21 July 2023

The erosion of democracy or the pivoting of foreign policy?

Ten features of Georgia’s ruling party to maintain power

Still from documentary Taming the Garden directed by Salomé Jashi. Mira Film, Corso Film, Sakdoc Film. 2021© Courtesy of the author

In this article, Tamta Mikeladze, founder of the NGO Social Justice Center and associate professor at the Ilia State University, analyzes the power structure of Georgia’s ruling party, the Georgian Dream and the oligarchic system of Bidzina Ivanishvili. She demonstrates the backsliding of Georgia under the Georgian Dream to a hybrid authoritarianism showing ten features of accumulating power and erosion of democracy.

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As the Russian Federation continues to wage a brutal war in Ukraine, significant shifts in Georgia’s domestic and foreign policies have become too stark to ignore. While on the one hand, there has been a rise in authoritarian trends and crises, negative developments within the country’s foreign policy, on the other hand, have raised red flags concerning Georgian Dream’s commitment to upholding Georgia’s European aspirations. These negative changes became visible when Georgian Dream, Georgia’s ruling party, a political organization once built on a coalition, reached the peak of homogenization and ultimately lost the resource of internal diversity and balance. These raised concerns among the expert community and the public about Georgian Dream finally removing its mask.

The Georgian public is overwhelmed with questions and suspicions about where the country is going. One can hear these questions in the streets, at rallies and demonstrations, in universities, neighbourhoods and households. One can wonder why the ruling party is daily attacking representatives of the EU and spreading conspiracy theories about a 'global war party' (i.e. the West) trying to lure Georgia into military actions against Russia when a long-awaited historic chance of becoming part of a new EU enlargement wave (together with Moldova and Ukraine) is within a stone’s throw. How can one possibly justify Georgian authorities entering into a political conflict with the Ukrainian leadership, simultaneously doubling the volume of trade with Russia and welcoming the resumption of flights with Moscow as the EU member states strengthen economic sanctions against Russia and increase support for Ukraine? How can one explain the unwillingness of the Georgian government to put the question of the Russian occupation of Georgian provinces and the military, political, and human damage Georgia sustained from Russia back to the global geopolitical agenda as well as its reluctance to call Russia an enemy when a new European security architecture is underway? Why did the ruling party initiate a Russian-type law on foreign influence agents threatening to constrain the freedom of civic and media organizations? Why should Georgia’s prime minister make a homophobic statement at the Conservative Party Action Conference in Budapest hosted by Victor Orban, EU’s headache, just a few months ahead of EUs decision about granting EU candidate status to Georgia? What could motivate the Georgian authorities to undermine a constructive dialogue with opposition and civil society organizations instead of implementing European Commission 12 recommendations which are preconditions for granting Georgia EU candidacy?

Georgian society has no unequivocal answers to these questions. Some believe that Georgian Dream desires to maintain political and economic power. Others argue that the ruling party is following the global trend of expanding authoritarianism (especially in Georgia’s neighbours Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Russia). Some explain the decisions of the Georgian authorities with Georgian Dream’s geopolitical interests and an alleged alliance between the Kremlin and the Moscow-affiliated Georgian oligarch Ivanishvili. All of these arguments are legitimate, interrelated, and substantial. The process of European integration requires from the ruling party to deepen democratic reforms and implementation of consensus-based politics. However, this requirement is incompatible with Georgian Dream’s primordial zest for maintaining power. It is also evident that the war in Ukraine, the introduction of global economic sanctions against Russia and the mass migration of middle-class Russians in the region, have created new opportunities for utilizing the Russian market.

The analysis of trade relations between Georgia and Russia suggests that since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Russian Federation’s imports to Georgia increased by 82%. The import of oil products rose by 403% followed by flour and processed grains (309%) and construction metal (1493%). 67% of Russian imports fall under the list of goods sanctioned by the USA or the EU, with petroleum products and natural gas accounting for the most significant share. The five-fold increase in the import of petroleum products (going far beyond the demand of the Georgian market) makes experts believe that petroleum sales bypass the sanctions (research commissioned by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung,the 2023). At the same time discussions between Grigory Karasin, chairman of the Russian Federation Council’s Foreign Affairs Committee, and Zurab Abashidze, the Georgian Prime Minister’s Special Representative for Russia, leaked to the Georgian media, concerning the construction of a new transport corridor between Russia and Georgia and the improvement of road infrastructure between Russia and the South Caucasus. New business interests and deals exploiting the war in Ukraine are immoral and unethical. They alarmingly increase the risks of the rise of the informal economy and the political cost of economic dependence on Russia. Some suspected that Ivanishvili had to camouflage his Russian interests because of the solid anti-Russian sentiments in Georgian society, simultaneously supporting pro-Russian groups and promulgating anti-Western conservative propaganda. However, after the Russian aggression in Ukraine and the confrontation between Russia and the West, the ruling party can no longer hide its pro-Russian interests.

In any case, to get closer to finding answers to the above questions, one has to gain a complete insight into power-maintaining practices, instruments and techniques of Georgian Dream to capture the specifics of their governance. There have been few and weak attempts to describe and theorize the power structures of the ruling party and their informal, intangible, and mostly fluctuating nature.

