Democratic Hope Fades in the Republic of Georgia
The unraveling of democracy in the Republic of Georgia accelerated in 2021 – a descent that began more than a decade ago. Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia resigned in February to protest a spurious court decision permitting the arrest of his political opponent Nika Melia, leader of the United National Movement Party (UNM), for failure to pay an increased bail fee on a two-year old charge. Gakharia believed that detaining Melia would pose “a risk to the health and lives of [Georgian] citizens” and lead to further “political escalation.” The former prime minister was prescient. Melia and 20 others were apprehended in a violent assault on UNM headquarters by Georgian police that was condemned by the United States and several US allies.
Melia was first arrested in 2019 for “organizing mass violence” – charges that he denies which carry a nine-year sentence. The alleged “mass violence” was organized during protests which erupted after the Georgian government allowed a visiting Russian MP to occupy the Georgian parliamentary speaker’s seat. Outraged over this affront, as well as over Moscow’s continued interference in Georgia’s political processes, thousands of Georgians stormed the parliament.
Democracy in Georgia, a former Soviet Republic whose Rose Revolution launched the “color revolutions” of the early 2000s, began auspiciously. While Georgia’s government has improved public administration, progress in rule of law and the establishment of robust governmental institutions has lagged. Reforms began to stall during the administration of former President Mikheil Saakashvili (2004-2013). To suppress political opposition, he and his inner circle amassed power in the executive at the expense of parliamentary and judiciary authority causing profound and enduring damage to Georgia’s fledgling system of checks and balances. In 2012, leaked videos revealing Georgian inmates being tortured by prison guards provoked national indignation leading to Saakashvili’s UNM Party’s parliamentary electoral defeat to the Georgian Dream Party. Georgian Dream replaced corrupt UNM oligarchs with their own unsavory cronies, squandering another opportunity for the country to get democracy right.
Russia has aggressively meddled in Georgia’s internal affairs since its independence. The situation escalated in 2008 with Russia’s military occupation of the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in contravention of international law, and Russia remains a major impediment to genuine political reform in Georgia. Former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili (2012-2013) made his fortune in Russia, and it is believed that he still runs politics behind the scenes. Ivanishvili weakened the independence of the judiciary, eroded press freedoms and routinely persecuted political opponents.
This perpetuated a corrosive pattern (that began under Saakashvili) of concentrating power in a single political group (UNM or Georgian Dream) and using it to control public institutions, the media and industry. The ruling party’s limitless access to public resources prevents political competition disrupting the formation of a pluralist governance structure where international commerce and strategic cooperation with the West could thrive.
Civil society groups, when formed, come under scrutiny and often fall victim to government-sanctioned disinformation campaigns. Georgian Dream, led by current Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, prioritizes suppressing the opposition UNM and normalizing relations with Russia. UNM suppresses Georgian Dream while emphasizing Georgian sovereignty. Interestingly, both parties aspire to Georgian membership in NATO and the European Union (EU). However, Tbilisi’s pivot away from good governance will delay its western aspirations indefinitely.
Georgia’s inability to rein in corruption, adopt rule of law norms and limit Russian influence in its political affairs threatens to upend the country’s relationship with the West. The recent cancellation of the Anaklia Project, the construction of a port on the Black Sea, is the most recent source of tensions. Promoted by former Secretary of State Pompeo, the Project was substantially funded by America’s Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. It would have facilitated Georgian trade with Western economic partners, and the venture had positive commercial and strategic implications for Georgia and the West. However, Putin and Xi assertively opposed the construction of what would have been the first deep water port in the region, and an unfortunate brew of Georgian corruption and Russian obstruction was blamed for the Project’s demise.
Good governance is difficult but well worth the effort. Classical, liberal democracies make better trading and strategic partners. Because of the clear relationship between free markets and good governance, ALEC adopted model policy to establish educational forums for ALEC lawmaker members and their overseas counterparts in young democracies. These exchanges would support efforts at establishing and strengthening the institutions that make effective government possible. The model policy can be accessed here.
With the rise of geopolitical competition with Russia, the West has a strategic incentive to integrate Georgia into the West’s sphere of influence. Regrettably, Georgia’s persistent problems with democratic rule stand in the way of enhancing Tbilisi’s strategic and economic cooperation with the West prompting Washington to press Georgia to follow democratic norms and rule of law. Realizing the promise of the heady days of the Rose Revolution could bring peace, prosperity and stability to the Republic of Georgia – but only if the nation can institute appropriate political reforms and limit Russian involvement in Georgian internal affairs.