Op-ed | Refeudalization rather than Polarization

Georgia After Gvaramia's Jailing

Hans Gutbrod is a long-time analyst of Georgia and the Caucasus. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He is on Twitter at @HansGutbrod.

With the jailing of Nika Gvaramia, we should bury once and for all the term of “polarization” when it comes to politics in Georgia. This has been one of the least helpful prisms from which to analyze Georgian politics over the last 5-7 years. “Polarization” (or its terrible twin-euphemism, “mudslinging”) visually implies a kind of horizontal symmetry in which two sides have a brawl as if they were rival hooligans outside a stadium.

For Georgia, this implication of symmetry is such an utterly false and misleading image that one might as well hang it into a gallery of misinformation. It is evident, for anyone who cares to look more closely, that what is really going on is a systematic policy of refeudalization in which small and nepotistic cliques grab money, subsidies, state jobs and key assets that should belong to the people of Georgia.

While that terrible robbery is going on, it is helpful for the perpetrators if most people are looking at something else. In comes the term “polarization” to distract from the wholesale plunder and destruction of Georgian state institutions. Though it also lessens the standing of the authorities, it ultimately is a convenient term for the ruling clique as it obfuscates responsibility and implies that everyone in the end is, kind of, equally bad.

“Polarization” is totally the wrong word. It simply is not “polarization” when security services watch the private lives of opposition politicians and they must wonder at what point a random, embarrassing moment from their lives might be broadcast for everyone to watch. There are many such cases. The government releasing a video of a former president being dragged less clothed than most would wish to be shown in, demonstrates exactly what may be in store for others.

It is not polarization when even cabinet members, or civil servants have to worry that they are being phone-tapped and video-recorded, a concern for which there seems to be ample circumstantial evidence.

It is adamantly not polarization that there is a wholesale Gleichschaltung or purge in cultural institutions as Zaal Andronikashvili has pointed out months ago in an article for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. In the meantime it has only gotten worse, with more government-led attacks on internationally respected cultural figures.

It is not polarization that Rustavi2 was taken over by the authorities, that there is massive interference with Public Television, and that independent opposition TV stations are under assault as evidenced by heavy-handed advertising regulation and Mr. Gvaramia’s recent sentencing.

Nor is it polarization that mobs get incited to visit violence upon the opposition, journalists or ordinary citizens every two years or so, as a show of force. This happens right in the center of Tbilisi, the situation in the regions is likely much worse. 

It is not polarization that the courts remain primarily an instrument to settle petty scores and that not a single corrupt minister or deputy minister over the last decade has been successfully prosecuted. Rather, the investigations start and are left dangling to ensure pliant behaviour.

It is not polarization that government-affiliated outlets and bots flood social media with hateful messaging, much of it anti-democratic and anti-Western. Rather, it’s part of the distraction that enables the robbery to go on.

Of course the opposition gets lots of things wrong. At the same time, we all do. Many of the pundits who seem to enjoy ridiculing opposition figures would get lots wrong, too, if they would face incredibly asymmetric odds for years.

Much of the shrillness and the stunts of many leading figures in the opposition get on my nerves, too. Terribly so. I miss a plausible account of how to move the country forward. But it is also simply true that the system is totally rigged and that many opposition people are marginalized, exhausted, and struggling badly. Many are out of money, too, though this is a hard thing to admit publicly and even to your friends and family.

The system appears asymmetric in the ruling party, too. Many Georgian Dream want-to-be-technocrats are sucked in, used, abused, and then disposed of. In my view, many of them tried their best. Few, unfortunately, succeeded and lots of them will still have some kind of kompromat on this lurking on them after they left. Things got much worse when Giorgi Gakharia left. As far as I can make out, he and Giorgi Kvirikashvili tried to keep some space open to get reasonable things done even though significant parts of their cabinets never were under their control. Now, a different clique in charge.

Today, the main thing that is going on is a vertical hoovering up of power, privilege and money, at the expense of the people of Georgia and of their institutions, not some kind of horizontal mudslinging. With all of the power at its disposal, the responsibility for Georgia’s democracy and institutions is squarely with the government.

Vicious refeudalization is the appropriate term for what is going on in Georgia today, and let’s finally retire the polarization talk that is such a useful smokescreen for truly malevolent actors that are plundering right now.