This Week In Europe

Georgia’s European path put to the test

The visit of a Russian delegation triggered the recent demonstrations in the country – but there is more at stake.

Georgia has been protesting for a while now – but the protests are directed against more than just the speech of a Russian politician in the Georgian parliament. The protests are more about the country’s creeping rapprochement with a real enemy by the ruling party Georgian Dream.

The events are well known – on the evening of the 20th to the 21st of June there were tumultuous scenes in front of the Georgian parliament, which was stormed by demonstrators even for a short time. Even if the protest decreased in size (in the first days several thousand people mobilized), it still continues to this day. According to current information, more than 250 people have already been injured, some of them seriously. Remarkable is the intensity of the Georgian police action, which uses tear gas, batons and rubber bullets. Among the injured are foreign journalists. The events originated from the visit of a Russian delegation to the Georgian parliament led by the Russian politician and Duma deputy Sergey Gavrilov. Gavrilov came in his function as the current chairman of an interparliamentary assembly between Christian Orthodox countries and addressed the deputies from the podium of the parliament, and in Russian – a slap in the face of the Georgian population. The demonstrators continue to demand the resignation of the Minister of the Interior because of the order to use police force – so far unsuccessfully. However, the President of Parliament, who was mainly responsible for the organisation of the Russian visit, resigned. By the way, the Russian delegation left early after the interruption of the parliamentary session under police protection.

International solidarity

As a direct consequence, Russian President Vladimir Putin has suspended all flights of Russian airlines to Georgia from 8 July and has instructed his government to ensure that all Russian citizens in Georgia are brought home. In his view, they are “exposed to direct provocation and in danger”. Putin knows exactly that with the flight ban he is hitting a neuralgic spot in the Georgian economy – visits by Russian guests have been bringing Georgian tourism to a new heights for years.

If one simultaneously reads a little more into the international media landscape and observes the reactions in the social media, one sees an unprecedented solidarity with Georgia’s population. On Facebook and Twitter, the “World welcome to Georgia” campaign went virally, inviting people to spend the summer in one of the “most beautiful and hospitable countries on earth”. Ambassadors from EU countries and the USA in Georgia as well as the Ukrainian President shared the campaign and reported on their personal travel highlights in the country. To date, more than 45,000 people have signed a petition on initiated by Russian civil society to lift the flight ban.

The background of the protests

In order to better understand the dimension of the protests, one must know the background of this eventful visit. Let us start with the year 2012 and the Georgian parliamentary elections. At that time, the dazzling Mikhael Saakashvili was still in charge of the country as president and chairman of the liberal United National Movement. But his authoritarian style of leadership, controversial political reform projects and regular violence against the civilian population by (corrupt) policemen were ultimately his downfall. The election brought an absolute majority for the Georgian Dream opposition party, which was formed by a civil movement and financed by Georgian billionaire Bidsina Ivanishvili. With the slogan of wanting to usher in a new epoch, the party came into government in 2012 with great popular support from the population.

Seven years later – including another parliamentary election in 2016 (with a new majority for the Georgian Dream) – trust seems to have been used up. There are several reasons for this. One of them is the momentous Russian visit organized by the Georgian Dream. But it is also about Ivanishvili’s entanglements with the Russian economic elite, whose benevolence he needs in order to be able to do business with his big neighbour. For a party leader who has promised the country an independent and transparent path into the future, this is a very skew look. Also the Orthodox Church still exerts too much influence on politics in the actually secular country (the Georgian patriarch, by the way, also co-organized the visit). And the police’s potential for violence is obviously still a problem – although Ivanshvili argued in 2012 that it should be combated.

Political vacuum before election

Georgia will be re-elected in 2020. Contrary to many people’s reading that the protests are currently only civil society protests against the prevailing conditions, the party-political implications are unmistakable. Of course, thousands of Georgians make use of their rights and take to the streets. But they have also been called upon to do so from the Ukraine, where Saakashvili is currently living in exile. He is said to continue to control the United National Movement, although Grigol Vashadze is formally another leader of the party.

Due to Ivanishvili’s increasingly well-known connections to Moscow since 2012, fewer and fewer Georgians believe that the Georgian Dream will hold their country’s European course firmly in their hands – on the contrary, they fear the growing ingratiation with a real enemy who, since the 2008 war with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, has also occupied two Georgian territories militarily and recognises them as its own states. Saakashvili’s party cleverly exploits this vacuum and places itself before the election as the logical alternative. In contrast to Ivanishvili’s Russian path, Saakashvili promises to continue the country’s European path. The policy he once pursued has been forgotten. In the meantime he has gained enough experience abroad (among other things he was in the USA, advised the Ukrainian president on his reform course and was governor of the Odessa oblast in Ukraine in 2015/2016) to score points with the population. Saakashvili wants to return to his country in 2020 as a strong political figure.

The protests in Georgia that have been perceived internationally these days are a first reaction to a symbolic visit. Above all, however, they are a long-smouldering response to a seven-year policy that is not always at ease with the country’s European reform course. The reform course is definitely uncontroversial within civil society and receives international praise (among the six countries of the Eastern Partnership of the EU, the country is regarded as a model pupil – association agreements, deepened free trade and visa liberalisation are in force), but within the current ruling party it continues to outweigh other interests.

This article was originally published in Wiener Zeitung on the 29.06.2019 and has been republished as a translation with the permission of the author.

Philipp Brugner
Born (1987) and raised in Austria, higher education in Russian Studies (Master's) and Eastern European Politics (Bachelor's degree) at the University of Vienna and State Pedagogical University St. Petersburg. Currently continuing academic education in public policy economics with an online course at the University of Oxford and pursuing a certificate in EU affairs from the Centre international de formation européenne. Professional experience in print and online journalism, foreign and security policy and EU project management. Since 2013 working as an EU project manager at the Centre for Social Innovation in Vienna. Since 2016 actively involved in the EU-Eastern Partnership dialogue as a Young European Ambassador. Since 2018 member of the youth board of the Vienna based think tank PCC (Policy Crossover Center).

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