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“Political masquerade passed off as a democratic change of government in Georgia”

Paata Gaprindashvili, Mariam Tsitsikashvili, Gia Japaridze (GRASS)

In May 2018, thousands of Georgians took to the streets of Tbilisi to protest against missteps of the government shown on two occasions. In response to a drug raid by the police on popular night­clubs in Tbilisi, on 12 May 2018, members of the club community sponta­neously gathered in front of the parliament, demanding the resig­na­tions of the interior minister and the prime minister. Two weeks after the massive rave protest, when the government seemed to be confident that turmoil was over, a second phase of protests erupted following a court decision that confirmed the failure of the prosecutor’s office to inves­tigate a murder of two 16-year-old school­children committed 6 months earlier. While the two waves of protests had different triggers, they were both addressing a defective rule of law in Georgia.

The ruling party, finding itself in a deadlock of street protests and a resulting political crisis, had no other choice but to agree to establish an interim parlia­mentary commission with the majority repre­sen­tation of the parlia­mentary opposition party European Georgia, probing into the case of the teen murder. The commission will try to shed light on the murder of the two juveniles and the inves­ti­gation could immensely influence the overall political processes in Georgia as it may disclose alleged vested interests and systemic failures of the entire justice system.

The cascade of street protests triggered the resig­nation of prime minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili on 13 June 2018, which was already a long awaited outcome for the founding father of the Georgian Dream (GD) party, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. Prime minister Kvirikashvili, noted that in recent months he had differ­ences “on certain funda­mental issues” with Bidzina Ivanishvili, who emerged from backstage to return to the chair­manship of the ruling party Georgian Dream on 12 May 2018. Kvirikashvili’s resig­nation, therefore, proved to be yet another evidence of Ivanishvili’s powerful informal influence over the government and his unaccountable standing above the prime minister and the law. During his farewell address, Kvirikashvili fairly pointed out his achieve­ments, however, his premiership successes were overshadowed by failures regarding the justice system, the rule of law and the overall strength­ening of democ­ratic creden­tials of Georgia.

Following Kvirikashvili’s resig­nation, the ruling party Georgian Dream nominated finance minister Mamuka Bakhtadze to lead the government of Georgia. The little-known minister Bakhtadze has served as Georgia’s minister of finance since November 2017. According to the parliament chair­person, Irakli Kobakhidze, Bakhtadze was selected for the position of prime minister based on his “distin­guished education and multi­lateral experience”. According to the opposition, however, Bakhtadze, a man with no political past and creden­tials, is Bidzina Ivanishvili’s personal choice and his work at the railway company has been a failure since the company’s turnover has halved under his leadership.

According to the president of Georgia, Giorgi Margve­lashvili, Bakhtadze is yet another prime minister chosen through political masquerade rather than through democ­ratic political process. The new prime minister, approved by the parliament on 20 June 2018, is coming to office with a two-year government program called “freedom, fast devel­opment, prosperity”, based on his “concept of small government”. Yet, whatever good inten­tions the new prime minister may have, his premiership is doomed to be associated with a lack of democ­ratic legit­imacy, as the driving force behind his premiership is the recently reincar­nated “supreme leader” Bidzina Ivanishvili, holding the position of GD’s chairmanship.

Some may argue that the resig­nation of prime ministers and peaceful demon­stra­tions are a part of well-functioning democ­racies. However, the wave of protests in Tbilisi over the past months and the resulting resig­nation of the prime minister highlight the fact that the frontrunner EaP country, fairly recog­nized so by Western partners, has some deep-rooted problems concerning rule of law and accountable gover­nance. The recent devel­op­ments just create the illusion of a responsive government, which in practice might not bring substantial changes as it is subor­dinate to one man’s unaccountable leadership.

At a glance, it may seem that Georgia is under­going an “illiberal democ­ratic” drift, quite similar, for instance, to the one in Poland.  Although illiberal trends in different European capitals provoke an immense debate, it may not ultimately turn out to be an incurable devel­opment. Within an EU member state these trends might still be constrained by the well-functioning and powerful defenders of democracy either on national or EU level. However, such illiberal leanings in the context of an uncon­sol­i­dated and still fragile democracy in Georgia may create a rather existential threat for the European path of the country. What Georgia needs are strong democ­ratic checks and balances, systemic reform of the justice sector and a consol­i­dation of democracy, with no room for unaccountable leaders standing above the law.  Although civil society in Georgia is taking to the streets to defend rule of law, it may not be suffi­cient. It is also of crucial impor­tance that Georgia’s Western partners, despite the internal challenges, bolster up their support for Georgian democracy and exert their influence to curb unaccount­ability in Georgian politics.

The opinions expressed in this publi­cation are those of the author(s) and do not neces­sarily reflect the opinions or views of IEP.