Caught in Feckless Politics: Georgia’s European Crisis

Caught in Feckless Politics: Georgia’s European Crisis

Bidzina Lebanidze
Senior Research Analyst, GIP

Georgia has been experiencing another major upheaval and a severe political crisis over recent months. The adoption of the so-called foreign agents law by the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party led to continuous public protests and an abrupt worsening of relations with the West, which is getting closer to the point of no return. But it also brings to the surface the problems that have been plaguing the country for decades: polarization, a deficient party system, low political culture, and continuous influence of illiberal actors. The political crisis has strong domestic roots, and the current stalemate is also influenced by the shadows of the past.

Georgia’s Feckless Pluralism

One of the puzzles of Georgian politics is the longevity of the GD government, which aims to win a fourth consecutive term in 2024. Part of this phenomenon can be traced back to the country’s deficient party system and political culture. Since 2012, Georgia has essentially had a two-party system: Georgian Dream (GD) and its allies, and the United National Movement (UNM) and its splinter groups. Both camps act as political conglomerates with media empires, business moguls, and intellectual and cultural elites. At the same time, they are both detached from the majority of the population, who feel alienated from the political process. What we have in Georgia is essentially a combination of what Thomas Carothers calls feckless pluralism and a dominant party system.

The catch is that, during their rule, former President  Mikhail Saakashvili and the UNM alienated a critical mass of the electorate who refuse to vote for them ever again. The GD has capitalized on this by portraying Saakashvili and his followers as villains. Meanwhile, the UNM is happy to play this role, dominating much of the opposition spectrum.

Look at any recent poll, and you’ll see over 60% of Georgians are fence-sitters, disillusioned with both the government and the opposition. The obvious solution would be for new political parties to emerge. But the current system blocks this, with most parties linked to either GD or UNM. Currently, all but one party with a chance to pass the 5% election threshold are linked to either of the two camps. Western politicians often miss these nuances and unintentionally fuel polarization by fixating on strong personalities, particularly Mikhail Saakashvili, thus legitimizing GD’s narrative.

Can the Opposition Finally Get Its Act Together?

The protests against the foreign agents law seemed like a turning point, pitching GD against the West. The GD’s main narrative, since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, has revolved around fighting a “Global War Party,” a phantom enemy that presumably controls much of the Western policy towards Georgia and is trying to open a second front in Georgia against Russia. The opposition parties and civil society actors in Georgia are demonized as local proxies of this Global War Party.

Nevertheless, despite hopes from protesters and the opposition, there are so far only minor cracks visible in GD’s support. The Georgian Orthodox Church remains a strong ally, and large conservative rallies show GD’s enduring influence. In short, the picture isn’t black and white. It is not everyone vs. the regime but rather a society divided into two camps.

Still, this is the first time GD has discursively and openly turned against the West, and it’s no secret that even a significant part of GD’s electorate is against this U-turn. This begs the question of whether the opposition can capitalize better this time on the schism between the GD and the West.

There is no guarantee that this will happen, as a significant part of the electorate needs to overcome strong political antipathy to vote for opposition parties, the majority of which were part of the former regime. At the very least, the opposition leaders have so far been clever enough to agree to remain on the sidelines of the current protests and to leave the stage to young protesters. In doing so, the protests have become more horizontal, civilian, less politicized, and have escaped stigmatization attempts by the authorities. But at some point, this strategy may backfire, as the continuous process of political protests will require political leadership – a task for which the Georgian opposition does not seem to have grown enough to take on this role.

What is the GD’s Trump Card?

On the other side of Georgian politics, there are similarly many question marks about what GD does and why it does it. GD has never shined as a champion of democracy or, unlike its predecessor, as a hyper-loyal semi-authoritarian ally to the West. But the party and its informal leader Bidzina Ivanishvili have always shown a high degree of smart pragmatism, enough to win eight consecutive elections and keep the opposition at arm’s length. Yet their recent actions seem detached from the image of rational pragmatism. While the Georgian opposition remains unpopular, the GD certainly knows that Georgia’s pro-European orientation is a matter of national consensus supported by an overwhelming majority of Georgians, including GD’s own electoral base. Therefore, the GD’s self-confident and abrupt distancing from the West seems almost surreal. Regardless of the GD’s ultimate goals – whether it is the consolidation of power domestically or a geopolitical shift in the country’s foreign policy – it may result in an exodus of its own electorate.

Moreover, cutting political ties with the West may also result in a reduction of economic and financial support to the country. Unlike Belarus or Azerbaijan, Georgia does not have the resources to exist in autarky from the West.

This is why we may suspect that there could be some “unknown unknowns” behind GD’s recent actions that may turn out to be significant trump cards prior to the elections – and may help them to boost their legitimacy again and win the elections. Some analysts hint at GD hoping to achieve some breakthrough regarding Georgia’s territorial integrity, obviously with the Kremlin’s consent. This seems like a far-fetched scenario at this point, but if true, it could have the potential to turn everything upside down in Georgian politics. On the other hand, if this backfires, it can end terribly for the government.

For the EU, It’s Only Carrots, No Sticks

Meanwhile, while the US seems to have come up with a well-calibrated stick-and-carrot strategy to contain the authoritarian/geopolitical turn in Georgia, the EU seems confused about how to translate its condemnation into action. It seems that the EU does not want to employ its most effective and quickly deployable weapon – provisionally suspending the visa liberalization regime with Georgia, which would primarily inflict pain on the Georgian population but would also have dire political consequences for the government. But this would go against one of the core principles of the EU’s sanctions policy, which is to exempt the population from the impact of restrictive measures. For a number of other sanctions, such as slapping asset freezes and travel bans on key GD members, the Union requires consensus in the Council, which is always hard to achieve, considering a number of illiberal governments willing to use their veto power. The EU’s dithering is worrying because while US sanctions may send a strong political signal, it is the EU that has more economic and financial levers against the authoritarian-leaning regime.

Dark Times Ahead for Georgia’s Young Democracy

It is hard to predict how all this will end. On the one hand, revolutionary changes would not produce an optimal outcome. While they might provide a one-time boost in a positive direction, they may also bear significant risks of authoritarian rule and societal instability. On the other hand, GD may still win the October elections against by relying on an uneven playing field, which is usually skewed in favour of the government, and consolidating its own electorate by using financial and other incentives shortly before election day, as has been done in the past. In any case, Georgia’s future seems quite bleak.

Much of the blame for the current political mess should be put on Georgia’s collective political class. Over the last decades, it has proven that it is unable to establish a European-style political process based on consensus-building, power-sharing, and accountability. Instead, cycles of political radicalization, polarization, zero-sum-game mentality, and dominant-party politics have taken the upper hand in the country’s political culture. Even in the best-case scenario, this will leave a bad taste in much of Europe regarding the credibility of the country as a partner and candidate for EU accession.

Cover photo ©️ Irakli Gedenidze/Reuters