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Georgian democracy continues to stumble after the parliamentary settlement

April 26, 2021, 2:47 p.m.

It took six months, but several Georgian opposition parties reluctantly signed a European Union-brokered treaty that ended their protests against the ruling Georgian Dream Party. The deal comes after a protracted dispute over the opposition's allegations that Georgian Dream rigged the parliamentary elections last October and returned the country to authoritarianism. However, the two largest opposition parties, the United National Movement (UNM) and European Georgia, refused to accept the agreement, which made an end to the political impasse uncertain.

On Tuesday, sections of the opposition will re-enter parliament for the first time since the elections. This is supposed to free the main opposition leaders and make the parliamentary elections proportionally represented among other proposed reforms. Opposition groups, civil society experts and activists hope this document will lay the groundwork for a coalition-style government that will protect the country from a party or individual that is abusing power and undermining democracy – a concern that has afflicted the small nation since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

They also say the existing majority-style government system has made it impossible for them to wield power in parliament and blame the Russian-made billionaire and, in short, Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili since officially running a shadow government behind the scenes in 2013 after a stepped Year back in office. Any party running on a pro-Russian platform in Georgia is dead upon arrival – especially since Russia invaded the country in 2008 and illegally occupied 20 percent of its territory – but there have been allegations of shadowy relations between Ivanishvili and the Kremlin.

The new contract sets out the terms for changing the system – but it's just a handshake agreement. Coloring into the law will take more work. The deal wasn't just about domestic politics. The EU and United States, quietly providing background support, persistently urged Georgians to sign the document, fearing the Kremlin would manipulate the situation and disrupt the country's increasing orientation towards the West.

"Your position was because of these geopolitical challenges Georgia is facing. It is crucial for the country to end this political crisis," said Zurab Japaridze, chairman and co-founder of the Girchi opposition party and a signatory to the agreement may not be able to see the big picture. That is why I trust our strategic partners because it is of vital importance for my country to become a member of NATO and the European Union. "

But the negotiation process was a stormy and ever-changing process that dragged on until the last minute. As of the writing of this article, some of the people I interviewed have changed positions, left their jobs, or left their political parties. Technically, no reforms have been made and all parties are expected to go back to work tomorrow in “good faith”.

The reform and reconciliation process will only begin tomorrow.

Since independence, Georgia has seen a meteoric rise from a war-torn backwater of the post-Soviet Union to a regional model of democratic institution building and integration with the West. A small Caucasian nation with fewer than 4 million inhabitants, which in the past could hardly supply its citizens with water and electricity, is now aiming for NATO and EU membership.

But the path was also deeply turbulent. The country has come a long way since it elected its first president, pro-western Zviad Gamsakhurdia, in 1991, who was ousted in a violent coup a year after serving in a two-year civil war. He died in 1993 under unclear circumstances and was eventually replaced by his arch-rival Eduard Shevardnadze, whose eight-year term from 1995 to 2003 was marked by corruption and economic and political stagnation.

The Georgians forced him out of office in 2003 after massive election violations and handed power over to the then 35-year-old Mikheil Saakashvili, who was trained at Columbia University. Saakashvili was pushing the country westward, but faced a brief lost war with Russia in 2008. In 2012 he was forced out of office and convicted of abuse of power in absentia.

Then came Georgian Dream and Ivanishvili, who promised reforms – and fended off Russia – without abuse of power. It wasn't long before opposition leaders accused Ivanishvili of money laundering, politically motivated law enforcement, undermining business projects he did not like and filling critical political positions with people under his employment.

The main allegations against Georgian Dream during the parliamentary elections in October 2020 include the use of administrative funds for political campaigns, intimidation of voters in the elections and the weakening of the parliamentary structure so that the ruling party did not have to negotiate with the opposition. Transparency International notes that government investigative resources have been used to discredit political opponents, and Georgian Dream candidates advocated government-funded projects and using government employees for political ends.

Every time Georgians gave a person the keys to the country, they locked everyone else out of the process and became a different version of the power-hungry politician they claimed would never become, experts say.

"What we have seen in recent Georgian history is that the one-party rule always fails," said Eto Buziashvili, a research fellow for the Caucasus at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab. “They started well, and then they began to consolidate power and use state institutions for their political motives. The only way to end such an electoral system in Georgia is through coalition rule in parliament. "

The opposition believes that the current mixed electoral system allows the ruling party to undercut the opposition's power to the point of uselessness. To counter this, the agreement stipulates that future parliamentary elections will be proportionate and that early parliamentary elections will take place next year if Georgian Dream receives less than 43 percent of the vote in the upcoming local elections in October. The agreement also includes power-sharing rules that allow opposition parties to recruit the chairmen of key committees, and sets out a path to reform the judiciary that the opposition claims is full of corruption.

