When Russia demanded last month that NATO formally revoke its offer of Georgia’s future membership, the country’s formal response was unsurprising.
The Kremlin’s demands were “unacceptable,” the Georgian Foreign Ministry said. It was the country’s, “sovereign decision to join NATO, one that is based on the unwavering will of the Georgian population. This aim is also reflected in Georgia’s Constitution.”
Yet the threat to Georgian membership may not come from Russia alone. The seemingly intractable internal political scene also creates risks and future problems. Does Russia really need to worry about a country that has been steadily distancing itself from the West by joining the ranks of illiberal states where democracy remains in form but not in essence, and where domestic political polarization threatens national cohesion?
Georgian Dream – the ruling party for an unprecedented third consecutive term — maintains that all is well and rumors about the death of democracy are exaggerated. And it is true that polarization is not new; elections are taking place (not well, but well enough to be deemed competitive); opposition parties abound; media is diverse and often critical; freedom of assembly is generally respected (unless you are gay); and an EU membership application is being prepared for 2024.
A closer look, however, reveals a country where democracy is being hollowed out by democratically elected leaders who bend the system to their advantage. The ruling party, emboldened by the latest victory in unfair but competitive local elections, began the new year by restricting the independence of judges through amendments to the Law on Common Courts, selecting Supreme Court judges using a flawed selection procedure, and abolishing the State Inspector Service, mandated to investigate police abuse and protect data privacy. While the government explained it intended to make state institutions more effective, the US Embassy described the move as undermining government accountability and sending the message that “independent oversight of the government or dissenting voices, even when prescribed by law, will be answered with retaliation, discipline, and dismissal.”
This is not an isolated case. Modern-day Georgia, like other illiberal regimes, now suffers from the following:
- Polarization: In Georgia, a political opponent is not just an adversary but an arch-enemy; competitive politics is not about defeating opponents temporarily but about their destruction; it is a zero-sum game, a battle for political survival. Under such circumstances, normal political competition is stymied and power rarely changes hands through the ballot box. It was exceptional for Georgia when in 2012, then-President Mikheil Saakashvili reluctantly conceded electoral victory to Georgian Dream. However, neither Saakashvili nor his party, the United National Movement (UNM), accepted the legitimacy of the new rulers. Ever since, the two sides have engaged in mutual demonization, purposefully sustaining extreme polarization and leaving no space for normal political bargaining or compromise. Georgian parties and their bosses are at each other’s throats while a pandemic is raging, external risks proliferate, and the Russian occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are fast becoming the status quo.
- Broken moral compass: In a polarized polity where competitors fight for a monopoly of power, rather than for electors’ minds, the end justifies the means. Compromise is a sign of weakness; party loyalty trumps professionalism and intransigence is rewarded. Election campaigns are about trading insults rather than a broader vision and character assassination replaces substantive debate. As part of this drift to defamation, former prime minister turned opposition leader Giorgi Gakharia was accused of treason, criminal incompetence, and substance abuse by his former party comrades. In the country with one of the highest Covid related mortality rates, blood-drenched billboards of opposition leaders à la Reservoir Dogs replaced Covid vaccination posters. Jailed former President Saakashvili was manhandled by prison guards and adding insult to injury, the footage of his mistreatment was released for public viewing. Leaked reports revealed the enormous scale of illegal audio surveillance by the security services, including on foreign diplomats. No explanation or apology was offered.
- Blurring the boundaries between party and state: In hybrid regimes, such as Georgia’s, democratic rules are subverted to the advantage of the incumbent. Judiciary and civil service are in the pocket of the government, while sharing power, a norm in liberal democracies, becomes a hazard to be avoided. Elections deliver overwhelming majorities, which in turn enable the mobilization of state resources and blur the line between the ruling party and the state. In the run-up to the second-round of 2021 local elections, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili stated that any municipality controlled by the opposition would encounter financial difficulties and that its projects would receive no central government funding. Subsequently, in those few municipalities where Georgian Dream did narrowly lose, a mixture of pressure and incentives have been deployed on individual deputies from opposition parties to concoct a majority. The ODIHR observer mission highlighted polarization, an unlevel playing field and continued advantage of incumbency as major shortfalls of Georgia’s electoral democracy.
- Majoritarianism: The Georgian government says it represents the will of the majority and acts in accordance with its interests and preferences. Minorities, be they ethnic, religious, or sexual, are tolerated if they remain silent and invisible. Prime Minister Garibashvili, when commenting on the violence surrounding the Pride parade in July, said that those rejecting the will of the culturally conservative Georgian majority, do so at their own peril. Radical national populists implicated in violence felt vindicated and by November had registered a political party. When faced with foreign criticism, Georgia’s leaders dismissed international partners as ill-informed, biased, and disrespectful.
The resistance to democratic breakdown comes from strong institutions and well-developed political parties. Neither is present in Georgia where the main constraint on excessive power is the citizens’ inherent dislike of authority. Moreover, in a country where politics is highly personalized, the nature and the role of leadership is crucial. Georgia has never had its own Václav Havel to coolly explain to the nation its own failings, and possible solutions.
Georgia has never had a truly democratic leader who would contemplate shared governance and resist the domination of a single party. Instead, democracy in Georgia has always been a battle for supremacy. Add widespread poverty and inequality to institutional weakness and the zero-sum political culture, and we have significant obstacles to democratic development.
And yet, this can and should be reversed. Otherwise, Georgia’s European and Euro-Atlantic future will be a pipe dream, the country will drift toward authoritarianism and Vladimir Putin, who is probably more worried about successful democratic neighbors than NATO expansion, will be handed victory. On a plate.
Dr. Natalie Sabanadze is a Cyrus Vance visiting professor in International Relations at Mount Holyoke College. Prior to taking up this position last year, she was head of the Georgian mission to the European Union and ambassador plenipotentiary to the Kingdom of Belgium and Grand Duchy of Luxembourg since 2013.