Void at the Helm

Georgia's ruling party can't rule

The Georgian government’s meltdown in response to Rustavi 2 anchor swearing at Putin was as epic as it was seemingly unpredictable. But it only reflects the pent-up tension from the ruling Georgian Dream losing its grip on governance. It is an open secret by now – Georgia’s ruling party can’t rule.

Bidzina Ivanishvili, the party’s founder, its undisputed patron, and – crucially – donor – combines his penchant for micromanaging the loyal henchmen with his broad lack of interest in most of country’s affairs.

The resulting paralysis of governance was what the Austrian Ambassador Arad Benko has referred to in June interview, saying the foreigners have to deal with “inability to take decisions and the dearth of decision-makers”. Although Ambassador has diplomatically walked some of this criticism back later, the message stuck. After all, this is the point one hears often among westerners that live or work in Georgia.

Ivanishvili’s decision to formally take back the reigns of the party in May 2018 and his decision to abruptly sack Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili in June 2018 did not bring expected new dynamism, quite the contrary.

Kvirikashvili’s broadly economically liberal policies were shelved. Even though these were often ineptly implemented, affable style of the Prime Minister played well with foreign donors.

With Kvirikashvili out of the play, his pet-projects took the hit. Particularly Anaklia Deep Sea Port ended in a deep trouble, as the state agencies went after the consortium that won the contract to build it – headed by TBC Bank. Some say, getting cozy to TBC is what cost Kvirikashvili his job, as his patron got suspicious of split loyalties.

The new PM, Mamuka Bakhtadze, cuts a marginal and ineffectual figure, which is especially striking since his the new Constitution makes him country’s top politician. The power loathes vacuum, so the political power started to seep to lesser deities – Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia and Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze being the two most obvious ones.

But do they have actual power, or just a semblance of control? The quasi-feudal system built around Ivanishvili does not tolerate any delegation of power, but only functions on the basis of favors bestowed by the top man. The “government”, so composed, is serving the constituency of one. It can not and does not listen to the needs of the multitude of Georgians.

As the landmines went off one after another under the feet of the Georgian Dream government in this past year, all government members remained focused on pleasing their patron. But in the meantime, the Georgians – many of whom did elect the Georgian Dream with hopes for improvement – were getting depressing revelations.

The Khorava street murders showed that violence in schools is still a problem, that prosecutors cover their families and use shady “fixers” to clean the tracks. What is worse, when summoned to the Parliamentary committee, several prosecutors had a hard time answering a logical line of questions, showing Georgians how rotten the system is. 84% of the respondents told the NDI opinion survey, they thought the case was not properly investigated.

The Subeliani tapes scandal showed how businesses remain under pressure and the high profile cases are handled through backroom deals, between politicians and the judiciary/prosecution.

Anaklia Deep Sea port/TBC Bank affair told Georgians that the government would sacrifice its international prestige and country’s geopolitical stakes, for the whim of their patron.

Controversy regarding the appointment of the Supreme Court Judges, which cost Georgian Dream a super-majority in the parliament as some members defected, showed to what extent corrupt judges – even the ones vilified during the previous administration – are co-opted to serve the new system.

The “Gavrolov night” was a testimony of how far the “everything goes” nihilism in the face of an aggressor can blind the politicians to symbolism of protocol gestures. The violent police crackdown on the night of June 20-21 – that the police is still a political tool. Silence of the whole of government while the crisis was unfolding, and its sudden jolt of activity once the public relations team kicked in – that the process of governance and the independence of the judiciary remain a fiction.

No wonder than, that the record number of Georgians – 46% by NDI poll from April 2019 – say the country is going in the wrong direction, as opposed to 25% who say things are looking up.

A condemnation all around, then. But there is a snug – Georgian Dream keeps winning elections.

Hate-driven boost

Return of Ivanishvili and – especially – of ex-PM Irakli Garibashvili heralded the new spiral of hate in political battles. The Georgian Dream and its arch-nemesis the United National Movement (UNM) never spared a sling of mud, whenever the opportunity presented itself. But the second round of the Presidential election campaign, when GD suddenly found itself on the back foot against UNM candidate was, has transformed the ruling party public relations into a hate-spewing machinery. Whenever the message was too crude to present to an international observer, a subterfuge of hate-groups was recruited.

Irma Inashvili’s nativist Alliance of Patriots headlined the largest rally in support of GD-backed presidential candidate. Smaller groups harassed the opposition.

Coupled with Ivanishvili’s financial largess to write off outstanding small debts, the pressure was enough to land GD the Presidency. But the repeated use of hate groups is a sure way to become dependent on their support.

Chickens came home to roost in the past months and weeks. First, the announced Tbilisi Pride triggered hate groups led by Levan Vasadze, who has menaced the state, but only received minor scolding.

The notion of the state being timid and incapable against challenge was blown to smithereens as the Police went after demonstrators on the night of June 20-21.

That night last symbolic boundary by which GD differentiated itself from UNM – that it never massively resorted to Police violence – fell.

What now?

GD finds itself in a tight spot. The ruling party has a structural problem with efficiency: party’s dependency on its patron is unbreakable, while Ivanishvili’s management style – perhaps workable for an oligarch menagerie – is incompatible with governing a state. To make things worse, the party has squandered the last vestiges of popular legitimacy in the last days.

The outlook is bleak. The only reliable tactic left now is to go after the opposition and try to weaken it, preventing them from forming a winning coalition – which means continuing to pump hate into already overheated political system. The more GD needs hate-groups, the more their appetite would grow, bringing Georgia into a position where compromise with their demands is incompatible with democracy.

The democratic and progressive momentum generated in 2003 has now completely ran out of steam. The coming months are crucial. Either the youths gathered on Rustaveli avenue would give Georgia’s wheel of democracy a habitual seminal spin, or the country risks sliding into illiberal obscurantism.