Silencing dissent: Georgia’s faltering democracy

Commentary



This article is part of ECFR's Wider Europe Forum


If Georgia fails the democracy test, the country will lose its historical chance to enter the European community.

The latest public opinion polls (conducted by the National Democratic Institute) revealed that the support for the Georgian Dream ruling coalition has fallen sharply and is now only slightly above 10 percent. Since the poll was carried out Georgian domestic politics has entered a period of turbulence. The leaders of Georgian Dream vehemently decried the results of the poll, but did everything they could to overshadow its consequences. For the last few weeks various recordings discrediting the United National Movement (the former ruling party and main opposition force) have been released on the internet, followed by raids at the United National Movement regional offices and interrogations of the party’s leaders. All of these events have been developing at the same time as the ongoing trial against Georgian broadcasting company Rustavi2, which has already damaged the country’s reputation considerably.

Rustavi2, with its highly critical stance on the government, is Georgia’s most popular TV station. It is not only more popular than its competitor TV stations, also more popular than all of Gerogia’s political parties combined. The Rustavi2 trial began a few months ago when one of the former owners of the station sued the current owners claiming that he was deprived of his share in the TV station by the former authorities some years ago. Legitimate questions arose immediately since there were many strange coincidences surrounding the transfer of control. Chief amongst them, the fact that another former owner (who would have been an indispensable witness in case of ownership disputes) was found shot dead this year. The authorities hastily announced that it was suicide and to this day the case remains suspiciously unresolved. Before the trial began, political talk shows were shut down on every other leading TV station (those said to be influenced by the current authorities) and only after this development did the claimant “remember” that Rustavi2 belonged to him. What’s more, the sister of the claimant is an active member of the Georgian Dream coalition. The government tried to distance itself from the trial but some outspoken members of the Georgian Dream openly stated that Rustavi2 is “biased” and “it should not exist” because it “serves the United National Movement.” In short, there were legitimate doubts that the current authorities were backing the claimant.

The questions became even more uncomfortable when lawyers of Rustavi2’s current owners learned that there was a serious danger that the judge of the case would be biased. The judge’s mother is under investigation for a crime she allegedly committed more than one year ago (and another fact raising serious questions is that she has only just been charged for something she did quite a long time ago) and so the judge could be being blackmailed by the authorities. In response to this, the judge said he was not being blackmailed because his “mother is not a family member.” This statement shocked Georgia’s traditional society. But even more shocking were verdicts made by the judge. First, he handed the TV station to the claimant (the decision was based on rather controversial documents presented by the claimant’s lawyers) and if not for the constitutional court the claimant would have gained control of the TV station immediately, leaving the current owners without the right to appeal the decision. But this was just the beginning - soon the same judge appointed an interim director for Rustavi2, firing the current management in the process. The interim director appointed by the judge was a former director of a rival TV station. Needles to say, those decisions were made after the above-mentioned public opinion polls were released.     

Georgia has been governed by the Georgian Dream coalition for more than three years now. Unlike the former government, the current one has not undertaken break-through reforms and the economy has staggered. The country signed the European Union Association Agreement but is now less visible in European capitals than it used to be. Despite all this, everyone admitted that the new authorities had made improvements by ensuring that the media and the courts became more independent. However, these latest events have put even those achievements in serious doubt. The courts have been discredited and the most popular media source is under open attack.

Western embassies criticised the latest verdict as harshly as a diplomatic tongue can allow. This reaction raised some hopes in Georgia because Western pressure has been known to work in the past. In 2007, the former authorities raided an opposition TV station and when the West reacted, the president resigned and early elections were called. However, this time, Georgian Dream leaders including the Minister of Justice demanded “explanations” (from the US ambassador who happened to be the most outspoken) and some even accused the West of intervening in Georgia’s internal affairs. This is another dangerous sign. The Georgian Dream coalition has decried polls conducted by the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute every time they show the coalition’s declining popularity (something no other Georgian government did), signaling that they do not recognise the West as the ultimate arbiter. Ever since the Georgian Dream came to power, it responded to Western criticism in a peculiar way: criticisers were accused of being “bribed” or simply “misinformed” and even “fooled” by the United National Movement (who else?). The list of “bribed” parties includes the editorial boards of the Washington Post and the Financial Times, while the “misinformed” ones are usually members of the Parliamentarian Assembly of the Council of Europe. But accusing the West of intervening in Georgia’s internal affairs is something completely new. A country that strives to join the EU and NATO is accusing EU and NATO members of intervening in its internal affairs.

Is the Georgian Dream leading the country to international isolation? What are Bidzina Ivanishvili’s aims? After all, he is the billionaire who made his fortune in Russia, founded the Georgian Dream, and still runs the country despite having resigned as prime minister. The current prime minister is his former assistant, the minister of state security is his former bodyguard, and the minister of healthcare is his former doctor - and the list goes on. Georgian opposition leaders accuse Ivanishvili of deliberately destroying democracy in Georgia and returning the country to the Russian sphere of influence by cutting ties with the West. Another explanation (a simpler one) is that Ivanishvili is afraid of losing power and is trying to silence the opposition’s TV station. The outcome in both cases will be the same – Georgia will isolate itself, and all of this will happen despite the fact that civil society in Georgia is strong, and despite the fact that non-governmental organisations have criticised the authorities over Rustavi2 by rallying around the TV station. But without more Western support, civil society will not be able to save a still fragile Georgian democracy.

How can the West help civil society? It, of course, already enjoys vast support in terms of money and expertise, but under these circumstances this is not enough. Now the West should remind the current Georgian authorities that they are putting Georgian democracy and their own well-being at risk. There are reasonable members within the Georgian Dream who will take heed of the EU and the US and understand simple facts. The simple fact is that if Georgia fails the democracy test, the Association Agreement will turn into a farce and the country will lose its historical chance to enter the European community. The simple fact is that Georgia is not Russia and it will not survive in isolation (even Russia finds this difficult enough). The simple fact is that Georgian parliamentarians and high officials are living the good life because the country is still thought of by the West as a young democracy. But once the goodwill stops, it will struggle because it has no oil or gas. Georgia only has democracy… or does it?  

Tornike Sharashenidzeis professor and head of MA programme in International Affairs at the Georgian Institute for Public Affairs (GIPA) where he lectures on the history of diplomacy.

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