By Will Kinsman
On October 2nd, the Republic of Georgia held municipal elections in which its citizens voted to elect local representatives and mayors. The elections were viewed as an informal referendum on the incumbent Georgian Dream political party’s nine-year rule. Georgian Dream, which controls the parliament, successfully defended its national mandate receiving 47 percent of the vote. While victorious, the party’s mandate has been plagued by an inability to improve economic conditions and manage reputational challenges posed by its founder’s involvement. The elections took place amidst the backdrop of an increasingly polarized and dissatisfied public.
In an attempt to shore up domestic support, Georgian Dream has increasingly sought to appeal to traditional values of a deeply religious Georgian public in ways that have put the party at odds with the U.S. and the European Union. Its behavior threatens to derail the democratic progress Georgia has made during the past three decades since its independence from the Soviet Union and towards greater integration with the West. If it continues down this path, Georgian Dream risks undermining the country’s accession to the EU, which most Georgians view as a path to increased economic prosperity.
Stability in a Volatile Region
Since the mid-2000s, Georgia’s democracy has been a bastion of relative stability in the oft-volatile South Caucasus region, which has been wracked by sporadic conflict highlighted by the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. Beginning in the 1990s, Georgia tied its future to the West through pursuit of membership in Euro-Atlantic institutions such as the European Union and NATO. To do so, Georgia sought to implement key economic and democratic reforms necessary to bring its political system and values in line with the common standards of EU and NATO member states. Following Russia’s 2008 military invasion and annexation of its land, Georgia has steadily increased cooperation with its regional and transatlantic allies on such issues as security and democratization, especially now that Georgia is seen as one of NATO’s key frontline allies in the region.
While collaboration with its allies has grown significantly, Georgia has suffered internally from inconsistent economic development and political polarization. This is partially the legacy of the early 2000-era’s rise of Mikhail Saakashvili to the presidency during the Rose Revolution of 2003. Saakashvili’s time in power is remembered for its successful economic policies and anti-corruption efforts but also for its involvement in human rights abuses and the 2008 war with Russia over South Ossetia, which some accuse Saakashvili of provoking.
In the 2012 parliamentary elections, Georgian Dream defeated Saakashvili and his party, the United National Movement (UNM), in what was seen as an upset and a rebuke of Saakashvili’s leadership. Georgian Dream was launched that year by billionaire businessman and former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili with the promise of shepherding the country into a period of sustained prosperity and stable governance. This was seen as particularly needed following the chaos caused by the 2008 war and by Saakashvili’s heavy-handed efforts to stamp out corruption and mass deregulation of the economy.
Perhaps the most significant and controversial part of its agenda has been Georgian Dream’s pursuit of a “middle road” between continued Western integration while at the same time promoting economic growth through normalization of relations with Russia. This delicate balancing act was seen as likely to fail from the outset given the large-scale distrust of Russia by Georgians across the political spectrum, the country’s robust domestic opposition, and the importance of its relationship with the U.S. and the EU. Georgian Dream’s attempts to establish better working relations with Russia have proven unproductive in the face of sustained destabilization activities by Russian-backed authorities, in the disputed territory of South Ossetia to advance the de-facto border further into Georgian territory through a process dubbed “borderization.”
Ongoing Economic Challenges
Since taking power in 2012, Georgian Dream has been challenged by its failure to replicate economic growth (its original campaign promise) achieved by the Saakashvili government and by a narrative perpetuated by the opposition that its leaders maintain ties to the Kremlin whose aim is to derail the country’s Western integration. Ivanishvili has perpetuated this narrative through his alleged use of the government to further his own personal business interests often at the expense of foreign investors’ confidence in the economy, most particularly demonstrated by the Anaklia port project.
Under these circumstances, Georgian Dream’s leadership has depended on its ability to drive appreciable growth in the country’s economy. Yet the party has failed in this respect with recent polls demonstrating that most Georgians consider weak economic growth to be Georgian Dream’s greatest failure. To distract from its economic shortfalls, the party has instead begun to court homophobic and nationalistic sentiments of conservative Georgian society, while simultaneously seeking to silence and intimidate the opposition. The government’s arrest of the head of the opposition and its failure to condemn violent protests against Tbilisi’s annual gay pride march this summer appear to be aimed at both muzzling the opposition and shoring up its support amongst its conservative supporters.
Georgia’s Western Integration
While its actions may have bought the party more time as evidenced by its success in this month’s municipal elections, its behavior risks derailing the progress the country has made towards greater Western integration. Given that integration with the West still holds popular support with most Georgians, Georgian Dream risks both alienating its U.S. and EU allies and potential defeat in parliamentary elections in 2024.
Already, Georgian Dream’s actions in the run up to this year’s municipal elections have threatened to undermine the country’s Western integration, drawing expressions of concern from the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi and from EU President Charles Michel. This was followed by an announcement by the government that it would forgo EU aid in a veiled rebuff of EU demands that it implement key reforms to the country’s judiciary. Subsequently, Georgian Dream moved to pull out of an EU-brokered deal designed to bring an end to its dispute with the opposition over the results of the 2020 parliamentary elections. More recently, it was revealed that the Georgian State Security Services had surveilled top EU and U.S. diplomats, prompting the U.S., EU, and Japanese Ambassadors to Georgia to release a letter expressing their “grave concerns” over the incident.
While successful in October’s municipal elections, Georgian Dream faces an increasingly difficult set of challenges to secure its future reelection. These include delivering real economic improvements in the lives of ordinary Georgians and successfully managing its “East-West” balancing act. If Georgian Dream is not able to navigate these competing dynamics, it risks not only its own defeat, but also the country’s ability to achieve its goal of becoming a stable, prosperous, and fully democratic member of the Euro-Atlantic community.