A Flickering Beacon of Democracy in Russia’s Backyard

Georgians fear that billionaire leader Bidzina Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream party are tightening their grip on power.

Police fire a water cannon against Georgian protesters
Police fire a water cannon against protesters demanding the government's resignation and early parliamentary polls outside the Parliament in Tbilisi, Georgia, on Nov. 18. Vano Shlamov/AFP/Getty Images

An island of democracy. A poster child for reform. Georgia has had garnered many distinguished monikers over the past 15 years as it has pulled back from the brink of failed statehood to become a spirited democracy in Russia’s backyard.

But many in the former Soviet republic now fear that these hard-won reforms may be at risk as the ruling party and its billionaire leader, Bidzina Ivanishvili, slowly tighten their grip on power as they take aim at big business, opposition media, and political rivals. This whittling away of Georgia’s democratic gains risks leaving the country further exposed to its revanchist northern neighbor: Russia. 

Over the past two weeks, thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets of the capital, Tbilisi, in a string of protests calling for snap elections after the national Parliament voted down proposals to move toward a fully proportional electoral system. Critics say the current system gives an advantage to the ruling Georgian Dream party, and that Ivanishvili and other party leaders are seeking to consolidate their power. 

On Monday night, police used water cannons for the second time in a week as demonstrators sought to block entrances to the Parliament to prevent lawmakers attending a session on Tuesday. 

“The decision of the Georgian Dream to backtrack on their key promise to change the election system can prove to be a pivotal point in the democratic development of the country,” said a coalition of Georgian nongovernmental organizations in a joint statement issued after the parliamentary vote on Nov. 14.

“The full responsibility for this decision lies with Bidzina Ivanishvili,” said the statement, which characterized it as an effort to “cling to power.”

The government’s promise to switch to a fully proportional electoral system ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections was seen as an important concession after protests rocked Tbilisi over the summer. 

Thousands took to the streets on June 20 after a Russian politician sat in the chair of the speaker of the Georgian Parliament during an interparliamentary meeting of politicians from predominantly Eastern Orthodox countries. With some 20 percent of Georgia’s territory de facto occupied by Russia, the symbolism provoked widespread outrage, and a large crowd quickly gathered outside of the Parliament. 

Over 200 people were injured when the police opened fire with rubber bullets in a bid to disperse the crowds. At least two people lost eyes as a result, including a teenager and a journalist. 

In addition to demanding a more representative electoral system, protesters demanded the resignation of the interior minister, Giorgi Gakharia, following the police crackdown. Instead of stepping down, Gakharia was made prime minister in September. 

The Parliament’s failure to pass electoral reform has thrust the region’s only true democracy into the international spotlight once more, but for months Georgian civil society has been increasingly sounding the alarm over fears that key levers of government and the media are falling into the hands of those aligned with Ivanishvili, the chairman of the ruling party.

“We are the best democracy in the region, but we clearly have backsliding,” said Giorgi Oniani, the deputy executive director of Transparency International Georgia, during a visit to Washington, D.C., last month. 

Ivanishvili established the Georgian Dream party in 2012 with the express purpose of ousting the former government and its larger-than-life leader, Mikheil Saakashvili. The party won, and Saakashvili, the leader of the 2003 Rose Revolution, stepped down in the first peaceful transfer of power in Georgia’s modern history. 

Since then, Ivanishvili’s formal role in politics has changed. He served as prime minister for just over a year before returning to the private sector, but, although he’s held no publicly elected office since 2013, he has long been regarded as the power behind the throne in Georgian politics. In 2018, he returned as chairman of the party. 

In the economic free-for-all that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Ivanishvili made his money in Moscow in in banking, metals, and real estate, before returning in 2003 to Georgia, where he lives in a custom-built glass-and-steel mansion overlooking the cobblestone streets of Tbilisi.

Forbes puts Ivanishvili’s net worth at $4.9 billion, which is equivalent to almost one-third of Georgia’s GDP

Oligarchs and democratic politics have not mixed well in the former Soviet Union. But the country’s rambunctious democracy continued largely unabated in the early years of the Georgian Dream. Now, observers fear that the party and its wealthy leader may be trying to strengthen their grip on power ahead of elections next year. 

“[F]rom the moment GD [the Georgian Dream] felt that they might lose power they started [to] cross all red lines to remain in power,” said Eka Gigauri, the executive director of Transparency International Georgia. 

One of the early warning signs was the presidential elections last year. Nine days ahead of the vote, a charity run by Ivanishvili announced it would pay off over half a billion dollars in debt relief for 600,000 Georgians—some 17 percent of registered voters. Observers from the Georgian Dream were also seen outside of polling stations tracking who showed up to cast their ballot, raising concerns of voter intimidation.

International observers from the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe noted that while candidates could campaign freely and the vote was competitive, the ruling party had an undue advantage. 

“The Georgian Dream just seemed hell-bent on consolidating power,” said David Kramer, who served as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor under U.S. President George W. Bush. 

Another critical flash point came in July of this year, when the European Court of Human Rights upheld a decision by the Georgian Supreme Court to hand control of the country’s most-watched TV network over to a previous owner who is seen as close to the government. 

In the wake of the decision, several prominent journalists from the channel—which was widely seen as critical of the ruling party—were fired, with the channel’s general director saying they were “in conflict with the interests” of the new owners, according to RFE/RL. Dozens of other journalists resigned in protest and went on to set up new channels. 

For over a year, Transparency International Georgia has been sounding the alarm over concerns about state capture as Ivanishvili and his allies exert significant influence over almost all key public institutions, which at times has even taken a turn for the absurd. In September, Ivanishvili’s former bodyguard was for the appointed interior minister for the second time. The country’s prosecutor general formerly worked as a lawyer for Ivanishvili, while the health minister was the director of a hospital Ivanishvili built in his hometown.

“We’re concerned that due to this inability of institutions to withstand the influence of this one man,” said Oniani of Transparency International. “We are unfortunately drifting toward Russia,” he added. 

The Georgian Dream has long sought to balance popular support for closer ties with the West with normalizing relations with Russia. That balancing act has come under increased scrutiny in recent years amid allegations that the government has not done enough to check Russia’s potent disinformation and the “creeping occupation” of Georgian lands as Russian-backed forces in the breakaway region of South Ossetia gradually move the de facto border further and further into Georgian territory.

Gigauri of Transparency International said that the 2020 parliamentary elections will be a critical litmus test. “We will see which direction Georgia is going, whether it’s Russia or the West,” she said. 

As Tbilisi’s street protests look set to continue, Amnesty International issued a statement on Wednesday calling on authorities to refrain from using unnecessary force and to guarantee the right to free protest. 

Kramer,  who is now a senior fellow in the Vaclav Havel Program on Human Rights and Diplomacy at Florida International University’s Green School of International and Public Affairs, said that despite his concerns, he found reassurance in the will of the Georgian public.

“Georgians are an incredible people.” He said. “I think they are determined and committed to the cause of democracy for the most part, and they have shown that they will turn out in the streets and protest when they don’t like the way things are going.”


Correction, Nov. 30, 2019: A previous version of this article misstated David Kramer’s current affiliation. It has been updated to correct the error. 

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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