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One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

By Ernest Petrosyan
Wednesday, November 27
Georgian Dream (GD) founder Bidzina Ivanishvili’s promise to deliver “astonishing democracy” is failing. The decline of his political project, which launched in 2012 with the goal of permanently removing from power Georgia’s then-ruling party, the United National Movement, is ongoing. GD lost credibility in June, when a brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters in Tbilisi forced it to make major political concessions. Namely, Ivanishvili pledged that his party would immediately implement electoral reforms ahead of parliamentary elections in 2020. If GD had delivered on that promise, Georgia’s current mixed system—a system that if heavily skewed in favor of incumbents—would be replaced with a proportional system. This reform truly would have been a step forward on the way toward Ivanishvili’s promised “true democracy” that would “astonish Europeans.” Both the political opposition and the public welcomed GD’s promised reform. According to polls by the International Republican Institute, 73% of the public were in favor.

This promised step forward, which could have moved Georgia’s political battles from the streets to the parliament for good, did not materialize. GD’s parliamentary majority downvoted its own proposed and promised constitutional amendment. This indeed left Georgia’s western partners “astonished,” but for all the wrong reasons. Ironically, prominent members of GD, including Ivanishvili, themselves expressed “disappointment” with the parliamentary vote outcome. It’s important to note that the MPs who speciously voted against Ivanishvili’s initiative, are the same who have been unmitigatedly loyal to the oligarch. They would not have dared vote independently, belying the oligarch’s claim to have been caught off guard by the outcome.

The ruling party’s initiative turned out to be a blatant bluff, dragging democracy two steps back. Currently, GD’s political rating is at its lowest point since the party took power in late 2012. According to a recent IRI survey only 23% of Georgians support the ruling party, and taking into consideration that several prominent, pro-western MPs quit the party following the failure of reform, this figure will undoubtedly decline further.

Putting declining popular support into perspective, GD would likely lose its majority in fully proportional elections. Now, when the masks fell off, it would be naive to believe that the oligarch would so easily risk losing his grip on power. Unlike Georgia’s ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili, Ivanishvili has not only political power, but also personal financial assets at stake. He will do whatever it takes to retain power. Unfortunately, Georgia’s immature democracy—with its largely discredited opposition and cynical populace— is too weak to overcome a domestic Goliath without support from external partners.

Once again, Georgian democratic progress depends on the West. Prior to the 2012 elections, Georgia’s western partners, namely high-level NATO and EU officials as well as leaders of western states, spared no effort to stress the importance of free and fair elections, calling it a “litmus test” for the country’s Euro-Atlantic integration. Western political pressure did play an important role in 2012, helping secure the country’s first-ever constitutional transfer of power.

This time, the reality is slightly different. Ivanishvili’s massive financial leverage allows him to sponsor NGOs, media outlets, social media campaigns, and trolls who make claims such as “the bloody wolf [United National Movement] will be back.” Also, there is little incentive for him or his party to proceed with no-win constitutional reforms that would ensure fair elections, since most of Georgia’s feasible foreign policy objectives—visa liberalization and a DCFTA with the EU—have already been achieved. EU candidacy and NATO membership are not on the table and won’t be any time soon.

Georgia’s western partners should be vocal about the importance of electoral reforms, applying external pressure to ensure proportional as well as free and fair elections. Otherwise, Georgia risks getting stuck in yet-another period of political stagnation, where the entire political establishment will remain to be merely about “ignorant” and “blood thirsty.”