Georgia is no stranger to authoritarianism. A former soviet republic, the country has been staving off both domestic and foreign attempts to subvert its democracy for decades. In the last twenty years alone, Georgians fought against widespread corruption, Russian invasion, and now must contend with controversial constitutional reform.
In 2017, the ideologically diverse coalition dominating parliament, Georgian Dream, proposed a constitutional overhaul of the nation’s elections. Previously elected by popular vote, the presidential election will now be the responsibility of an electoral college comprised of members of parliament and local governments. The proposed amendments also affect parliamentary elections, which now give incumbent parties huge advantages.
Academics in Georgia have been calling for reformation on MP selection for years, as the current laws heavily favor incumbent majorities. However, the new reforms actually strengthen the position of the ruling party in upcoming elections. The amendment prohibits parties from joining together to form electoral blocs. The new rules would make it impossible for smaller, upstart parties to form coalitions to pass the five percent threshold necessary to gain representation in parliament. Additionally, parliamentary seats that are not allocated after the election (because some parties receive votes but fail to pass the threshold) automatically go to the majority party. The combination of two new rules ensure that the ruling Georgian Dream will be in power for the foreseeable future, assuming they are able to maintain a majority after the 2020 election, until the changes take effect in 2023.
As it currently stands, the Georgian Dream party draws huge support from the public. Founded in 2012 by billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili (who chose his party’s name based on the title of one of his son’s rap tracks), the party won the majority of seats in the parliamentary elections the next year. In 2016, GD received almost double the percentage of the second-largest party and 115 of the 150 available seats.
This is not the first time a party has enjoyed widespread support in Georgia’s relatively young democracy. After officially restructuring itself as a parliamentary republic following the fall of the soviet union, Georgia’s new government was plagued by political corruption and ineptitude. In 2003, huge anti-government demonstrations led by Mikheil Saakashvili successfully brokered the resignation of newly elected leaders. The election itself was nullified by the Supreme Court and a new election was held in which Saakashvili was instated as president. The Rose Revolution, owing its name to the flowers demonstrators held while storming parliament, led to sweeping and effective democratic and anti-corruption reforms. It also paved the way for consolidation of executive power.
Saakashvili’s party, the United National Movement, immediately gained a majority in parliament. Saakashvili himself won an astounding 96% of the popular vote. The overwhelming support he and his party had was put to use immediately aggregating power to the president’s office. The president now had the responsibility of naming the prime minister, and the ability to dismiss parliament. Saakashvili used this power to commit resources to nationbuilding and make unsuccessful attempts to regain control of the increasingly autonomous South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions along the Russian border.
Today, the benefits of the more centralized national government are not as well-remembered. The subsequent war with Russia over Georgia’s northern regions along the border left parts of the country severely damaged, and hundreds of thousands of ethnic Georgian refugees straining social systems. Today, those regions are, ostensibly, independent republics allied with the Russian Federation. The territorial losses of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, along with continued economic turmoil, cost Saakashvili his status as a political rockstar, opening the door for Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream by 2012.
The national trauma following the Russo-Georgian war cost the presidency its faithful public. While the next president (Ivanishvili’s preferred candidate for the GD) Giorgi Margvelashvili did win 62% of the popular vote in a three-way election, no candidate or party has received the exceptional levels of national support since the start of Saakashvili’s United National Movement.
The public’s disenchantment with Saakashvili extended to his party, and when Georgian voters instead placed their faith in the Georgian Dream, they placed it in the legislature over the executive as well. Perhaps that is the reason parliament saw fit to rescind the ample powers given to the president’s office under the previous administration. Conflict among parties was a non-factor. President Margvelashvili belongs to the Georgian Dream, and the party occupies so many seats that it can pass amendments without including the other two. In fact, Margvelashvili actually vetoed the amendments, but the GD has so many seats that it was not only able to pass the amendment on its own, but it also overruled the veto without a single outside vote. The amendments were not about taking power away from an opposition executive. Instead, parliament as an institution has consolidated enough power to effectively turn the ruling party into the institution.
The current situation in Georgia is unique in the sense that consolidation is occurring through the legislature rather than the executive. From what we’ve previously looked at, an overwhelming majority of cases of democratic erosion originate from the executive, rather than parliament. Though it’s plain to see that the GD party has no intention of faithfully maintaining the progress made by Saakashvili’s United National Movement.
From the current situation, there is still a chance to negate this imbalance before Georgia becomes, effectively, a single-party state. There is one more parliamentary election, in 2020, between now and the year these amendments take effect, in 2023. If an opposition coalition can reduce their majority during that election, and garner enough support, there just might be a chance to wake voters from the Georgian Dream.
I’m interested to see if you would place any blame on Western Europe and the United States in Georgia’s failed attempts to develop a stable democracy. With Georgia’s proximity, complex history, and domestic influence with Russia as its neighbor, the European Union and NATO both made concessions that would reduce their influence in the region because of this relationship. After the fall of the Soviet Union, both organizations provided democratization support through membership requirements and financial aid that could help build the necessary institutions and develop economic markets. In Georgia, it seems this aid was not as focused or robust as other states. The lack of early economic development gave the EU little incentives to offer Georgia admission, whereas Georgia would have highly benefited from an increased access to financial markets. Although Georgia still remains a candidate nation, there has been little progress on welcoming the country to either organization. As seen in both the Russo-Georgian War and Russia’s invasion of Crimea, Russia has taken huge steps to limit the West’s influence on border states that could threaten Putin’s authoritarian control. Also, having NATO on Russia’s border effectively boxes Putin in, leading to potential instability within Putin’s own country (especially in South Ossetia and Abkhazia).
I’d be interested to see how Georgia’s own democratization efforts square with Russia’s efforts to delegitimize that process. Does the Georgian Dream have Russian support? Does the opposition? I think Russia plays a more significant role in the lack of democratization in Georgia than given credit, which can also explain the West’s lack of intervention. Are there ways around Russian interest in Georgia that places constraints on the amount of democratic progress the country can have? The transition away from power consolidation within the executive branch could be used as an attempt to reduce Russian influence, as friends of Russia placed in the executive branch could substantially limit any development of democratic institutions that would threaten Russian influence. However, I think the motivations behind Georgian Dream and their constitutional changes are much more sinister. I would argue that Saakashvili knew the risks associated with Russian influence and worked to reduce that influence, which is why Ivanishvili, a Russian citizen and businessman that holds close relationships with Russians, developed the Georgian Dream to challenge him. After all, Ivanishvili became the wealthiest man in Georgia due to his investments in Russian markets. It seems the Georgian Dream party may be working to develop closer ties with Russia, which would be detrimental to democratization efforts in the country.