The country of Georgia once distinguished itself as a poster child of successful democratization and modernization. Its reform efforts, its modern approach to governance, and its eager participation in international collective peace and security efforts made it a case study in how things could go very right after a decade of stagnation, strife, and mismanagement in the 1990s. Despite destabilizing Russian aggression and an ongoing illegal occupation of 20 percent of its territory, the Georgian people have insisted that their country stay on a free and democratic path that it has decisively chosen.
Today, however, besides the Russian occupation, which remains a threat, Georgians are facing a different kind of creeping existential crisis: Their state has been captured in what amounts to a soft coup orchestrated by the billionaire and former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, a man who has largely made his fortune in Russia. State capture in Georgia has progressed over the past seven years in accordance with a distinctly Putinesque playbook. Important judiciary reforms have been stalled and the judiciary itself has been brought to heel through Ivanishvili’s party packing the courts with cronies. Free media and political opponents have been aggressively hounded by the government. Businesses and investors have been bullied and threatened. And state propaganda efforts—government-operated media outlets and troll factories, and so-called GONGOs (Governmental NGOs)—have all been streamlined into a viciously effective attack machine against political opponents and general pro-Western sentiment among the population.
Ivanishvili founded the Georgian Dream party in April 2012 and won the subsequent elections, becoming Prime Minister in October of the same year. He resigned his post a year later, claiming to retire to the private sector, but still continued running the country from behind the scenes. Currently, Ivanishvili does not hold any governmental position that would make him in any way accountable to Georgian citizens. The last few years of Georgian Dream rule, during which Ivanishvili has become the ultimate arbiter and decision-maker in the country, informally ruling as his party’s chairman (like some throwback to communist times), have been marked by a radical polarization of society, an increase in violence against protestors, political coercion and manipulation, increased corruption, eroded trust in public institutions, and a stagnating economy.
An unexpected blow to the regime landed in June. During a state visit, a Georgian Dream parliamentarian offered to have a visiting Russian Duma member, Sergei Gavrilov, sit in the official seat of the Chairman of Parliament. Pandemonium ensued in the chamber. The symbolism of the moment—a craven politician kowtowing to a member of the government of a country that currently occupies Georgian territory—crystallized the frustrations of many throughout Georgian society, and a youthful protest movement soon burst onto the streets.
The government reacted brutally against the protesters, shooting rubber bullets at point-blank into the crowd, blinding two and injuring more than 200. In the wake of the initial crackdown, Ivanishvili, as the head of Georgian Dream, chose to elevate Giorgi Gakharia, the Interior Minister in charge in June and a man who had Russian citizenship through 2013, to the office of Prime Minister. As a sop to demonstrators, he also promised electoral reforms that the opposition had been demanding, moving the country to a more proportional representation-based system.
For a while this autumn, it looked like a final, peaceful, democratic reckoning would come in the upcoming parliamentary elections, slated for October 2020. Then, on November 14 of last year, in a move that genuinely shocked most observers, including Georgia’s international partners, Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream Party sabotaged the reforms by simulating the defection of enough of its own members to undermine a final vote on the proposal.
The protesters viewed this transparent ploy as an ultimate act of betrayal. People who had been beaten bloody in the summer’s demonstrations once again poured into the streets of Tbilisi. Various forces among the political opposition that are often at odds with each other stood united. True to autocratic form, Ivanishvili’s governing party once again unleashed violence against the protestors, jailing activists, politicians, and their supporters.
With the arrival of the new year and colder weather, public demonstrations have died down, at least for the moment. The Parliament building in the center of downtown Tbilisi, the site of most of the protests, has had permanent barricades erected in front of it. But unhappiness still runs high. Polling results released by the International Republican Institute in November and National Democratic Institute polls released in early January of this year showed deep discontent among Georgian voters with the status quo, and with many Georgian Dream politicians in particular.
Ivanishvili had dismissed the poll results out of hand, claiming that opposition parties had colluded with the pollsters to produce false negative numbers for his side. Such rhetoric is toxic for public trust in democracy in any country, and especially so in a country that has experienced such institutionalized backsliding in recent years. Demonizing opponents in this way, and thereby justifying backtracking on necessary electoral reforms, can only lead to political outcomes—instability, more violence—that would make Vladimir Putin very happy.
Georgia’s good friends in Congress—both in the House and in the Senate—have noticed what is going on and have spoken out forcefully against Georgian Dream’s recent behavior. But more can be done. At the heart of the problem is the fact that Ivanishvili and his party have consolidated power through state capture. Imposing vigorous scrutiny of the financial operations of Ivanishvili and his allies would spread a powerful message throughout the corridors of power in Tbilisi.
The rise of autocracy is an unhappy global trend, and it is especially sad for us to see that Georgia is suffering from it as well, turning our country into a weak state and one of the less-resilient soft spots in Russia’s hybrid war against the democratic world. Engagement by the United States, however, has had a positive and sobering effect wherever it has been tried. The Georgian people have shown that they are willing to fight back, and both the United States and the West remain wildly popular among voters. Direct and targeted engagement would limit the space for Georgian Dream’s manipulation of state institutions and the electoral process. It would encourage pro-Western political actors to continue the struggle, and it would ultimately open up the necessary space for a genuine democratic political dialogue in a country that has been badly polarized by malign politicians.
Georgia is not lost; far from it. But it needs help from its friends at this critical juncture. Engaging now in a meaningful way, fully in the spirit that has guided the U.S.-Georgian strategic partnership through the years, would help turn the tide.
[Since publication, allegations have emerged that one of the authors of this piece, Batu Kutelia, is a paid lobbyist for the opposition in Georgia. He has denied this claim, and the lobbying firm in question has said that his name was “erroneously listed” on FARA documentation. More here.]