For Georgians, democracy must be more than just a “dream”
By Nick Melia
On the evening of January 6, a few hours after the deadly riot in the U.S. Capitol, members of Congress reconvened to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election. Despite credible security threats, they courageously reaffirmed their commitment to safeguarding democratic institutions. A core tenet of democracy is the peaceful transition of power. Senator Jeanne Shaheen, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, emphasized this in her remarks. She recounted her visit to the country of Georgia to observe the parliamentary election of 2012, when the Georgian Dream coalition defeated incumbent United National Movement.
Sen. Shaheen recalled her meeting with then-President Mikheil Saakashvili, who had already conceded his party’s loss and was preparing for a peaceful transition of power to Georgian Dream. Saakashvili’s concession -- after eight years of reform and progress under UNM, the senator noted -- was a defining moment for Georgia’s young democracy. The U.S. has long played a leading role in supporting democratic development in Georgia. Amid a crisis in Washington, Sen. Shaheen suggested, Georgia could be an example for Americans.
The senator’s remarks made an immediate impression in Georgia, where she is highly regarded for her steadfast support of Georgia’s territorial integrity and Euro-Atlantic aspirations. While it is true that UNM presided over the first (and, to date, the only) peaceful post-election transition of power in Georgia’s modern history, many Georgians have little hope for another one. Since Georgian Dream came to power eight years ago, funded by billionaire oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, the country has deteriorated from a thriving democracy to a captured state.
The ruling party, informally governed by one billionaire, has consolidated control over all levels of power -- and not only the legislature and the executive branch. Georgian Dream and its benefactor have weaponized institutions that should be neutral, stacking the judiciary and election administration at all levels with trusted relatives and party loyalists. Former UNM officials were imprisoned or driven into exile on politically motivated charges, including Saakashvili himself. Foreign investors and Georgian businesses alike have been subjected to racketeering by Ivanishvili and his cronies. Independent media and civil society organizations have faced harassment and pressure from the authorities, including prosecution on spurious grounds, unlawful surveillance, and even threats of physical harm.
As Georgia’s crucial strategic partner, the U.S. has been closely following these troubling developments. The U.S. Embassy’s efforts in support of reforms for a more representative electoral system, enacted last year, cannot be underestimated. Sen. Shaheen, her Republican colleague Sen. Jim Risch, and other lawmakers have called for the release of political prisoners in Georgia, including opposition media owner Giorgi Rurua. Over a dozen members of Congress signed on to H.R. 1461, a bill introduced in 2019 to sanction Georgian officials for unfair treatment of U.S. investors. Lawmakers have also expressed serious concerns over Ivanishvili’s ties to Russia, as well as the associated threats to U.S. interests in Georgia under his informal rule.
The parliamentary election in October 2020 should have been a prime opportunity to reverse these troubling trends. The proportional election law passed a few months earlier was intended to increase diversity in the legislature, making it more representative of the Georgian electorate overall and creating the possibility for real progress on much-needed reforms. Regrettably, the election was instead a major step back for Georgian democracy.
Opposition parties and nonpartisan NGOs documented irregularities and violations at hundreds of precincts across the country, and the body of evidence suggested that the extent of falsification may have been sufficient to tip the balance of power. The official result of the election was about 48% for Georgian Dream and 52% for all opposition parties, UNM by far the largest. The actual result, according to exit polls, may have been up to seven percentage points lower for the ruling party.
Therefore, the eight opposition parties, in a show of unprecedented unity, are boycotting Parliament. The session began on December 11, with 90 Georgian Dream deputies and 60 empty seats. Desperate for a veneer of legitimacy, Georgian Dream and Ivanishvili attempted to coerce opposition politicians into entering parliament. However, all parties refused. Last week, four members of the Alliance of Patriots -- long perceived to be pro-Russian and influenced by Ivanishvili -- left to form a new party, European Socialists, which Georgian Dream immediately welcomed into the parliament as token “opposition.”
Despite the erosion of democratic institutions under Georgian Dream, the people of Georgia remain committed to the path of EU and NATO integration. Surveys show that 90% view the U.S. favorably and 64% even support the idea of a U.S. military base in Georgia, a strategic location in a volatile neighborhood. But as long as the status quo -- oligarchic state capture, and de facto one-party rule -- remains, the aspirations of the Georgian people will be no more than “dreams.”
The only way out from this stalemate is a snap election, administered later this year by a neutral Central Election Commission under the proportional system. A free, fair election would almost certainly result in a pro-Western coalition government, which truly represents the majority of Georgian people while giving a voice to a diverse range of political views.
As Georgia faces a political crisis, economic collapse, and the COVID-19 pandemic, continued support from international partners is more valuable than ever. Together, we can rebuild a resilient democracy in a challenging region. America’s return to leadership on the global stage, as a model of democracy for the world, can make a real impact in Georgia.