The Georgian Crisis and its Lessons

Ghia Nodia

Op-ed No. 10/2021

The Georgian political crisis, that started after the October 2020 parliamentary elections with all the opposition parties that cleared the one percent threshold refusing to accept the results, is effectively pronounced over. The ruling Georgian Dream (GD) and a number of the opposition parties signed a compromise document that Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, drafted based on lengthy consultations carried out by himself or his representative, Ambassador Christian Danielsson. The United National Movement (UNM), the largest player on the opposition side, has not signed it yet but says it will once its leader, Nika Melia, is released from prison. All or almost all elected MPs will take their parliamentary seats. 


It is too early to say, which side won more politically. As compromises go, neither party is fully happy, but both can claim it gained something and did not cross its own “red lines”. Two issues were the hottest. The opposition only agreed to enter parliament if the government proposed at least some roadmap to early elections, as well as institutional guarantees of a fair electoral process. The GD generally accepted the idea of some institutional reforms but flatly denied that there was a need for early elections as it insisted the last ones were fully free and fair. The compromise solution was that in the event GD gets less than 43 percent of the vote in the municipal elections due this autumn there will be snap parliamentary elections in 2022 (instead of 2024).


The second was about releasing Nika Melia and Giorgi Rurua, two people whom the opposition considered political prisoners. The government refused to acknowledge any political motive behind their cases, though in the end agreed to release them. President Zurabishvili promised to pardon Rurua as soon as the opposition enters Parliament, but the specific procedure for releasing Melia (who awaits trial) that would be fully acceptable to everybody is still debated, though some solution is expected to be found soon. The agreement also provides for certain reforms in the area of electoral legislation and justice.


Even provided the issue of Melia’s release is resolved and the opposition takes its seats in Parliament, it would be too much to presume that Georgian politics are back to normal. Exceptional polarization, aversion to compromise solutions, as well as deep public distrust towards the institutions such as the courts and the electoral administration run too deep. The municipal elections are close enough, so as soon as all the remaining issues related to the past crisis are clarified, the parties will switch to the pre-election mode immediately. It is hard to predict whether the next election cycle (including pre- and post-election periods) will be orderly and calm. 


Did we learn something from this experience? If they were lessons learned, they are hard to formulate yet. For instance, does it pay to be so radical in one’s demands and ignore the other party’s perspective? A case may be made in both ways. 


The central role that the EU played in putting end to the crisis might have been its most striking feature. It demonstrated that the EU is an even more powerful actor in Georgia than we had thought before. Beyond any doubt, without Charles Michel’s personal intervention, the crisis would not be resolved. Before his visit on March 1st, the government narrative was that it had exhausted any possibility of dialogue with the “criminal” opposition and that, after all, there was really no crisis to talk about. After two tiny parties got convinced to enter Parliament, all democratic formalities were considered satisfied and the case was pronounced closed. 


On the other hand, the issue came very close to developing into a crisis in relations between Georgia and the EU. When, even after Michel’s visit, the positions of the parties remained intractable, influential European politicians mentioned a possibility of the EU using sanctions or, in milder language, using the mechanisms of conditionality with regard to Georgia. Natalie Sabanadze, Georgia’s very competent ambassador to the EU, resigned, obviously disappointed about her government’s behaviour; later she said to Le Monde that it was not sufficient for Georgia’s leaders to say they were pro-European, they had to act accordingly as well. 


In the end, a crisis in EU–Georgia relations was prevented, but the episode revealed a wide mental gap between European politicians of different political persuasions on the one hand and both parties to the Georgian conflict on the other. The Europeans could not comprehend why the Georgian opposition immediately chose a nuclear option of boycotting parliament, and openly criticized them for that. Yes, the elections were far from perfect and the opposition had good reasons to cry foul; but it could not present a convincing case that the scope of violations was broad enough to determine the final result. It was also hard to understand what exactly the opposition hoped to achieve: with Georgians not showing any appetite for street protests, how could they pressure the government into calling fresh elections? On the other hand, the Georgian opposition and a large part of the public considered westerners naïve when they urged them to “work through the institutions”: cannot they see that those institutions (like the courts and the electoral administration) are captured by Bidzina Ivanishvili, the country’s effective ruler? 


Arguably, the EU found an even broader gap in understanding when dealing with the GD government. It was the latter’s decision to arrest the leader of the UNM, Nika Melia, that led to a breakthrough. The European (and generally Western) reaction was that a country with at least a promise of a democratic future was taking a turn towards a more blatant Eurasian-style authoritarianism. Europe had to intervene before it was too late. We know the rest of the story: Charles Michel’s unexpected proposal to get directly involved in the mediation process changed the situation dramatically. This might have been the greatest paradox: the government helped the opposition out of its quandary by its own ill-judged decision to arrest one of its leaders. 


So, on the balance, was this a good thing or a bad thing? Georgia showed itself a place where the soft power of the EU can still make a considerable difference. Even though for months, the situation looked hopeless, eventually the government understood that if EU-Georgia relations suffered as a result, it would be held responsible for it, and it could not afford this. One cannot say that Georgia made a step towards democracy, but a development away from democracy was prevented, and this is good.  


On the other hand, we also saw that Georgian politicians cannot talk to each other unless a high-level western diplomat is in the room. This has been so for a while: the previous agreement last March, related to electoral legislation, was also achieved exclusively due to the mediation carried out by western diplomats. If the government makes concessions, this is not because it listens to its own public, but because it gives in to the western pressure. This is not a positive sign: the Georgian political elite needs greater political maturity and a sense of responsibility. It is good that Georgian political leaders still listen to “adults in the room”, represented, at different times, by Europeans or Americans, instead of following advice or examples provided by their authoritarian neighbours; but it would be even better if they learn to resolve their problems on their own.


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