Report

Georgia Holds Fraught Elections Amid a COVID-19 Disaster

Dozens of people are dying a day, and the country’s future may be on the line.

Georgian opposition supporters take part in a rally following the arrest of Nika Melia, the leader of the United National Movement, in the town of Rustavi on Feb. 24.
Georgian opposition supporters take part in a rally following the arrest of Nika Melia, the leader of the United National Movement, in the town of Rustavi on Feb. 24. VANO SHLAMOV/AFP via Getty Images

Khatia Dekanoidze is optimistic—but she’s also pretty worried.

A senior leader in the United National Movement and head of the opposition faction in Georgia’s parliament, she’s confident Georgian citizens are fed up with the ruling Georgian Dream party and will vote against it in the upcoming Oct. 2 local elections. The elections, which include mayorships, city council positions, and other local roles, are seen as a critical bellwether in a politically volatile nation

But at the same time, she’s afraid Georgian Dream is taking the country away from its alliances with the West and toward Russia to cling onto power. That’s a fear echoed by other Georgians in a country where relationships with Washington and Moscow are treated as matters of life and death.

Georgian opposition supporters take part in a rally following the arrest of Nika Melia, the leader of the United National Movement, in the town of Rustavi on Feb. 24.

Georgian opposition supporters take part in a rally following the arrest of Nika Melia, the leader of the United National Movement, in Rustavi, Georgia, on Feb. 24. VANO SHLAMOV/AFP via Getty Images

Khatia Dekanoidze is optimistic—but she’s also pretty worried.

A senior leader in the United National Movement and head of the opposition faction in Georgia’s parliament, she’s confident Georgian citizens are fed up with the ruling Georgian Dream party and will vote against it in the upcoming Oct. 2 local elections. The elections, which include mayorships, city council positions, and other local roles, are seen as a critical bellwether in a politically volatile nation

But at the same time, she’s afraid Georgian Dream is taking the country away from its alliances with the West and toward Russia to cling onto power. That’s a fear echoed by other Georgians in a country where relationships with Washington and Moscow are treated as matters of life and death.

Even getting to the polls may be hazardous among a catastrophic COVID-19 outbreak in a country that once had case numbers relatively under control. When I spoke to Dekanoidze, between 60 to 80 Georgians were dying each day, an extraordinarily high number given the country’s small population. Since then the number has reached more than 130 deaths a day—the equivalent, adjusted for population, of 11,700 deaths a day in the United States. The COVID-19 disaster, described by the country’s health minister as “five times worse than India,” has focused public anger on the government while also making people wary of public gatherings.

Local elections in a small mountain nation of almost 4 million people wouldn’t generate much interest in the West—if it wasn’t for Georgia’s geopolitical importance. Ever since Tbilisi made an aggressive shift to the West after the 2003 Rose Revolution, Georgia has been viewed in Washington and Brussels as a key battleground state like its nearby neighbor on the Black Sea, Ukraine. Moscow is keen to regain ground in countries it sees as its historical property through any means necessary. Over the past decade, the Kremlin has illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimea and invaded and occupied several regions of eastern Ukraine. It continues to illegally occupy the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions of Georgia and steal its land in slow increments.

Georgian Dream took power in 2012, arguing it could bring restraint to the country’s integration with the West while still keeping the Kremlin at bay. The opposition argues it has failed on both fronts. Leaders from minority parties are calling local elections a potential referendum on Georgian Dream and its attempt to pander to Russia by breaking off Western ties. Dekanoidze points out the party’s withdrawal from the April 19 agreement—negotiated by the European Union, in which the ruling and opposition parties were supposed to settle their grievances through reforming key sectors of the government—and its refusal to accept a recent round of loans from Brussels. “Moldova is getting so close to the European Union, and Ukraine is getting so close,” Dekanoidze said. “Where is Georgia?’ Georgia is nowhere. We’re floating. We need one more crack to sink.”

