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Post-pandemic Georgia: stepping out of a political crisis?

Despite highlighting its success in dealing with the pandemic, the Georgian Dream government has recognised the possibility of losing public and external support ahead of the parliamentary elections.

June 9, 2020 - Soso Dzamukashvili - Articles and Commentary

Photo: Giorgi Eliozashvili, EU neighbours east.

There are approximately five months left until the 2020 Parliamentary elections in Georgia and prior to this crucial period for the country’s politics, the government found itself confronted by a number of problems. Due to the pandemic, Western support for the country has become as critical as ever. It has the ability to remedy the country’s economic and social problems and also solidify the ruling party’s stance before the elections. The Georgian Dream party needs to maintain recognition as a reliable partner to the West and, amid this challenging situation, it needs to follow the conditions set by its Western partners. 

The political crisis

The 2019 summer protests demanding electoral reforms in Georgia have been one of the biggest domestic challenges for the Georgian Dream throughout its ruling period. The government responded to the protesters with promises that the electoral system would be reformed. The parliament, however, rejected the legislation at its first hearing and subsequently imprisoned some of the opposition members. Government officials have continually maintained that neither these decisions nor the judiciary system of the country are politically biased. Yet, according to the assessment of the Council of Europe and Amnesty International, there are a number of reasons to believe that the decision on the imprisonment of opposition members was heavily politicised.

The opposition and government finally reached an agreement to reform the electoral system on March 8th, and it was facilitated by international diplomats at the United States Embassy in Tbilisi. The two sides, through mediation by various countries’ ambassadors, concluded a memorandum on the electoral system in Georgia, according to which 120 members of the Georgian parliament will be elected through a proportional system and 30 members will be elected through a majoritarian system. The agreement also touched upon the issues pertaining to the standards and politicisation of the judiciary system and electoral processes. After the memorandum, the opposition parties expected that their imprisoned colleagues would be released. However, these expectations were not met. The opposition members remained behind bars and were deemed political prisoners by the opposition, as well as European Union and United States politicians. Throughout this time, the government emphasised that there were no political prisoners in the country; the opposition members were in prison purely due to their criminal activities. Nonetheless, international organisations, including the Council of Europe and Amnesty International, concluded that the decision to detain opposition representatives was politicised. Georgia’s western partners from the United States and European Union have called on the ruling party to fulfill its promises, release the “political” prisoners, and implement the agreed electoral reforms. Yet, there has not been progress. The opposition MPs’ condition to vote for the reform has been the release of their party members from prison. Without these critical votes, the electoral changes cannot be adopted.

Georgian Dream in need of Western support

Georgia’s successful management of the COVID-19 pandemic has garnered a great deal of attention internationally. While the country managed to effectively contain the virus outbreak, it found itself confronted with severe economic and social challenges. These problems are expected to have serious long-term negative effects in the post-pandemic period. According to the World Bank, the country’s real GDP growth will remain extremely modest this year, with the possibility of plunging to 0 per cent. Georgia’s tourism, as well as transport sectors, are projected to be severely impacted. The country’s unemployment rate, which in 2019 was already above 14 per cent , dramatically soared. The government’s efforts to soothe the situation has not led to any substantial solutions. The social and economic problems in the country have increased and people have turned to large companies, as well as local international organisations and NGOs, for financial aid.

The elections, which are to be held in October 2020, are approaching and the Georgian Dream faces the dire challenge of effectively overcoming the post-pandemic problems. This is crucial for the ruling party to maintain its continuous popularity in society. However, despite its success in overcoming the outbreak, the government has undermined its own political success with a vague economic recovery policy. The state of emergency was extended until May 22nd, which is problematic for many, given that 20 per cent of the population already lived below the poverty line prior to the pandemic. Although healthcare services have worked hard to contain the virus and save lives, the government has underestimated the political, economic and social dimensions of the crisis. Moreover, due to serious economic and social difficulties, the Georgian Dream party has failed to provide Georgian society with a clear policy for overcoming the increasing economic hardship.Consequently, there has already been a rally against the lockdown in the Marneuli region, along with online protests organised by the opposition parties and youth movements. In this critical situation, the key to the ruling party’s success is its Western economic and political aid. The European Union has already allocated 150 million euros for Georgia and the United States has recently sent 27 000 tons of wheat to the country. Nonetheless, the country is still in need of more Western assistance, albeit there is no guarantee that it will be dispatched.

The success of Western pressure?

On May 13th, it was announced that the European Union and its international partners are going to give Georgia additional 500 million euros to overcome the social and economic damage that COVID-19 has done to the country. However, some members of the European Parliament have highlighted that the major condition for receiving this aid is that the Georgian government has to fulfill the agreement it concluded with the opposition on March 8th. If the Georgian Dream party does not do so, it will be regarded as an unreliable and irresponsible partner and the aid may not be guaranteed.

The Georgian Dream has been reminded multiple times that the “EU cannot close its eyes” and the party should investigate the breaches in the judiciary system and allow electoral reform. These are the most important steps for a more European and democratic Georgia. Andrius Kubilius, the Chair of the European Parliament’s Delegation to the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly, stated that it is crucial that the Georgian government has trust from society, as well as international partners, amid the upcoming elections. Additionally, Georgia’s American partners have also pointed at the importance of fulfilling the March agreement and necessary reforms. As a response, the Georgian Dream has denied any bias in the judiciary system and the existence of political prisoners. Moreover, the first vice-speaker of the parliament has criticised Kubilius and referred to him as “extremely incompetent.” Yet, a Freedom House analysis has confirmed the opposite and concluded that Georgia’s judicial system is politically influenced. Non-compliance with these Western requests could dramatically damage the party’s public support. It is noteworthy to mention that approximately 80 per cent of Georgian citizens think that the country should follow this pro-Western path. Hence, it is essential for the Georgian Dream to remain a reliable partner for the West. It needs the economic and undisturbed public support that is highly intertwined with the European Union and United States’ support. 

Despite the efforts to overshadow the reforms with its success in dealing with the pandemic, Georgian Dream has seen the possibility of losing public and external support. Western and domestic criticism has been growing. The crucial electoral reform, on the other hand, needs 113/150 votes (75 per cent) to be adopted. Without the opposition’s support, it is doomed to fail. The opposition MPs’ major condition for granting these votes is the release of the “political” prisoners. Thus, on May 15th, the President of Georgia pardoned two opposition members, Gigi Ugulava and Irakli Okruashvili. This step was praised by European Union and United States officials, who along with the opposition, now expect that the government will release the third opposition member, Giorgi Rurua, from prison. This will open the door to the adoption of the electoral reforms. However, there are still some substantial doubts in this regard. While the president has released the two opposition members, the government still denies any bias in the judiciary system and has not yet released the third “political” prisoner. Until these steps are taken, the fate of the electoral reforms and continued external political and economic support hangs in the balance.

Soso Dzamukashvili is pursuing a MA in Central and East European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (CEERES) at the University of Glasgow (UK). He is also a Young European Ambassador of EU neighbours east. His interests include European Studies, the Eastern Partnership and EU-China relations.

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