oDR: Opinion

Georgia is suddenly making international headlines. But its crisis isn't new

The reality is that the country’s elite, currently squabbling over power, is completely out of touch with their citizens

Sopiko Japaridze
4 March 2021, 12.00am
Rally outside Georgian parliament on 25 February
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(c) David Mdzinarishvili/TASS/Alamy Live News. All rights reserved

“I don’t want to reveal too much, but frankly, they don’t seem to understand a lot.” This, said by opposition member Aleko Elisashvili, was a key phrase for Georgia this past week. The country has shot back into the headlines, with The New York Times (“Arrest of Opposition Leader in Georgia Raises Fear of Growing Instability”) and The Washington Post (“Nika Melia’s Arrest Means Democracy Is Under Threat”) both beating the ‘democracy in danger’ drum.

Elisashvili made the remark in reference to the European Council delegation, which brokered a meeting between the opposition and the Georgian government on Monday night. The meeting came after several months of crisis, in which opposition leader Nika Melia was arrested at his party’s headquarters, the prime minister, Giorgi Gakharia, resigned, and the opposition began a boycott of parliament and demanded fresh elections.

Indeed, the fact that the Georgian opposition and the government met at all was down to the Europeans. Yet while the second part of Elisashvili’s phrase (“Why does the opposition refuse to enter parliament?”) is the key to understanding the immediate crisis, there’s another story at play here – of the disconnect between the way media portrays events, and what really interests the people of Georgia.

The current crisis can be distilled as follows – and apologies, there’s a back story. The United National Movement (UNM), the party of Mikheil Saakashvili and the former government, has been trying – along with other opposition groups – to mobilise people against the current government, led by the Georgian Dream party.

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Anti-Russian protest in Tbilisi, June 2019 | (c) Cornelius_brandt / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

The zenith came in June 2019, when the opposition seized on the optics of a Russian MP seated in the chair of the parliamentary speaker during a routine meeting of the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy held in Georgia. Despite the quotidian nature of this meeting, the visual of a “Russian politician presiding over Georgia” provoked a huge protest turnout against the Georgian Dream party, backed by oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, and Russia (which the opposition often claims are one and the same).

In response, the Georgian police, who have been comparatively less repressive than the previous government under Mikheil Saakashvili, opened fire with rubber bullets against protesters, injuring hundreds. Allegedly, a detachment of protesters attempted to break into parliament, while the opposition had let in protesters into the parliament during the day. Throughout the day and night that followed, Nika Melia, now the head of UNM, told the public that it was their right to be in parliament, rather than on the streets. He was arrested for inciting violence after the protest, and then released on $10,000 bail. At the time, Melia confidently stated that “the government was afraid [to detain me]” and “it is likely the public mood, our foreign partners, and possible risks that made [Bidzina] Ivanishvili step back.”

The opposition then successfully used popular anti-Russian moods to secure its political demands – parliamentary speaker Irakli Kobakhidze resigned, and proportional representation was introduced – which had very little to do with the purported reasons for the protest.

Prior to the pandemic, the Georgian Dream government looked much weaker, but it has been able to at least neutralise popular antagonism, if not win over Georgians

Fast-forward to 2020, and Georgia not only faces COVID-19, but a parliamentary election year. Prior to the pandemic, the Georgian Dream government looked much weaker, but it has been able to at least neutralise popular antagonism, if not win over Georgians. Thus, the elections did not go the way the opposition expected, with Georgian Dream winning 48% of the vote.

The Georgian opposition could not accept the loss, and boycotted the second round, claiming that the results had been falsified. Despite protesting and boycotting parliament, Georgia’s Western partners did not invalidate the elections. Most everyone, including the OSCE, agreed that the elections were flawed, but legitimate.

Nevertheless, the opposition continued to escalate the situation. In November 2020, Nika Melia publicly removed his house arrest monitor. When the courts told him he had to pay bail, he refused. Then the head of UNM resigned, and Nika Melia won elections to become party chairperson. The situation was thus ripe for all the trigger words about ‘democracy in danger’, which interests Western media. Melia is now not only a MP and self-styled political prisoner, but he is the head of the opposition who is being persecuted.