That referendum may be quite literal. A main condition of the April 19 agreement was that snap parliamentary elections would take place if Georgian Dream failed to get 43 percent of the vote during upcoming local elections. Although Georgian Dream is no longer a signatory, opposition leaders are hopeful that failing to meet the threshold will compel Georgian voters to hit the streets if the ruling party doesn’t agree to snap elections.

The government is determined to stop that from happening, and Georgian Dream’s recent security agreement with Belarus is raising eyebrows. Although Georgia doesn’t come close to Belarusian oppression, the opposition and nongovernmental organizations accuse the government of using increasingly authoritarian methods, such as threatening individual civil servants with layoffs if they don’t vote for the party. Behind this, they argue, is the desire of former Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, still a powerful player in national politics, to keep control.

“This is a very dangerous game from Bidzina,” Dekanoidze said. “What he wants is to keep his authoritative power to secure his financial assets and to control the country. He doesn’t care about the European Union, NATO, or Georgia’s future.” The opposition also blames the government for failing to protect organizers and journalists attending a planned LGBTQ+ march that ended with more than 50 reporters injured and a cameraperson who was blooded during the melee dying a week later. The Shame Movement, which formed in 2019 to coordinate protests in response to a Russian lawmaker’s appearance in the Georgian parliament, believes its office was targeted that same day by far-right groups with help from the ruling government.

Transparency International lawyers are representing several Shame Movement members in legal proceedings against the police department, accusing the force of failing to protect them during the violence. It didn’t help that Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili denounced the march as “unreasonable” and organized by “radical opposition.”

But Giorgi Khelashvili, a politician with Georgian Dream who worked on the party’s foreign affairs committee, denied the accusations. He said police forces were ready to protect LGBTQ+ protesters in the evening but were not prepared for the afternoon attacks. “This is one of the worst episodes in recent Georgian history,” he said. “However, it had nothing to do with the government or the police.” Khelashvili brushed off accusations of deliberate collusion as ridiculous and referred to Shame Movement members as “political factions of the opposition.”

Voters aren’t decided. To be sure, according to a recent International Republican Institute poll, 61 percent want to see new parties govern the country, and 51 percent strongly agree it is healthy for multiple parties to be in power rather than just traditional majority governments, which have tended to turn to authoritarian methods in Georgia. Yet polling from the National Democratic Institute shows 54 percent of voters are still undecided. The main issues voters care about, according to polling, are economic and job concerns. Surveys show voters care deeply about joining the European Union and NATO and cherish their country’s strong relations with the West. But none of those factors weigh heavier than issues of rising food prices and unemployment.

Although most of the political parties are polling under 30 percent (and, in many cases, in single digits), some figures enjoy far-reaching popularity. Patriarch Ilia II of the Georgian Orthodox Church is polling at 88 percent favorability. Coming in second is Kakha Kaladze, the incumbent mayor of Tbilisi and a member of Georgian Dream.

Then there is Giorgi Gakharia, a former Georgian prime minister who was with Georgian Dream before he left the party earlier this year. Fourth is United National Movement chairperson Nika Melia, part of the biggest opposition party with the majority of opposition seats in parliament. The United National Movement was criticized early on for not signing the April 19 agreement but has since become a signatory of the document—a move now largely symbolic since Georgian Dream withdrew its support.

If the government fails to hit the 43 percent threshold, these figures may prove important in rallying calls for snap elections. Otherwise, the opposition will struggle to get people out on the streets. Much of that is due to pandemic restrictions against door-to-door campaigning and mass political gatherings. And although opposition leaders regularly appear on television, there’s hardly a trace of their campaign materials in most cities across the country. Every major street and intersection in the country has billboards showing the Georgian Dream candidates though.

In March, I reported that most Georgians agreed with the opposition that there was an appetite for a coalition government—but some members of the opposition aren’t optimistic. Salome Samadashvili, an independent member of parliament who left the United National Movement after its leadership initially refused to sign the April 19 agreement, said the opposition has done little over the past several months to convince voters they are a better alternative to Georgian Dream.

