Georgia has been engulfed in protests for more than a month now. The protests first erupted as the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy was being held in the country, when Russian MP Sergei Gavrilov, who was chairing the meeting, took the speaker’s seat in parliament. A number of opposition MPs in Parliament did not allow Gavrilov to return to his seat after a break scheduled during the meeting, leading to heated arguments. Later that day, a protest was organized near the hotel where the meeting delegates were staying, followed by a rally outside Parliament in the evening. Within a few hours, clashes erupted between police and rally participants. According to official information, 160 protestors and 80 police officers were injured during these clashes, and 305 people were arrested. Soon after, one opposition MP was accused of planning a coup d’etat, temporarily stripped of his immunity and formally charged. A few other opposition leaders were questioned by police. The protests continue today.
At first, protestors had one demand: the resignation of the Speaker of Parliament. However, after the events that unfolded overnight on June 20-21, their demands increased to five, including: the resignations of the Speaker of Parliament and Minister of Internal Affairs, amendments to the Electoral Code that would abolish the majoritarian component, the release of those arrested during the protests, and the punishment of law enforcement officials who abused their power when dealing with the protests. Four of these demands have already been met. However, the Minister of Internal Affairs is not prepared to step down. Protestors have vowed to continue their rallies for as long as the latter refuses to resign.
This is the first time since the 2012 regime change that Tbilisi is experiencing protests of this scale, which saw the use of rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons, as well as physical clashes with the police. This was also the first event, where protesters had no trust in either the government or the opposition. Since June 21, the protests have primarily been held without the presence of any political leaders; in instances where politicians addressed the crowd, they were greeted with curses and had empty bottles thrown at them. These protests seem to be rooted in a much deeper issue.
“Organized by the United National Movement”
Georgia’s 2003 “Rose Revolution” culminated in the United National Movement (UNM) ascending to power. While the party is well known for the reforms it initiated in the wake of the Revolution, it also had its shortfalls. One part of the Georgian public view the years 2003-2012 as “Nine bloody years.” After the 2012 regime change when Georgian Dream took over the reigns of government, more than 200 prisoners were recognized as political prisoners and set free. Criminal charges were brought against President Saakashvili, former Minister of Interior Affairs Vano Merabishvili, former mayor of Tbilisi Gigi Ugulava, leading to their detention (in absentia in the case of Saakashvili). The opposition insists that these charges were fabricated.
However, the ruling party, which accused the former authorities of using violence, organizing political killings, limiting freedom of speech (one example of this being the closure of Imedi TV during the 2007 protests), and politicizing the judicial and legal systems, did not make any fundamental changes since coming to power. On the contrary; in the judicial sphere, for instance, they promoted those judges who they were previously criticizing. The new authorities had one main response to their critics - where were you before 2012?
Thus, the Georgian public was divided into two - the critics of the old regime and their supporters. The political field was also divided into two main segments: “United Opposition” where the main player remains UNM (even though a number of key officials left its ranks after the elections to establish the European Georgia party, UNM remains the country’s main opposition party), and “Georgian Dream.”
The protests held in Georgia thus far have been discredited by the ruling party’s claims that the UNM party, headed by former President Mikheil Saakashvili, is behind them. In this instance too, the ruling party is associating the protests with the opposition. While on the first day of the protests (June 20), a number of political leaders, including representatives from the UNM and European Georgia parties were near the Parliament and preparing to negotiate with the ruling party, the organizers of the protests insist they have no ties with any political party.
“UNM is as involved in this process as the ruling Georgian Dream party or the United Kingdom’s Labour party; in other words, it is not involved at all,” said Zaza Abashidze, one of the organizers. “We have created such a platform, where one representative from each political party has been able to address the public, provided he or she has shared the philosophy of the protests and their demands. Therefore, claims that the UNM is involved in their organization are completely inaccurate.” He also said that many of the organizers did not even know each other until June 20, adding that when their last remaining demand is fulfilled and Minister of Internal Affairs Giorgi Gakahria resigns, the protests will come to an end.
Changes to the Electoral Law
For a number of years now, there have been discussions in Georgia about the importance of changes to the electoral law. The country’s electoral system has been mixed, including majoritarian and proportional elements: 150 deputies are elected to Parliament, with 73 based on single member constituencies with majority rule and 77 based on proportional list. Almost always, those elected based on majority rule, have been representatives of the ruling party. In the 2016 parliamentary elections, for instance, representatives of Georgian Dream won in 71 of the designated 73 single member constituency seats, with one representative from “Industry will Save Georgia” and one independent winning the two other seats. The latter, Salome Zurabishvili, had close connections with Georgian Dream and was elected President with the party’s assistance two years later. In the proportional representation list, however, Georgian Dream only received 48.68 percent of the votes (44 seats).
According to the 2017 constitutional amendments, Georgia was to transition to a fully proportional electoral system. Both those in power and in opposition were in agreement regarding the flaws of the majoritarian system. The timeline of this transition, however, was subject to disagreement. The constitutional amendments realized by the ruling party dictated that the majoritarian system was to be abolished only after the 2020 parliamentary elections, whereas the opposition demanded that these elections be held on the basis of a proportional representation system only. The opposition was gathering signatures endorsing this demand nation-wide and by the time the protests erupted, they had secured more than 250 thousand signatures.
This change to the electoral law was the only demand put forth by the protestors that was not directly related to Gavrilov. According to Abashidze, the majoritarian component of the electoral system has facilitated one party in Georgia.
