Opinion | Georgia’s Yanukovich Moment

Author: Ted Jonas is an international lawyer and environmental activist who has lived in Georgia for many years.

Georgia is having a Yanukovich moment. That time when the government of Ukraine in 2013-2014 got orders from Moscow to drop the EU association process. The government went one way – following the orders – and the people went the other – towards Europe.

I don’t think anyone in Georgia wanted, or expected, to get to this point. Despite certain actions going back years that reflected Russian influence, the Georgian Dream government maintained NATO and EU Association processes for some time. And Georgia continued to pay the price, in Russian borderization and the same kind of Russian influence-peddling that had gone on for years, since independence.

But something further changed – the order from Moscow came, perhaps – about 18 months ago, with Melia’s arrest, Gakharia’s departure from the government, and then the whole downslide of withdrawing from the Michel agreement, continued assertion of central control over the courts and independent agencies against European and American advice, illegal prosecutions of businessmen and journalists, the aggressive rhetoric and insults towards Ukraine, Europe and the United States. The Georgian Dream’s move away from Europe began to look more deliberate than incompetent.

Whenever it started, exactly what the mechanism that got us here, we are at the Yanukovich moment.

That means that those Georgians – a large majority according to polls – who want to be with Europe – must stand for it now. That means be at the demonstration for Georgia’s European future on June 20.

The Ukrainian people’s rejection of Viktor Yanukovich’s turn away from Europe was done through demonstrations and a semi-legal parliamentary removal process. It does not have to be Georgia’s model. Georgians are understandably wary of changes of government from the street. Gamsakhurdia was overthrown; Shevardnadze was overthrown; and the basic model of opposition politics in Georgia has often gotten down to the same demands in desperation. Camping out on Rustaveli Avenue, or calling for some permanent demonstration, for the replacement of the government.

But Georgians must also look to the longer term: the probability that we will have to break this deadlock at the ballot box  – as much as the current government can be forced to allow that. That means that our focus should also be on the next round of elections, which are only a bit more than 2 years away.

The current Georgian opposition, according to polls, has not more than about 17% public support. The opposition cannot get any significant number of people out for rallies, and certainly not for any extended period of time. Big rallies happen in Georgia in recent years because of events or issues that affect a large segment of society directly, and the organizers studiously avoid party affiliation.

Therefore, in order to change power in this country, either the opposition must learn to be national parties with majority support, or they must get out of the way. Even in the latter case, their leadership and advice can be useful. But they should step aside for new leaders from Georgian society who can do a better job than they have done. These are people from the business and NGO communities in Georgia. Most of them have stayed out of politics for years, on the understandable basis that it is just too dirty and – political – for them. But these are talented people with the right ideas about how to build and maintain a Western-modeled and based society and government, within the Georgian environment. It is time for them to step up.

If the GD stays in power, certainly if they win elections in 2024, Georgia can look forward only to a future as a CIS State. Autonomy, yes; economic and even the occasional political conflict with Moscow – yes; but generally, within that orbit, and not the West’s. With all that entails for autocracy and subordination to Russia’s security and foreign policy interests.

It is sad to see how incapable Georgian politicians are of acting together in the nation’s interest. Today, the President of the State agrees with and supports 90% of what the opposition are saying vis-à-vis Europe and this government. Yes, she has said things that none of us like. But so too has Saakashvili, Bokeria, and a dozen others in the opposition. Yet all of us agree on Georgia’s European future, and on opposition to the current Georgian government’s obstruction of it.

For that reason, this is the critical moment for Georgia’s pro-Europe majority to put those divisions aside, and stand together.

This post is also available in: ქართული (Georgian)