What Now? Experts on Ways Out of Georgia Crisis

Georgia’s post-election crisis, with the major opposition parties boycotting the new Parliament took a deepening turn after the Georgian Dream government opted to give orders to the police to storm the UNM party office to detain opposition leader, Nika Melia. Melia, charged with inciting violence during the June 2019 unrests,  refused to post additional bail. His original bail payment was increased by the court when Melia threw away the monitoring bracelet during the opposition’s rally, to protest the “rigged” October 2020 general election.

Prime Minister Gakharia’s controversial resignation over the disagreement with his party colleagues on whether to use force to detain Melia, aggravated the crisis that runs at least following the October 2020 parliamentary elections, which opposition claims was rigged, and refuses to take its MP seats. Contrary to some expectations, that Gakharia’s dramatic departure would create an opening for compromise, the opposite happened. The Georgian Dream decided to elevate Irakli Garibashvili, known for his hardline stance against UNM during his first tenure as Prime Minister. During his confirmation hearings, Mr. Garibashvili vowed to “restore order,” called Melia “criminal” and the UNM “a destructive force”.

After a barrage of international pressure, the ruling party has toned down its bellicose rhetoric somewhat. But the positions seem irreconcilable – the opposition demands the release of Melia and other alleged political prisoners, as well as snap elections. PM Garibashvili and the Georgian Dream “categorically” reject these demands.

Civil.ge approached Georgian and foreign pundits to assess where this crisis leaves Georgia and what is the way out. We also asked, how this stalemate may affect Georgia’s aspirations for the EU and NATO.

Kornely Kakachia, Professor at Tbilisi State University; Director of Georgian Institute of Politics, Tbilisi-based think tank:

“First of all, both parties need to sit at the negotiating table and have an honest dialogue, rather than an illusory one that has been taking place for months now. Both sides have to be open to a consensus, the signs of which, unfortunately, are not visible either from the government or the opposition.

For this to bear fruit, both parties certainly need to yield on something. As for the specific ways to resolve the problem, if the political will is shown from both sides, the international community will, of course, support the process and provide a platform. But the international community cannot decide for Georgian politicians – therefore brave steps are needed from both sides to defuse the situation.

One possible scenario would be that, should both sides be open to a compromise, authorities join forces with the opposition to form a coalition government, handing several ministries to their opponents.

A compromise may also include, say, handing the opposition a certain post in the law enforcement bodies, electing as the new chairperson of the Central Election Commission someone who has confidence from civil society outfits that enjoy opposition’s trust, and freeing political prisoners. The reciprocal compromise would be for the opposition to enter the parliament.

The second commonly discussed scenario would be to call snap elections. Both scenarios are understandably difficult to implement, but they are still better than confrontation and civil conflict that may follow, should no compromise be achieved.

William Courtney, Former US Ambassador to Georgia, Adjunct Senior Fellow at the RAND Corporation

“As a first step away from the crisis, the sides might make mutual concessions. For example, the authorities could release Nika Melia from his disgraceful detention, and the opposition could act responsibly by taking their seats in Parliament. Cases of other alleged political prisoners could be put to a special panel of reputable judges. These steps would receive support in the West. At present, however, political parties may be too much at odds to make mutual concessions.  If so, Georgia’s civil society may need to rescue the stalemated political system.

One way ahead might be for a Wise Persons Group of independent, respected figures to convene. It could discuss issues which have brought about the crisis and develop recommendations for ending it and strengthening Georgia’s political future.

Members of the Group should be private citizens and could come from NGOs, private businesses, agriculture, technology, media, think tanks and universities, healthcare, and charities and religious institutions.

Some members of the Wise Persons Group might have prior government or military experience. Others might be citizens who have played prominent civic or business roles. None should be political party activists or identify with political extremes. The Group could hold public sessions at which witnesses would offer comments. The Group would also meet privately to analyze matters and consider recommendations.

The crisis is causing Georgia to lose Western support.  The crisis reinforces the view of skeptics that Georgia is not close to being ready for admission to the EU or NATO. The crisis also weakens Georgia’s position relative to more powerful neighbors.

Georgia’s strength is its robust civil society, not a political system, which for too long has been vulnerable to domination by out-sized personalities.  Political parties could become stronger if they were to begin coalescing more around interests, such as liberal versus conservative, rather than personalities. Over time this could help protect Georgia’s democracy and ensure political stability.”

Eka Gigauri, Executive Director of Transparency International Georgia, Tbilisi-based CSO:

“We urgently need to decrease the temperature in order for the dialogue to restart. This is why the immediate step should be to end what are perceived to be politically motivated investigations and release people who are widely regarded to be political prisoners. Of course, Nika Melia and Giorgi Rurua are implied here. I believe that this would clear the road to the resumption of negotiations with a very active mediation of our international partners –  and we are very grateful for their crucial role. 

As for the dialogue itself, I would expect the sides to agree on the institutional ways out of this crisis in terms of bringing about the change which would exclude abuse of power and state capture by any political force.

But this is not enough – for further and sustainable de-escalation the sides, and in particular, the ruling party should commit to refrain from future polarizing and aggressive rhetoric, but also from such actions.”

Lincoln Mitchell, Political Analyst, follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell

To understand the current political crisis in Georgia it is essential to understand two different things. First, the Georgian Dream (GD) has done very little to consolidate the democratic breakthrough of 2012. They have now been in power slightly more than eight years and have not done nearly enough to move democracy forward in Georgia. The most recent election, which was understood as flawed but essentially legitimate, is evidence of that. Moreover, the GD hardliners have mishandled the current situation involving the arrest of Nika Melia and have consistently increased, rather than ratcheted down, tensions.

The second thing to understand is that the United National Movement (UNM) has lost every single election since 2012 and remains fundamentally unpopular in Georgia.

The semi-authoritarian nature of their regime and the criminality around parts of it have not been sufficiently understood in the U.S. As time has gone by, the UNM has become less committed to legal democratic means of gaining power but resorted to the streets, talk-or threats-of revolution and axiomatically unreasonable demands.

Too many in the western punditry have focused almost entirely on the first of these points while continuing to demonstrate a baffling affinity with the UNM.  

One way to see this is through the discussion of snap elections in Georgia. This is a demand from the UNM that seeks to overturn the outcome of an election that most observers described as flawed but basically legitimate.

While the GD would be well advised to accelerate electoral reform and democratic reform more generally, calling for new elections would be letting a defeated and widely disliked force overturn a more or less democratic process.

As an American, I cannot help but see similarities between the UNM’s position and that of the Republican Party’s loyalty to a defeated president who also refused to accept the outcome of an election.

I am not sure where this all goes. The events of the last few weeks cannot be understood on their own and are part of a longer political process in Georgia. I know that it is not good for Georgia to keep having the same fights, and the same election, but moving beyond this is difficult. Sanctions or other measures from the west would be a mistake and a blunt solution to a problem that is much more complicated than that.

Obviously, none of this moves Georgia’s NATO aspirations in the right direction, but NATO membership was not happening anytime soon anyway.”

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