgian case shows yet again, that to be and to remain a successful liberal democracy, it is not sufficient to have only public support for such values and institutions. Society also needs to have the skills to properly organize itself for pursuing appropriate political goals. In democracies, this job is done by robust and stable political parties and civil associations. The structural weakness of such organizations in the country may be the principal reason why Georgia keeps failing to consolidate its political institutions.

Georgians may be excellent and inspiring when it comes to spontaneous protest, and sometimes such protests succeed in their given aim. But such achievements—like forcing the government to withdraw its “foreign agents” law—are one-off affairs; to go further than that, one needs organizations capable of pursuing long-term strategies. Currently, while opposition parties do exist in Georgia, they are dispersed, inconsistent, unsure of themselves, and not trusted by the same people who want the GD government gone.

What then are the chances for real change through elections in Georgia? The polls show that the sum total of support for different opposition parties comfortably exceeds that for the GD; however, even though the Georgian political system is now fully proportional, this overall support is not sufficient for victory. In addition, it’s guaranteed that the GD ruling party will use its habitual methods of vote-buying, voter intimidation, and occasionally direct fraud to try to remain in power.

Thus far, Georgian society is strong enough to enforce some limitations on the GD government’s behavior. For instance, if the latter still has not formally rejected European and Euro-Atlantic integration policies, this is most probably the result of pressure from below. This is better than nothing, but it is far from sufficient.

Ukraine’s victory in the war with Russia may help change the balance of forces within Georgia by demonstrating how unwise Ivanishvili's effectively pro-Russian stance has been. Concerningly, so far, however preposterous the government-promoted conspiracy theories might be, the GD has been fairly skillful in manipulating the fear of war (quite natural for a country that was itself the target of Russian aggression in 2008) and presenting itself as the only political force keeping Georgians out of trouble. Russia’s defeat in Ukraine would show how unwarranted Ivanishvili’s master narrative is. And while this is just one additional reason for Georgian democrats to cheer for Ukraine’s victory, it also shows yet again how important the outcome of the war is for the fate of democracy globally.

Ghia Nodia is a Georgian political scientist, professor of Ilia State University in Tbilisi, Georgia, and chairman of the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development, an independent think tank.

See also Francis Fukuyama's recent blog post on Georgia and Russia's growing influence, "Georgian Nightmare."

Image: Georgian protestors hold the European Union flag and signage while being blasted by a water cannon. (RFE/RL)

Eastern EuropeEuropeRussiaUkrainePolitical Philosophy