1. One of the fundamental features of Georgian Dream is its lack of development goals. Unlike the post-Rose-Revolution government, which had the ambition to lay the foundation of a new Georgian state with radical, rapid, and often thoughtlessly socially painful reforms, Georgian Dream initially appealed to stability and pragmatism. At the initial stage, the coalition government of Georgian Dream allowed some pluralism without clear-cut ideological and value-based goals, making it difficult to understand the nature and boundaries of their power. Such political ambiguity and the slower rhythm were initially relieving for Georgian society, tired of rapid and forceful modernization in the post-Rose-Revolution period. However, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Georgian Dream party started alarmingly rapid and unexpected changes featuring signs of democratic backsliding and authoritarian trends. While the ruling party lacks any development goals, even on the rhetorical level, it continues to subordinate the state institutions to the party control. Many experts fear that authoritarian tendencies and the risks of the further shrinking of political and public freedoms will become stronger.

2. The most important promise of Georgian Dream before the 2012 elections was to renounce violence and start systemic changes. Indeed, the ruling party initially initiated some institutional improvements. However, as soon as Georgian Dream faced its first crisis, it resorted to the same power consolidation and social control instruments as its predecessor.

Key features of Georgian Dream’s power consolidation techniques replicate the authoritarian legacy of the previous government: Dismantling of the checks and balances system; the absence of distribution of power and rules of a consensual game in the parliament; establishment of clan authority in the judiciary; politicization and impunity of law enforcement authorities; weak local self-governments and a rigid top-down governance style; overt police brutality against rallies and demonstrations; mass illegal surveillance and unlawful dissemination of footage with private personal information; strict control and occasional cleansing of the public service sector. For the past two years Georgian Dream’s governance practices of relying on control and repression have become even more intense and arbitrary, clearly indicating Georgia’s transition from hybrid democracy to hybrid authoritarianism.

3. While in the first years the Georgian Dream government renounced overt violence and demonstrated softer governance instead, simultaneously it tolerated social violence granting political and legal immunity to conservative or openly pro-Russian groups who bullied various social groups (opposition, media, LGBTQ+ community, religious minorities etc.). As of today, the ruling party has adapted political and social hate speech and pro-Russian propaganda cultivated by those groups mentioned above to their official rhetoric, which makes them almost indistinguishable.

4. Yet another significant characteristic of Georgian Dream is the normalization of informal governance and influences related first and foremost to Bidzina Ivanishvili. Ivanishvili, who stepped down from formal power as prime mister shortly after he had taken office, has since then been perceived as a shadowy superpower useful to de-escalate crises when needed. However, the oligarch lost the public trust over the past few years. Now he is ranking far behind the leaders and mayors of his government in public opinion polls. Even though Ivanishvili maintains excessive influence over the party and state institutions, as the leader ripped off his quasi-sacral authority he no longer possesses resources for mitigating crises. Nor does the public expect him to do so. The loss of trust may account for a growing inclination towards repression, which remains one of the power instruments for the ruling party to hold political power.

5. The oligarchic system of Georgian Dream blurred the margins between political and private interests. As a result, political and private interests intertwined so that maintaining political power became identical to preserving wealth. According to Ivanishvili’s benevolence, while Ivanishvili is at the top of the oligarchic pyramid, other figures and groups gain and lose political and economic power and resources. Figures and groups outside his pyramid have no access to resources or are declared enemies. While the post-revolutionary government centred their ideology around aggressive delimitation of political and economic (market) affairs, which eventually acquired aggressive forms of neoliberal experiments and which had to be shielded by the police force (even though numerous organizations raised concerns over the signs of elite corruption), the Georgian Dream government turned their back on this delimitation principle by returning the political system to a traditional structure of post-Soviet countries.

6. 11 years after ascending to power, the Georgian Dream government struggles to gain massive electoral support. Against this backdrop, deepening mistrust and the promulgation of political and social polarization becomes the primary strategy for maintaining power. For several years Georgian Dream has tried to delegitimize all political or quasi-political actors (opposition, media, civil society organizations, activist groups) to ensure that there will be no consolidation of trust around these actors. For the ruling party, it is critical to maintain the status quo of electoral distribution: According to the Caucasus Research Resource Center survey, 25% of the population will vote for Georgian Dream no matter what, with only 10% rooting for the opposition, while 62% of the voters refuse to name a party they would vote for. The public opinion polls of previous years demonstrated little, if any, differences in priorities, geopolitical affiliations, and values of the government’s and the opposition’s voters. According to the 2021 research commissioned by the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation, views of Georgian Dream and National Movement coincided on 15 out of 30 survey items. This finding appeared to some experts to indicate a top-down and affective polarization. However, currently, the protracted polarization has taken its toll. A targeted polarization strategy worked and is now clearly visible at social levels.