“When I listen to the political discourse of the opposition on TV, I see that it has nothing to do with what concerns Georgian citizens,” Samadashvili said, adding that internal bickering and petty power struggles among the opposition have nothing to do with ordinary voters.

Yet other opposition leaders say disagreements have been overblown and the opposition have formed much closer ties since March. One part of their strategy has been to deploy bigger names to the country’s biggest cities to run in local offices, such as mayor, even if they aren’t from those towns.

Dekanoidze, for example, is running for mayor of Kutaisi even though she is from Tbilisi. The smaller parties know they can’t win by themselves, and the United National Movement is too divisive among the Georgian population because of how polarizing former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is. The idea is the United National Movement will get, say, 20 or 30 percent of the votes while the smaller parties, at least eight of them, will pick up 10 percent here and 8 percent there with the hope of collecting enough support they will keep Georgian Dream from reaching 43 percent parity nationwide.

A campaign billboard for incumbent mayor Kakha Kaladza in Tbilisi on Sept. 10.

A campaign billboard for incumbent mayor Kakha Kaladze is seen in Tbilisi, Georgia, on Sept. 10. Terrell Jermaine Starr for Foreign Policy

From there, they will come together and form local coalitions and run the country from the regions until they can claim the capital. At least, that’s the idea.

Giorgi Kandelaki, co-founder of European Georgia, credits Melia for strategizing how each party will fight for power in certain parts of the country. For example, while Melia competes for mayorship, he worked with European Georgia members to ensure Helen Khoshtaria is given full support to run for the head of city council, even though she heads the smallest and newest party: Droa.

Khoshtaria said much of the public conflicts people see are the results of very diverse opposition figures figuring out how to form a coalition in real time. “It is a very new type of relationship,” she said. “On the one hand, they say they want a coalition, but when they don’t like one part of the coalition, they complain. We say, ‘It’s impossible to like all parts of the coalition. That’s why they are different.’ Then some say, ‘Why don’t you unite in one party?’ Then we explain the whole essence of the coalition is that we are not one party. And then when they ask why we are criticizing each other, we say that is the essence of the coalition.”

Mamuka Khazaradze, founder of the opposition group Lelo for Georgia, was able to gather a group of around 40 supporters in the Gldani section of Tbilisi during a cool September evening, where he urged attendees to come out and vote on Oct. 2.

He was there with the party’s nominee for mayor as well as another candidate for local office with a monument dedicated to victims of the August 2008 Russian invasion prominently behind them. After everyone finished their speeches, a group of military pensioners started shouting how little they receive every month. Khazaradze walked over to them and spoke for a few minutes before sitting at a nearby bench to explain why he is confident the very fractured opposition can pull out a victory this week, despite their very difficult and fragile coalition.

“We have agreed that, although we are competitors and we are trying to collect as many votes as possible for our parties, we have a common goal to save the country and to bring it back towards the European course,” he said. “These are the big goals that are uniting us, and therefore, we are willing to work as a coalition government. I do not think there will be any barrier to form coalition governments at the local level after the local elections.”

Dekanoidze hopes the opposition gets that far. If it doesn’t have a strong showing Saturday, she fears Georgians will become indifferent and her country will return to the days when Georgia was considered a lost hope in the minds of political power brokers in Washington and Brussels.

“I’m very worried about the future of Georgia because I really don’t think that kleptocracy or the oligarchy can bring Georgia into the Euro-Atlantic path,” she said. “The window of opportunity for Georgia is decreasing.”

Terrell Jermaine Starr is founder and host of the foreign-policy podcast Black Diplomats and author of the upcoming book, Black Man on the Steppes: My Odyssey From Detroit to Eastern Europe. He is also a senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. Twitter: @Russian_Starr

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