Is there a crisis in Georgia?

Since mid-November, opposition protests have been taking place in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi. They were sparked by the Georgian parliament’s failure to amend the constitution, to approve a fully proportional electoral system for the 2020 elections. This was to be instead of 2024, a change which had already been approved by the same parliament, in 2017, as part of its constitutional reforms.

Bidzina Ivanishvili, the chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party, announced the initiative during the protests of June 2019. The offer was made after massive anti-Kremlin protests were sparked by the communist Russian MP, Sergei Gavrilov, who arbitrarily sat in the Georgian parliament’s speaker’s chair during an inter-parliamentary assembly on orthodoxy.

A group of GD MPs took a disapproving stance against this change to the constitution and the bill received 101 votes (out of 150), where 113 were needed. Despite the ruling party’s statements, saying that they regretted the result, the major opposition parties doubted that, believing that the ‘no’ vote was a kind of ‘Plan B’, masterminded by GD, which was not certain that the party could win decisively if fully proportional parliamentary elections were held next year.

Now, GD is offering to prepare for the upcoming October 2020 elections under the existing mixed system, but the opposition promises permanent protests.

Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) and its dependent allies have widely circulated an account that describes Georgia as being in a deep crisis. These narratives have been disseminated by numerous domestic media outlets, including TV stations that are openly loyal to the major opposition parties. The UNM and its allies give an account, which describes Ivanishvili’s capturing of the state and the October 2020 elections as illegitimate. The opposition is demanding a snap election, calling for the so-called German electoral model to be introduced, which works at the level of the electoral code, with a simple majority of votes. This offer has been rebuffed by the GD which referenced the relevant articles of the constitution which establish a parallel voting system.

However, if the offered changes are not accepted, the opposition promises to continue picketing/blocking parliament and other buildings, “creating hell for these authorities”. Interestingly, on December 3, the former deputy general prosecutor and ex-minister of justice in Saakashvili’s administration, Nika Gvaramia – who runs a pro-UNM TV station – wrote on Facebook that the people must overthrow the current usurper-government. His Facebook post was shared by Mikheil Saakashvili. However, the fact is that the number of protesters (up to 7,000), who gathered at the first rally, was reduced to 3,000 just a week later, and the UNM and its dependent allies are no longer backed by sufficient support from the population to achieve this goal.

Meanwhile, the ruling GD party and its supporters have remarked that the protests of mid-November were smaller and transformed into occasional small-scale rallies and some street skirmishes, between UNM and GD activists. This has led the GD to comment that the ongoing discord is a ‘storm in a teacup’, ignited by the destructive Saakashvili’s UNM party and its partners/lobbyists. In Georgia, it was recently revealed that the American company, Orion Strategies – whose president, Randy Scheunemann, is also the International Republican Institute’s (IRI) board of directors’ vice-chair – was contracted to provide lobbying for Saakashvili’s UNM. IRI Georgia recently said that “to ensure that there is no conflict of interest between his private-sector work and IRI’s work, Mr Scheunemann recused himself from all involvement with all IRI work in Georgia”.

Interestingly, in 2004-2012, Orion Strategies was official the lobbyist of Saakashvili’s government in the US, receiving tens of millions of Georgian taxpayers’ money. It is unclear whether Mr Scheunemann recused himself from all involvement with all IRI work in Georgia, during those years.

On November 30, a lengthy meeting between the ruling party and the opposition was held, on the initiative of foreign diplomats, who aimed to reach a consensus concerning amendments to the electoral system. The opposition says that the German model – a version of the fully proportional system that is linked to the personal election of majoritarian MPs – does not require the quorum of 113 votes (of 150 sitting MPs) needed for the constitutional amendments, since it can be enacted by changing the electoral code (with a simple majority of 76 votes).

However, the GD claims the opposite.

The opposition has registered a German model bill in parliament and is to send it to the OSCE /ODIHR for their opinion. The facilitators of the recent dialogue are hopeful about the next round of negotiations.

Furthermore, on December 8,  the ruling GD party and opposition held the second round of talks with the participation of foreign ambassadors to discuss electoral reform. Upon the initiative of foreign diplomats, the sides are ready to discuss the issues of implementing reforms in the majoritarian electoral system, particularly, the possibility of creating 10 multi-mandate constituencies, instead of the present 73 single-mandate constituencies: one of the components of the so-called German model developed by the opposition.

Georgian society is polarised. It has been seven years since the transition of power from ex-president Saakashvili to Ivanishvili yet these two figures still dominate the Georgian political field, without even the smallest indication that they can come to terms with each other. Up until now, other political players have not been able to compete as equals with these two leading forces.

Despite its domestic political challenges, Georgia is still widely considered a role model in the region and beyond, with the developments and achievements it has made on the European and Euro-Atlantic path. Some of its tangible achievements are: the Association Agreement with the EU, visa liberalisation, NATO-Georgia cooperation, and the Georgia package.

Georgia has made tremendous progress since 2012 with regards to strengthening its democratic institutions and raising human rights’ standards. However, it still faces challenges with regard to rapid economic growth, similar to other countries in the neighbourhood.

In spite of these complicated domestic and foreign challenges it seems that a large proportion of Georgian society does not really understand, or care about, the electoral models that are trumpeted, mostly in the media. If society is disappointed by the GD’s failed initiative it has known, for years, how to punish or boost any political player. It is through the ballot box.