It also calls for an amnesty for two imprisoned opposition leaders: Giorgi Rurua, a stakeholder on one of the opposition channels, who is currently serving a prison term on charges of illegal gun possession, which critics said were politically motivated, and Nika Melia, chairman of the United States National Movement, accused of instigating a riot during anti-government protests in June 2019.

Neither side is happy with the deal – or has full confidence that their opponents will hold it. In interviews, however, they agree that this will stabilize the country's politics, regain the trust of their constituents, and allay fears in Washington and Brussels that the Kremlin might manipulate the ongoing malfunction.

However, if there are no key players present, the deal cannot hold. Georgian Dream holds 90 of the 150 parliamentary seats, while UMN has 36 seats and European Georgia has five seats. The rest of the parties – Lelo for Georgia, Strategy Builder, the Alliance of Patriots of Georgia, Girchi, the Union of Citizens, and the Georgian Workers' Party – have four or fewer seats.

"This is not an ideal deal," said Grigol Gegelia, head of foreign affairs for the Lelo for Georgia party, which signed the EU document. “We recognize that this is a patriotic compromise on our part. Of course, we have taken note of the opinions of our Western partners on the very difficult geopolitical circumstances the country is under and that Georgia needs a multi-party parliament and political stability to advance its Euro-Atlantic aspirations. "

The UNM is not even prepared to consider returning to parliament until its chairwoman Melia is released and amnesty is granted. He has refused to pay bail – and even refused to allow the EU or others to settle the bill – because the charges are politically motivated. One of the founders of European Georgia, Giorgi Kandelaki, told Foreign Policy the group was so dissatisfied with the document that it would continue to leave parliament until a better language is agreed. These positions frustrate other opposition leaders because they feel it weakens their bargaining power, an indictment the UNM denies.

"We had a responsibility to unite the opposition," said Khatia Dekanoidze, a member of the UNM's political lawyer. “We were the avant-garde of unity. … Everyone must realize that the main leader of the Georgian opposition, not just our party, is in prison. So the political crisis can only be resolved when he is free and leads the negotiations.

Salome Samadashvili, the only UNM member to sign the deal, said she saw no need to prolong the protests as the opposition no longer had any real leverage. In her view, the deal was the only way to get Melia out of jail, and her colleagues' decision not to sign up has weakened the opposition's bargaining power. The deal isn't perfect, she said, but she believes it made strategic sense to sign it. "If the opposition wins the regional elections, we can call for early elections in 2022," she said.

Georgian Dream isn't too keen on the compromise either. It is argued that the thresholds for certain provisions of the agreement have been set arbitrarily and that coalitions are not required to rule the country, especially during the pandemic. Giorgi Khelashvili, a senior Georgian Dream leader, accused the hold-out parties of being malicious actors. "The very first line of the agreement says that the opposition should enter parliament and then start discussions from there," he said. “By initially refusing to sign the document, they are already putting requirements in the document that they have not even signed. So this is their beloved behavior: basically boycotting, torpedoing, hijacking political agreements and then trying to blame the other side of the disability. “He denies allegations of election fraud or the alleged proximity of Ivanishvili to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Civil society leaders and members of the opposition warn Georgians that they are tired of the power struggles. The Shame Movement has been organizing street protests since 2019 in response to what it calls the Georgian Dreams crackdown on civil society. One of its leaders, Shota Dighmelashvili, said the goal of the movement was to reform the electoral system so that no single party could control the country's politics.

"The entire political spectrum in general has been discredited in the opinion of the public for not feeling that there is political will for a balanced system," he said. "We called for proportional voting as a cure for the one-party and one-man rule that has cursed Georgia's politics since it regained independence from the Soviet Union."

Opposition parties began to join the actions of the shame movement, but Dighmelashvili laid down strict ground rules. "We told them that they could be part of the protests as long as they shared our demands for proportional elections, and we have urged the entire political spectrum to act on that demand," he said. “The Georgians are fed up with this struggle for power. What they want is better political systems and stability. "

The main concern of the opposition is now to lobby for a return to parliament so that they can question the Georgian Dream takeover. Samadashvili believes that if Georgians have a choice, they will avoid the pattern of power, hubris and crisis that has shaped the past three decades.

"The people at this point in Georgia's path to democratic development have realized that they want to disperse political power," said Samadashvili. "We will never go back to the point where people overwhelmingly vote for a leader or a party because we have passed that point in the country's democratic development."

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