This particular moment ended when Georgia’s new prime minister announced his intention of carrying out Melia’s arrest – rather than leaving it as a slap on the wrist as before. The former prime minister, Giorgi Gakharia, resigned over this issue, as he thought arresting Melia would be too divisive and polarising. On 23 February, the de facto opposition leader was arrested in the UNM headquarters – and the press devoured the optics. Surprisingly, these heavy-handed tactics did work for a while on a section of the international community, NGOs and definitely on the media, but it failed to move the people of Georgia. While Georgian media and Twitter users have attempted to paint this as a huge political crisis, there appears to have been little support on the ground.

Melia’s arrest came at an opportune time for the opposition – the week of the 100th anniversary of the Red Army marching into Georgia. On the day of Melia’s arrest, the opposition Shame Movement held a protest – this time with English-language hashtags, placards and event invitations on Facebook (all their other events are in Georgian) titled “Never Back to the USSR.” The opposition tried to deploy this anniversary, an anti-Soviet memorial day, to its political benefit, with politicians, commentators and activists drawing a parallel between the arrest of Nika Melia and the Red Army invading Georgia.

But it didn’t go far. While the opposition has been trying to make a popular movement around anti-Soviet/anti-Russian slogans,
this has not resulted in mass participation at the opposition’s protest camps in the capital, Tbilisi. Instead, people went to another city, Kutaisi, to protest the construction of a hydroelectric dam that could endanger the whole region’s ecosystem.

Thousands showed up to this protest, and organisers insisted that no politician nor political parties should address the crowd – it was meant to be a popular protest to save homes, the environment and come out against the impunity of business and its supporters in the state. (In recent months, people have been sleeping outside – in winter – to protest against the dam.) The symbolism of protest mobilisation in this regional city, which requires more resources to mobilise given it’s a three-hour drive from Tbilisi, showed brilliantly how marginalised both Georgia’s ruling party and the opposition are in relation to the country’s people.

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Protest against Namakhvani hydropower project in Kutaisi, 28 February 2020 | Source: EMC

Georgia’s opposition media devoted much less air to this protest than any of the protests outside the main government building in Tbilisi, and appeared to be scrambling trying to find someone who knew anything about hydroelectric power in Georgia. Ironically, the main TV station linked to UNM brought on ex-president Saakashvili to comment right after the Kutaisi protest - he boasted about dismantling dams and building up tourism while he was president, despite the fact he revived mega-dam projects during his rule (a point later picked up by pro-government channels).

Meanwhile, Georgian Dream may contain the political crisis generated by the opposition, but if people get more organised and start expanding their social and economic demands, they most likely will not survive. Indeed, a few other recent headlines show us the real crisis in Georgia.

The week prior to Melia’s arrest, the Georgian government opened a portal for people interested in seasonal work in Germany: 53,274 people registered on the first day. A week before that, a 14-year-old girl living with her grandfather – her mother was in Turkey for seasonal work – took her own life after she was raped and then humiliated. There is only one social worker for the entire town, Kobuleti, where she lived (the year before, the Georgian government illegally fired dozens of activist social workers). At the start of February, delivery drivers in Tbilisi went on strike for decent pay and humane conditions after they shouldered the lion’s share of the work – constantly ferrying food, medicine and other goods – during the pandemic lockdown.

The majority of Georgians living in poverty, instability and broken homes – often due to migration – are not committed to civil and political rights as some abstract universal good

Shortly after Nika Melia removed his bracelet in November last year, a gambling addict, Levan Zurabashvili, took hostages at a payday lender in Tbilisi, demanding cheaper medicine, lower interest rates and a ban on gambling. No one was hurt in the process, and the man – whose message against the crippling effect of loans resonated with many in Georgia – now faces between nine and 14 years in prison.

The majority of Georgians living in poverty, instability and broken homes – often due to migration – are not committed to civil and political rights as some abstract universal good. Combined with the fact that Georgian civil society’s interpretation of these rights is far more liberal than other Western countries, society does not see these recent opposition arrests as a crisis: they have already been in crisis for a long time.

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