Georgia is heralded by the European Union as one of the successes of democratic transition among the post-Soviet states during the late 20th century, but is this success overestimated? Not only has Georgia maintained one of the highest rates of income inequality of Eastern Europe and post-communist states (on par with the Russian Federation), but the near decade-long control of the Georgian Dream party threatens the sanctity of its democracy. Despite long-awaited reform to a mixed-electoral system meant to lessen the stronghold the Georgian Dream party has over parliament, their stark majority was maintained, resulting in mass uprisings fueled by a fragmented opposition. The opposition parties have accused the Georgian Dream party of electoral fraud including voter intimidation and vote-buying, and have mobilized 45,000 Georgians in Tbilisi against the electoral outcome. The state is in a critical period of consolidation, as its government is intensely pro-European even in the face of ongoing territorial disputes and interference from Russia. In order to defend its democracy against foreign and domestic threats of democratic backsliding, the Georgian government must address crucial problems within its democracy: representation and the electoral process.
The Georgian people have been protesting representation disparities and the Georgian Dream party since July of 2019, after Russian Communist Party member Sergei Gavrilov was invited to speak at the Interparliamentary Assembly of Orthodoxy. This action was seen as an attack on the sovereignty of Georgia, as Gavrilov delivered his speech from the speaker’s seat, refusing to move despite opposition from Georgian MPs, thus sparking protests that have since been amplified. Many issues have been brought to light within the democratic institutions of Georgia and may even suggest a threat of democratic decline. Civil unrest in Georgia has intensified, as the Georgian Dream party continues to enforce autocratic policies that suppress the Georgian people and utilize inhumane brutality at demonstrations against the party.
The root of the Georgian Dream party’s stronghold and resultant unrest is the majoritarian electoral system, which has long been used to consolidate and maintain political power by Georgian parties. Prior to the 2020 elections, the Georgian Dream party held 115 of the 150 seats, even though it only won roughly 49% of the proportional vote in the 2016 parliamentary elections. The opposition to the Georgian Dream party (other than the established United National Movement, UNM) has remained fragmented and underrepresented in parliament, especially since the Georgian Dream party has pushed for and increased restrictions on freedom of press and speech in this 2020 election year. Both of these factors demonstrate how the Georgian Dream party has been operating as a semi-autocratic regime against the wants of the people. Although the 2020 parliamentary elections seemed poised to enhance representativeness, the Georgian Dream party has retained parliamentary control, capturing 90 of 150 seats despite winning just over 48% of the vote. In response, protests have erupted and been intensified by evidence of Russian disinformation campaigns, vote-buying, and voter intimidation. Long-term strategic manipulation of elections has been theorized as a form of backsliding in present-day democracies; as argued by Bermeo, incumbents enact such strategies to skew the elections in their favor without appearing to violate the law or seem fraudulent. This is incredibly worrisome for the state of the Georgian democracy, as the electorate is unable to hold elected officials accountable. Given the ongoing protests against the actions and lack of action by the Georgian Dream party as well as the precedent of semi-autocratic control of incumbent parties over the course of its democratic history, the case of Georgian democratic backsliding must be taken seriously by scholars and established democracies alike.
It is important to note just how much the Georgian Dream party differs from the wants of the Georgian people, as well as how the party acquired its immense political influence. First coming into power in 2012, Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili campaigned as a “collector of the people’s dreams,” promising a new era of change for the country, which had faced stark inequalities and authoritarian rule under the UNM. Ivanishvili’s coalition ran on liberal and globalist values, promising to build the country’s democracy and ensure equal representation of the people (a policy they still have not followed through on). Even though the party won on the basis that it was a party for the people, the coalition soon broke apart, leaving the Georgian Dream party as the sole power over Georgia. Ivanishvili resorted to the same autocratic strategies enacted by UNM leaders before him to amass power and maintain the control of the Georgian parliament. Thus while the 2012 election seemed to be a success for the fatigued voters of Georgia, it soon amounted to the same trend of dominant-power politics it had suffered since early in its democracy. The autocracy of the Georgian Dream party should not be dismissed just because it is pro-Western and allied with the European Union, and the deep institutional problems within its democracy will only worsen if not addressed.
Georgian democracy is in danger, especially in the wake of creeping authoritarianism unchecked by electoral processes. Georgia can no longer be regarded as the success of the post-Soviet bloc, but rather a democracy in need of reform and consolidation. If Georgian democracy continues on this trend of decline, the Western stronghold within the region will be lost, as backsliding countries often resort to illiberal influences like Russia. Georgian democratic systems must be mended, and their electoral process must be reformed to be more representative of their people. Domestic opposition to the Georgian Dream party and the UNM must be supported internationally, and the police brutality against protestors and media censorship should be condemned by international organizations and powers. If Georgia values its relationship with the European Union and other established democracies, the Georgian Dream party must address the claims of electoral fraud and opposition suppression and focus on reform that will ensure the will of the Georgian people is represented by its Parliament.