Georgia’s argument over ‘Michel’ is finished, at least for now
While the democratic process in Georgia benefits from the advice and encouragement of friends and partners, its politics must find its way back to consensus and trust building on its own terms.
On April 19th 2021, the so-called Charles Michel agreement was finalised during an official ceremony in Tbilisi after minor opposition parliamentary groups added their signature to the ruling Georgian Dream’s (GD) unilaterally signed document two days earlier. This ‘trade-off’ was considered a way out of the political crisis that arose in Georgia after the parliamentary elections held in October 2020. Despite, international reports and recognition, opponents of the GD refused to enter the political process, take up their mandates and continue political rivalry within the legislative body, arguing about electoral fraud. Michel’s deal should have institutionalised the process, bringing more power distribution and political keys to oppositional forces. But the ruling party soon decided to abandon the agreement on June 28th. Inga Grigolia, executive director of the opposition channel TV Pirveli, quickly argued that this represented a step toward dictatorship in Georgia and called on all of the country’s opposition leaders to leave the parliament. Despite this, GD party officials have argued that the deal was ultimately broken by the rival United National Movement (UNM), which has refused to follow the agreement. Indeed, it is clear that neither the political opposition nor its supporters actually follow the spirit of the document. Some opposition leaders like Nika Melia (UNM) and Zurab Girchi Japaridze (Girchi) have already left parliament and plan to challenge the government from the outside. Additionally, some civil society figures, as well as European and American representatives, have criticised the opposition for its unwillingness to continue negotiations that could help find a peaceful solution to the country’s ongoing political crisis. At the same time, upcoming municipal elections are set for October and this means that political rivalry will once again reach a peak in Georgia.
Apart from a desire to simply maintain political power, what actually determined GD’s decision to abandon the agreement? Was the Charles Michel agreement ultimately fit for purpose? Perhaps most importantly, could the agreement actually help deal with the political crisis among Georgia’s elite?
Charles Michel’s document was initially full of problems. The deal was signed following the so-called March 8th agreement. However, it was pretty obvious that both the government and the opposition participated due to possible cuts in foreign financial support. Representatives of the local opposition were especially nervous as they were brought to the table largely due to the aggressive nature of the negotiations. The whole deal was directly enforced from the top-down both in a national and international sense. So far, both the government and (perhaps even more) the opposition have been unwilling to find common ground. The agreement did not solve the crisis. Instead, it simply postponed it for a while. Both sides were not enthusiastic about the deal and this led to GD seeing no sense in being devoted to a ‘piece of paper’. It must be also noted that the country as a whole is not in a crisis. Indeed, it is Georgia’s elites that find themselves in a crisis as soon as there is no real vision beyond statements related to NATO and EU integration. These people have fought a fierce battle for the hearts and minds of the Georgian population and this has nothing to do with being pro-Russian or pro-Western. Power ultimately corrupted these groups and this has left regular citizens in a difficult situation. Due to this, it could be said that there are still many problems to deal with in Georgian politics and society.
GD strikes back
GD’s opponents currently argue that the government is unsure if it will receive enough support in the upcoming municipal elections to avoid an early parliamentary vote. This is ultimately one of the key parts of the Michel agreement. However, it would be naïve to think that the government will not be able to gather the necessary 43 per cent of votes in October. Moreover, it is obvious that GD will win the Tbilisi mayoral elections, as their candidate Kakha Kaladze enjoys widespread support. Due to this, there appear to be three complex issues that seemingly pushed the ruling party to abandon the deal.
The first issue is the UNM’s refusal to sign the agreement. The idea behind Charles Michel’s document was to guarantee the distribution of power and responsibilities within the country’s political system. The political opposition is keen to gain power but it seems that the UNM simply wants to make a come back without taking any real responsibility. It is generally accepted in Georgian political culture that responsibility is all about what the government is doing. As a result, other political forces are unwilling to recognise that their parliamentary membership also matters. Of course, a deal only matters when all the main actors agree to uphold its principles. As Machiavelli noted, if your opponent does not follow an agreement, then there is no sense in you following it.
Secondly, after the dramatic events that took place in early July, which even arguably led to the death of TV cameraman Lekso Lashkarava, some minor opposition groups refused to fully engage with the parliament unless their demands were accepted by Tbilisi. Furthermore, various opposition broadcasters worked with the political opposition to sabotage the everyday functioning of the parliament. Due to these events, even the minor parties are now refusing to actually implement the agreement. General lack of trust in the government, especially in relation to the commission meant to investigate the October 31st elections, has also played a role in parties refusing to respect the agreement. So far, both the UNM and various minor opposition parties have failed to follow the spirit of the document and left the real responsibilities to GD. Thus, in order to make the agreement easier to implement, the Michel deal placed all the responsibilities of power distribution on the ruling party. The other groups that signed the document just signed it and hoped to get more power instead of additional duties. These would simply be a political headache.
Last but not the least, various sovereignty issues are connected to judiciary system reform, particularly in relation to the courts and judges. According to the agreement, judges should have been appointed following talks with the political opposition. However, such negotiation is simply impossible as both sides are more interested in having judges and courts that are friendly to their own side. Georgian elites, political or non-political, are simply not ready to give up control of such a tremendous resource. GD has stated that it aspires to create a better justice system but there are issues that must be dealt with internally. Such changes cannot be imposed in a top-down manner, from Brussels/Washington to Tbilisi.
The grip on democracy
GD’s decision to abandon the agreement was criticised by many and has been considered a step backward in Georgia’s democratic development. However, this view is arguably rather naïve. Georgia is a developing country and as such it is still looking for its own path to democratic success. For the first time in the country’s history, Georgia had real freedom to choose what agreements it wanted to follow. As a result, recent events do not represent a move away from democracy. Instead, it could be argued that this is one of the most democratic decisions that has ever been taken in Tbilisi. You simply cannot turn Georgia into a democracy from the top-down. Instead, a democratic society must grow naturally and it should play a key role in the decision-making process. Overall, it seems that Georgia’s strategic allies are not ready to let this happen. Even a softer institutional intervention from outside cannot bring about lasting change in society. At some point, the grip that European and American diplomats and ambassadors have on the decision-making process becomes too clear. This was especially true with regards to the March 8th 2020 agreement, which was signed by Georgia’s political actors behind the closed doors of the US Embassy in Tbilisi. This document potentially offered yet another way out of the political crisis but it is still misunderstood due to the elite’s lack of accountability and transparency. It could be argued that the country’s political elites only feel accountable to strategic allies, such as various Western financial and political institutions. Due to this, the elites only care about Georgian citizens when an election is approaching. At the moment, therefore, Georgia’s political parties and government feel the need to engage voters. Tbilisi’s friends must let the Georgian people fail or succeed on their own. Today, Georgia resembles many other countries in Eastern Europe as its political system has various pros and cons. Georgian actors must now try to build a local political culture based on democratic principles.
Archil Sikharulidze is a PhD candidate in Social Sciences at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs and the founder of SIKHA Foundation Initiative.
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