“In a country where everything is in the hands of one party, where no institution is subject to oversight, we witness events like this,” said Abashidze. “They brought Gavrilov, then they dispersed the protestors and now those who dispelled the protests and issued the orders are not being held responsible. This is the face of the majoritarian system. This is why proportional representation is the only medicine that will cure this illness.”
Other opposition leaders are also talking about the potential risks of no threshold elections. While they agree that the proportional representation system is a win, they have reservations about the absence of a minimum number of votes required to win seats in parliament. Such is the view of the Republican Party. “The Georgian Dream will try, through its satellite political parties, to regain those seats it is potentially set to lose due to the abolishment of the majoritarian system,” said Davit Berdzenishvili, a veteran member of the party.
However, Georgia’s newly created movements and parties have entirely different views. The Kirchi Party, for instance, is demanding no threshold elections not only in 2020, but also beyond. The party argues that if both the ruling party and the opposition agree that this model is “good” then why should it be applied to the 2020 elections only?
Ruling Power and Opposition Are Two Faces of the Past
Since the 2012 regime change, the political arena in Georgia remains polarized. On one end there is there is the Georgian Dream led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, and on the other end there is UNM headed by the country’s second president, Mikheil Saakashvili, who has been sentenced to prison in absentia for abusing his power. Saakashvili is currently in Ukraine and is preparing to take part in the snap parliamentary elections. He remains “the only and irreplaceable” leader of the opposition in Georgia. The Georgian public also remains polarized, forced to choose between one of these two forces and their supporters. Since 2012, UNM has occupied second place in all elections (presidential, parliamentary and local). However, in 2012 the Georgian public had turned its back on this political party, resulting in the first ever regime change via elections in the country’s history. The 2012 elections were won by Georgian Dream, which also included the Republican and Social Democratic parties. By the following elections in 2016, this alliance had fallen apart, pushing the Republicans and Social Democrats into opposition. In the same year, fissures also emerged within the UNM, with a number of key party members leaving to start the European Georgia party. Eventually, the Social Democrats and Republicans, which had formed an alliance with Georgian Dream, started to cooperate with the UNM, a party they had fought against for years. A good example of this was the by-elections in Mtatsminda earlier this year, where the UNM did not have its own candidate, announcing it will support European Georgia’s candidate. The latter’s candidate was Shalva Shavgulidze, a member of the Free Democrats, who was also known for his involvement in the Sandro Girgviliani case. According to official information, Girgviliani, a bank employee, was kidnapped and beaten by law enforcement officials in 2006. His body was found near the Okrokana Cemetery. According to the prosecutor’s office, President Saakashvili, the Minister of Internal Affairs, the Minister of Corrections and the latter’s brother were responsible for this crime.
The most interesting aspect was Shavgulidze’s pre-election campaign, which was based solely on judicial reform. He even took part in a televised debate with the acting judge on Kirkviliani’s case, Levan Murusidze, who is now a member of Georgia’s High Council of Justice and is considered a leading figure in the country’s judicial sphere. These by-elections also demonstrated that the political field in the country remains dominated by the UNM, European Georgia and Gerogian Dream parties.
It is worth noting, however, that two new forces emerged in the 2019 by-elections elections. One was Civil Movement established by former Tbilisi mayoral candidate Aleko Elisashvili; the other was independent candidate Grigol Gegelia, supported by a number of activists.
Aleko Elisashvili established his movement as an alternative a two-party political field. “Everyone is saying a third force is required. I have taken part in two elections and have not occupied third place. I will not be competing for third place,” said Elisashvili.
Elisashvili has been a member of the Tbilisi City Assembly (2013-2017) and came in second during the 2017 mayoral elections, winning more votes than the UNM. His party’s candidate, Levan Ioselyan, came in third in the 2019 by-elections. Civil Movement already has a few offices in various cities across Georgia and is actively preparing for the 2020 elections.
This was the first time that Gegelia, a historian, was taking part in elections. During the election campaign he was supported by a number of civil society activists, including leaders of student movements. Gegelya occupied the fifth position, due to, as he admits, a lack of resources alongside his inexperience in taking part in elections.
“I decided to participate in the elections because the citizens of Georgia have asked for a new direction in politics. In our team we have activists, academics, lawyers, writers and others. We have come together to propose alternative policies,” says Gegelia, and adds: “Both Georgian Dream and UNM are two faces of the past. They are like one another in their anti-democratic tendencies.”
Activist Irakli Kubradze also believes that Georgian citizens need alternatives in politics: “Georgian Dream is continuing UNM’s policies. Since 2012, we have renounced violence, political trials, limitations on freedom of speech. However nothing has changed in essence. The same judges, for example, who used to work for the previous authorities and were completely subject to them, hold even more important positions today.”
Kubradze adds that what is needed is new and meaningful political discourse, which goes beyond pointing fingers to propose a new vision for the country’s development, based on the economy’s key sectors.
As for harnessing the political potential of the protests currently ongoing in Tbilisi, organizers say they have not decided what their future steps will be. They insist they will continue their protests for as long as the Minister of Internal Affairs refuses to resign.
“We are often cited as a third potential force. However, we have not held discussions about participating in other political processes. We have agreed to talk when all our demands are met,” says Zaza Abashidze, who has been taking part in a month-long rally near the Georgian Parliament.