Is Ukraine the new Georgia?
On the similarities between the two political realities.
No, I don’t mean de-regulation or e-government. I mean politics. Without getting too Caucasian and taking about mesisxleoba (‘blood revenge’), Ukraine after Poroshenko may be following the same formula as Georgia after Saakashvili: personalised and polarised politics, and the permanent vendetta between the two sides. Add in a new government that is busy dishing the ‘reforms’ of the old; but is itself accused by the opposition of serving Russia’s interests. Sounds familiar? The comparison isn’t perfect, but is worth making if it helps push-back against some dangerous trends emerging in Ukraine under President Zelenskyy, and because the potential upside under Zelenskyy is relatively strong.
Georgian Dream came to power in parliamentary elections in 2012, followed by winning the presidential election in 2013. The previous decade, from the ‘Rose Revolution’ in 2003, had been dominated by Mikheil Saakashvili and the United National Movement (UNM). Saakashvili had a reputation in the West as a reformer; but one who cut corners, and imposed reform top-down. It was therefore apt that scandal in the judicial and prison systems cost him the 2012 elections. But Georgian Dream then used an increasingly clannish judiciary for revenge against the UNM. A series of laws in 2013-15 were supposed to reboot the Saakashvili legal reforms, but only served to further entrench the informal power of the High Council of Justice. ‘The clan, which under the previous government was only the implementer of the will of the executive and transmitter of messages to the judges now converted itself to [an] autonomous entity which dictates new rules and conditions to the government’.
The Georgian judiciary is dominated by an informal group centred around first Valeri Tsertsvadze and then Mikheil Chinchaladze, now head of the Apellate Court. In Ukraine the equivalent duo is the key legal curator from the Yanukovych era Andriy Portnov and his alleged protégé Andriy Bohdan, at the time of writing Zelenskyy’s Chief of Staff, but widely tipped to take over the legal system, formally as Chief Procurator or informally from some proximate position. In Georgia, Saakashvili was forced to flee the country, and given a six year prison sentence in absentia. Other UNM stalwarts targeted included the former Justice Minister Zurab Adeishvili and former Interior Minister and PM Vano Merabishvili. In Ukraine, Poroshenko is being investigated for alleged tax evasion and for alleged treason over the Azov Sea clashes with Russia in November. Dirty tricks may force out the Kyiv mayor, former boxer Vitaliy Klitschko. Tbilisi’s UNM mayor Gigi Ugulava was forced out of office in 2013 for alleged misuse of funds. Portnov has questioned the use of the word ‘revenge’, but said: “I want to remove these people from the face of the earth”.
Establishing a rule of law ought to be the number one priority in both countries. But judicial persecution is justified by extreme mutual stereotyping. Georgian Dream paints the Saakashvili era as nothing but black; and demonises the UNM as natsebi (‘National Movement’, but ‘Nazis’), and the near decade of their rule as the ‘nine bloody years’ (sisxliani 9 tseli). The label can be broadly applied to almost any opposition parties, and even independent NGOs.
Zelenskyy talks of the ‘era of poverty’ under the baryga (Poroshenko the money-grubber) and the elite’s torgivlya na krovi (‘making money on blood’).
In return, the UNM and Poroshenko characterise their opponents as Russian puppets. The UNM call Georgian Dream kotsi. There isn’t much room for compromise in between.
The power behind Georgian Dream’s throne, Bidzina Ivanishvili, once declared that shua unda gaikrifos; which is hard to translate, but basically means that Georgian Dream and the UNM are all that matters and the parties in between should be absorbed. Arguably, if precariously, the UNM has also benefited from this polarisation, as it is the denigrated-but-official opposition. Georgia also traditionally has a bifurcated media market. Imedi, GPB and Maestro support Georgian Dream; while Rustavi 2 backs the UNM. (Though there is a battle for control of Rustavi 2 at the time of writing).
