The Georgian Dream’s two sword agenda
Following this past weekend’s use of special forces in a Tbilisi night club, serious allegations and questions have emerged regarding the game of “victim and bully” between government-backed clubs where drugs are freely available to the youth and the government agencies hunting the young drug users and dealers through excessive force.
In 1991 a newly independent Georgia emerged after nearly 70 years of isolation from the free world. It took a step out from its Soviet legacy and navigated towards the nearly three-decades of democratic transformation.
However, the generation of the late 1980s and 90s faced a brutal reality. The cost of independence had reached its peak with two military conflicts with Russian-backed separatists and Tbilisi being flooded with about half a million refugees from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Russian orchestrated civil war removed the first democratically-elected President of Georgia, who was replaced with a loyal Russian one.
As a result, those born in the late 1980s and early 90s grew up in a collapsed state. Practically, since independence began from 1991 until 2003, Georgians faced poor economic conditions, not to mention the absence of tertiary education. The country constantly experienced electricity outages, while water and gas were in low supply. The country was run by former communist party members and criminal syndicates while the Mkhedrioni gunmen had a strong influence, evidenced by the mounting violent criminal activity.
Later in 2003, Georgia witnessed the Rose Revolution – a non-violent peaceful transition of power from the former communists to the democratic West-inspired political leadership. It gave birth to a new modern Georgia with a significant positive transformation and successful reforms recognised by the free world. In just a decade, the country transformed from being a failed state into a role model state. Despite the success stories, the democratisation process had still been lacking and the decades-long successful reforms were not enough for a fundamental transformation.
Therefore, on the growing dissatisfaction in 2012, Bidzina Ivanishvili, a Russian-made billionaire, appeared on the political stage offering the electorate “free money”, free social benefits and rewards. Prior to parliamentary elections, a videotape emerged which depicted violent treatment towards inmates in prison. The next day, Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream (GD) won parliamentary elections after defeating the incumbent United National Movement (UNM).
As a result, GD’s six-year rule had brought more freedoms, significant democratic transition and improvement in the protection of human rights. However, along with enhanced democratic freedoms came increasing poverty, social insecurity, failure of delivering progressive reforms and ineffective governance. On top of that, the country’s leadership promised a deal with Russia and placing more blame for the Russian invasion in 2008 on the former administration.
The First Sword
According to a number of sources, families related to the current government have created a network of well-established night clubs headed by the most famous one called “Bassiani”. This network of clubs quickly attracted and united young people born in the late 1980s and early 90s. Allegedly, this network of clubs was a place where illegal drugs were readily available for young club-goers. What is more, in Georgia’s strongly politically-polarised society, these clubs have become an avant-garde of dodgy political experiments pushed by people with strong ties to the government.
On the one hand, the White Noise movement which promotes for decriminalisation of drugs was established within the club circle of Bassiani. On the other hand, the government ministries and agencies themselves have been accused of deliberately orchestrating a series of violent acts by planting drugs, encouraging violence and intimidating the young generation.
Thus, events against illegal treatment of the youth have dominated the major media outlets for a long time and pushed the demand of decriminalizing drugs. Increasing pressure from the government agencies made the drug legalization issue a mainstream topic in the media and occupied the political landscape. On top of that, few political parties started backing drug decriminalisation and campaigned along with the White Noise movement.
These allegations raise serious questions and force one to distrust of this game of “victim and bullies” between the government-backed clubs where drugs are freely available to the youth and the government agencies hunting the young drug users and dealers through excessive force – as evidenced via the use of special forces in the Bassiani Club last Friday night. Noticeably, this “victim and bully” game in the long run could result in the legalisation of narcotics and open the gates to a billion-dollar industry for government-connected families.
Unfortunately, political manipulations by some leaders in Georgia try to sell a drug-addicted youth as part of an image of being European. Anonymous Facebook pages have distributed videos of drug-influenced youth and promoting the message that Europe is decadent and European values bring such results, deliberately manipulating the population to change its perceptions about Europe and the future political landscape of Georgia.
Pushing such fears in society and portraying European values as equating to drug-addiction and drug-use would naturally lead to the rise of anti-European sentiments within the Georgian society. Thus, it is in line with the Russian narrative about Europe, constantly reiterated and spread by anonymous anti-liberal social media channels in Georgia.
The Second Sword
Another counter movement started by a former deputy minister of the GD administration is known as Georgian March. This group is an ultranationalist movement known for its xenophobic and homophobic demonstrations and protest rallies. Members are actively engaged in anti-European and anti-liberal campaigns, advocating an ultranationalist agenda in Georgia. Georgian March held anti-Soros protests and demanded that the Open Society Foundation stop financing civil society and reiterated Russian narratives about western values.
After the White Noise protest, the Georgian March held a rally against Bassiani youth defending “traditional values”. The minister of interior later appeared dealing with Bassiani youth, promising to push the drug liberalisation process. The tipping point is that the government itself has artificially created the issue and later provided a solution with a promise to mass of protesters. Therefore, government-related families who are running this network of clubs and drug distribution channels will greatly benefit by the problem-solution cycle.
Alarming political landscape
In the aftermath of the 2016 parliamentary elections, opposition parties had disappeared or merged with others. Many of them were unable to win elections and secure seats within the parliament. The main opposition party UNM experienced an internal split and the more pro-European members of the Georgian Dream coalition appeared as a separate party, labelling themselves as a loyal opposition to the government.
Due to the lack of a renewal of party politics, UNM supporters shrunk in size and along with other opposition parties have become more fragmented. What’s more, the UNM has illustrated signs of becoming even more radical, which adds to the political polarisation with GD. Thus, substantial political polarisation discredits the political parties and party politics are on a sharp decline in Georgia. The anti-liberal stance is a new trend with anti-western narratives on the rise along fuelled by Russian propaganda. A ban on Russian media channels has all but been unofficially lifted in the country.
As a result of the situation, Georgian youth as a vocal political voice is practically neutralised. The drug decriminalisation protests and rallies have attracted tens of thousands of protesters while more serious issues like Russian occupation, corruption and unemployment barely reach the main stream youth.
In this sense, the Georgian Dream’s Bassiani rehearsal, with its two-sword political agenda, appears to have been partially effective. It managed to discredit western political parties, media and the political ideas of the youth. And it cemented the long-term termination of the democratisation process and may bring about an end to the legacy of the successful reforms of the Rose Revolution.
Most importantly, the government’s use of special forces in these clubs can be used as an argument against the rumours of the clubs’ shady ties to government-connected families. The actions effectively polarised the society into two camps: those who support governmental interference and those who are against existing drug laws and backing the youth protest.
Unlike the current political status quo, Georgia profoundly requires a common political approach to transform the youth energy into an active political movement. The protests could be a rehearsal for a democratic, intellectual and cultural movement inspired with successful reforms and peaceful democratic transformation. The movement should try to turn the tables, pushing a more effective state, transparent checks and balances, successful reforms and rational policies and drug laws which focus on social inclusiveness and provide hope to the youth through an active peaceful and democratic transition of Georgia.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Gagra Institute.
Beka Kiria is the founder and director at the Gargra Institute