7. Yet another essential mechanism at the disposal of Georgian Dream to mobilize power is the political instrumentalization of social vulnerability and poverty. The target social assistance program’s beneficiaries increased by 65% from 2011 to 2022. By 2022, 680.000 individuals – 18% of the country’s total population – were registered as the program’s beneficiaries. The budget of the targeted social assistance program increased from 270 to 609 million GEL in 2022. Only a few families leave the targeted social assistance system due to improved social standing. In 2022, the government launched a new employment program for a socially vulnerable population. Since then, the budget of the program has doubled. Likewise, the number of citizens dependent on the state’s support has also been on the rise. Decisions about the inclusion and exclusion of individuals and households in social assistance programs often have a political factor. Many residents of the regions have complained that they cannot join public meetings and other processes, fearing that this might put their families at risk of being excluded from the social assistance program. Rapid migration of politically active citizens out of the country (except for the period of the pandemic the migration balance has been consistently negative for the past ten years) is another crucial factor to consider. Therefore, on the one hand, the government use running social programs as a response to pressing social concerns without introducing systemic approaches to overcoming poverty (high-quality services, minimum wage, unemployment insurance, family allowances etc.), making these programs an instrument of social control and demobilization on the other. The paternalism of Georgian Dream is political, it resembles an invisible social deal which helps the government to undermine the citizens’ political autonomy and liberty.

8. To demobilize voters’ active potential, the Georgian Dream government routinely instrumentalizes the traumas and fears related to war and armed conflicts. The war in Ukraine has revived a memory of the war traumas of Georgian society and opened up wounds. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, social networks have been flooded with stories of refugees, their plight, pain, losses and indelible damage sustained by the protracted conflicts. Georgian Dream started to instrumentalize these wounds. The key message of the ruling party for almost a year reads as follows: There is a global interest to lure Georgia into Ukraine’s war, and Georgian Dream is the only force that can safeguard peace in the country. For this they require pragmatic politics and normalization of relations with Russia. In a country where there is no everyday peace, where the Russian occupational forces detain dozens of Georgian citizens in villages along the Line of Division [translator's note: with the self-declared Republic of South Ossetia], where the process of 'borderization' is ongoing with new places being yielded to Russia’s control and ethnic Georgians continuously suffer from a permanent humanitarian crisis, talking about the peace guaranteed by the authorities in such a tone is embarrassing and distorts reality.

9. Instrumentalizing conservative sentiments has been another effective instrument for the Georgian Dream to maintain power. The ruling party actively instrumentalizes support from the Georgian Orthodox Church and propagates political homophobia, often with geopolitical connotations. The Orthodox Church, which acted as a mediator in the hostile political setting in the recent past, has turned into an institute overtly loyal to the government. At first glance, the change in the role can be explained by crises within the Church and the 'natural' affinity of the Georgian Orthodox Church’s leadership towards the conservative populism of Georgian Dream. However, an underlying cause may run deeper into harsh control mechanisms used by the government regarding the Georgian Orthodox Church. Information released two years ago suggests that the authorities have routinely surveyed, tapped and unlawfully stored the clergy’s personal communication, which has effectively been used as an instrument for leverage and control.

10. Conservative antiliberal populism applied by Georgian Dream follows a paradigm of new authoritarian regimes. It is based on the logic of the illusory majority and is essentially antipluralist. Anyone who criticizes the authorities is labelled an enemy of the state and the Church, an extremist who deserves no respect or political existence. Efforts to demonize opponents have gone to such extremes that they have led to violent attacks, intimidation and death of the targets. The authorities have managed to mobilize all the fears, affects, and resentments and make them part of propaganda using political technologies which serve as a powerful weapon for mass influence thanks to media and advertisement monopoly. The analysis of the latest quantitative research suggests that those who vote for the incumbent government are more polarized. According to the findings of the 2023 CRRC survey, among supporters of the ruling party are seniors, religious, rural residents and public sector employees in contrast to supporters of opposition parties, which are more highly educated, unemployed or working in the private sector. Those without party affiliation primarily reside in Tbilisi and are younger and not religious. Therefore, the populist conservative language of Georgian Dream seems to serve as a strategy for preserving electoral support and power.

We can undoubtedly characterize Georgian Dream’s authority as a hybrid authoritarianism standing on the logic of the consolidation of power, political accumulation of economic resources, and populism. This governance structure acquires a patrimonial form due to an abundance of informal influences whose ramifications are disastrous not only for democracy and institutional politics but also for the consistently weakening and shrinking public sphere, political liberties and self-organization. A new wave of populist rhetoric often repeats the language and logic of new authoritarian regimes which stand on anti-elitist and antipluralist sentiments and position themselves as the true and exclusive representatives of the majority. However, this rhetoric overshadows and masks the problem of legitimation of a ruling party and its clashes with the economic interests of the majority or a geopolitical (Euro-Atlantic) choice of 80% of Georgia’s population.

The question raised earlier in the paper, whether negative trends of recent years are the consequences of the political crisis and the efforts to maintain power or whether they should be attributed to the changes in foreign policy, remains difficult to answer. A string of causes, factors and consequences might slip from the hands of the observer and get lost through the labyrinth of informal politics. However, even without establishing hierarchical causal linkages, it is evident that the consequences of these changes are devastating for the fragile Georgian statehood: they have been eroding democracy and threaten to change the country’s political geography unless Georgian society takes matters into its own hands to stop this process.