In Ukraine, for the moment, politics is still plural, though Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People party dominates its disparate opponents. Georgian Dream was more dominant immediately after the 2016 elections, the UNM after 2004. But the antagonism between the two keeps returning. Poroshenko may be on the slide for now – his life-boat party, European Solidarity, only came fourth in the parliamentary elections – but there will always be a constituency for the ‘24 per cent’, those who voted for Poroshenko on nationalist grounds in the second round.
Ukraine’s media market has a broader range of channels than in Georgia, with half a dozen oligarchic empires. Moreover, despite the obvious benefit of holding on to media (Pryamy, Channel 5) when you are under attack, Poroshenko looks to be selling up. Ukraine has a much bigger cast of oligarchs trying to play Game of Thrones, whereas Georgia only has one shadowy oligarch, Bidzina Ivanishvili. Ihor Kolomoisky might like to pull Zelenskyy’s strings, but is not as powerful as Ivanishvili.
Georgian and Ukrainian politics have always been blood sports, using the full range of ‘political technology’. Georgian Dream in recent years have employed the services of Moshe Klughaft. His Israeli formula of small-country-nationalism, electoral bribery and demonising the opposition as foreign-controlled, helped Georgian Dream retain the presidency in 2018. Ironically, in Ukraine it was Poroshenko who allegedly tried to hire Klughaft to use the same tactics in a failed attempt to save his presidency. But the tendency of each side to de-legitimate the other, as with Poroshenko’s notorious ’Decisive Choice’ ad – Him or Putin, not Zelenskyy – will last.
The revanchist fringe
Georgian Dream tolerates and exploits the pro-Russian opposition, which has been able to revive, despite the 2008 war. Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia is often accused of tacit support and exploitation of far right groups like the Alliance of Patriots and Georgian March as ‘counter-demonstrators’; as also the Alliance of Orthodox Parents, Georgian Power and also the anti-LGBT groups managed by prominent nationalists Guram Palavandishvili and Levan Vasadze. Their talking points often overlap with the key ideologists of Georgian Dream, like Koka Kandiashvili, the party’s abrasive PR manager and alleged troll boss.
Another marker is how you talk about wars with Russia. Georgian Dream increasingly blames the UNM for starting the war in 2008. On the eleventh anniversary in August 2019, Imedi TV aired a documentary which barely mentioned Russia at all and claimed Saakashvili ‘needed the war’ to restore his popularity. The Georgian Dream slogan is now ‘We will win the war, started by others, through peace’. This is a trap that Zelenskyy could easily fall into: if not yet explicitly blaming Poroshenko for starting the war in 2014, then at least accusing him of profiteering from it. That said, the war in east Ukraine is ongoing, so it is much harder to play politics around it.
The rumours about Russian support for regime change in Georgia in 2012-13 have had some echoes in Ukraine in 2019, but have never really stuck. Zelenskyy is not a Russian stooge. Potentially, he represents a new phase in the development of Ukraine’s still amorphous national identity. You couldn’t really say that about Georgian Dream. But Zelenskyy also shares and propagates many memes of Russian propaganda about the old regime; and is often indifferent about Poroshenko’s trinity of ‘Army! Language! Faith!’ – certainly no exclamation marks. This gives oxygen to Ukraine’s own pro-Russian fringe, now the Opposition Platform. As in Georgia, the Opposition Platform has not swung the pendulum completely, but has revived to a similar position to the Georgian far-right – just over 10 per cent of the vote, enough to be part of the public conversation, if not yet to vie for power. Though, thanks to the dominance of Servant of the People, that actually makes the Opposition Platform the second largest force in parliament.
Zelenskyy is early into his presidency. His persona is still that of his most famous TV creation, the amiable and honest schoolteacher, Vasyl Holoborodko. But the likes of Andriy Bohdan have no such qualms. Georgian Dream and the UNM are once again facing off in the streets in the summer of 2019 (though they are not the only actors of course). Let’s hope Ukraine isn’t in the same position in six years’ time.
Andrew Wilson is a professor of Ukrainian studies at University College London and a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
The author would like to thank Megi Kartsivadze for helping with research.