On 20 June, an unprecedented wave of protests began in Georgia. Sparked by an appearance by a deputy of the Russian State Duma in Georgia’s Parliament, the protests – which continued daily until 20 September – focused on the Russian presence in Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, regarded by many Georgians as a de facto occupation. In the later protests, the demonstrators’ main demand was that Internal Affairs Minister Giorgi Gakharia should accept responsibility for the excessive force used by the police in June and step down. For Georgia’s Prosecutor General’s Office, the situation was crystal-clear: on 4 July, it issued a statement claiming that the protesters’ aim was to overthrow the government. In the aftermath of this announcement, opposition MP Nikanor Melia was charged with organising group violence and was forced to wear an electronic tag to monitor his activities. Other demonstrators were arrested on similar charges. As the Prosecutor General’s statement clearly showed, Georgia’s ruling party was now on the offensive against the protesters. This was borne out soon afterwards by its reaction to the controversial comments by Georgian journalist Giorgi Gabunia, which have had far-reaching consequences.
On 7 July, Gabunia – a host on Georgia’s pro-opposition TV channel Rustavi 2 – opened his Sunday show in a rather unusual manner. Speaking in Russian instead of the customary Georgian, he directed a barrage of highly insulting remarks at President Vladimir Putin. Georgia’s leading politicians reacted instantly, lambasting Gabunia’s comments as a “provocation” and claiming that he was “waging war against his own country”. The incident was also discussed in Russia’s State Duma, where representatives of all the parliamentary groups agreed that some kind of reaction was called for. As a result, they voted to impose fresh economic sanctions on Georgia. However, this decision was rebuffed by Vladimir Putin “out of respect for the Georgian people”. Putin showed exaggerated forbearance towards Gabunia as well, saying that bringing a case against him would be an “honour” that Gabunia did not deserve. A further escalation of the already tense relationship between the two countries had thus been averted for the time being.
However, the role of TV station Rustavi 2 in Georgian politics did not end there. Back in March 2017, Georgia's Supreme Court had ruled that Rustavi 2 should be handed back to its former co-owner and shareholder, businessman Kibar Khalvashi, who was thought to be close to the government. Rustavi 2 challenged the ruling. On 18 July, the European Court of Human Rights published its decision in the case of Rustavi 2. The Strasbourg court ruled that a violation of the independence and impartiality of the judges in the Tbilisi court could not be established. Khalvashi’s takeover of the TV channel Rustavi 2 was therefore lawful and the transfer of ownership was completed soon afterwards. This instantly prompted a reaction from opposition politician and former Defence Minister Irakli Okruashvili, who claimed that Rustavi 2 was his property and that he could prove it, but that he had delayed speaking out pending the decision of the European Court. Soon after making this statement, he too was arrested and charged with organising group violence during the 20 June demonstrations. The Prosecutor General’s Office produced evidence based on video footage of the demonstrations. However, critics viewed this as an attempt by the ruling party to silence anti-government voices and restrict media freedom in the run-up to the 2020 parliamentary elections.
“We will never forgive!”
The protesters’ calls for Gakharia to stand down were ignored by Georgia’s ruling party. In fact, opposition politicians and political experts suspected that Bidzina Ivanishvili, leader of Georgia’s ruling party Georgian Dream, intended to sack the incumbent Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze and promote Gakharia – dubbed “Moscow’s man” by the opposition – by appointing him as Bakhtadze’s successor. The news of Bakhtadze’s resignation, posted on Facebook on 2 September, therefore came as no surprise to many Georgians. The move cleared the way for Ivanishvili to nominate former Internal Affairs Minister Giorgi Gakharia as the new Prime Minister the following day, ahead of Gakharia’s unanimous election by the ruling party on 8 September. One of the protesters’ core demands was that Gakharia should accept responsibility for the police violence at the start of the protests and step down. However, instead of being dismissed, he was now elevated to the country’s highest office. This was bound to spark a reaction.
During the protests in September, the organisers of the Shame civic rights movement held up red cards as a warning to Ivanishvili and announced various nationwide actions with the aim of enlightening the public about the government’s “intrigues” ahead of the 2020 parliamentary elections. On the last day of the protests, they unveiled a manifesto that focused specifically on Ivanishvili. They expressed outrage at his “unilateral, oligarchic, informal rule” and accused the party leader of buying or stealing every branch of government, controlling all the legislative, executive and judicial authorities and curbing freedom of speech. The message from the demonstrators was that they would never forgive him for defying the will of the people and promoting Gakharia, a man who was responsible for violence against ordinary Georgians.
A show of power or balancing act?
The sequence of events and decisions is troubling for insiders and observers alike. In particular, the concentration of authority in the hands of the ruling party is detrimental to the separation of powers and undermines the viability of the state’s institutions. For many people, the frequent reshuffles of ministers and prime ministers look very much like the fulfilment of the will of Ivanishvili, who seems bent on circumventing the entire political process. Many government decisions are seen as undemocratic, a restriction on media freedom and an attempt at power-grabbing by Ivanishvili. The government’s narrative is often regarded as a form of Russian propaganda that spreads anti-Western and anti-European discourses and leads to the polarisation of society. While some experts talk about a show of power by the government, others take the view that Ivanishvili has no option but to perform a balancing act in order to avoid upsetting “the powerful occupying force to the north”. To what extent Georgia’s ruling party can continue this show of power and maintain any semblance of credibility until the 2020 parliamentary elections remains to be seen. The statistics from opinion polls conducted in the aftermath of the protests speak for themselves: 60 per cent of Georgians are dissatisfied with the present government and 68 per cent believe that the government used excessive force against demonstrators on 20 June.