To say that 2020 was an eventful year is an understatement. Like every other nation on the planet, Georgia has struggled with the COVID-19 pandemic. And even though many have cheered the handling of the health emergency in spring, the hubris it brought made the debacle of autumn’s second wave all but inevitable. But even beyond the extraordinary and unexpected turn that the year took, it was promising to be politically heated, with the upcoming elections looming on the horizon. The political crisis of 2019 predictably spilled over into the hotly-contested October 31 Parliamentary Elections. But rather than offering the solution, that date proved not the resolution in promised to be – instead, the contested election outcome has deepened polarization and led the country into an impasse.
Civil.ge is taking a look at Georgia’s top events in 2020:
Sinking: Anaklia Deep-Sea Port
The Anaklia Deep-Sea Port Project had been already in deep waters for quite some time as 2020 came around. The key U.S. investor, Conti International quit the Consortium. The criminal investigation into the consortium’s Georgian leader – TBC Bank’s leadership left the project fate suspended. The axe fell on January 9, when the Infrastructure Ministry terminated its contract with the Anakalia Development Consortium. Later, the company filed an arbitration claim against Georgia, a drawn-out process that would make it difficult for the Government to revive the project under different management.
New Leaders in Sokhumi
In early January, opposition supporters stormed Abkhaz leader Raul Khajimba’s office, an escalation that culminated with declaring Khajimba’s victory in September 2019 elections invalid. Khajimba resigned after Moscow’s point man Vladislav Surkov descended in Sokhumi. The repeat elections were set for March.
Aslan Bzhania became the region’s fifth leader on March 22. Bzhania, an opposition challenger, could not complete a run in September 2019 due to (surprisingly timely) heavy metal poisoning. After assuming office, Bzhania put Alexander Ankvab in charge of the cabinet.
In this way, the curious political choreography of transition has made a full circle: Khajimba had come to power in repeat elections of 2014, after the previous leader, Ankvab, was forced to resign with the opposition forces breaking into his office.
Abkhazia: Talks of talks
New leaders in Abkhazia called for dialogue with Tbilisi. Sergei Shamba, a long-time foreign policy, and security hand reiterated calls for dialogue with Tbilisi, asserting that “when there is a conflict, you need to talk.” “We are ready to talk,” Shamba told Tbilisi in one of his latest interviews.
His instructions come from the top: Aslan Bzhania signed in early December a new ‘foreign policy concept,’ which among others, sets a goal of “resolution of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict and normalization of relations with Georgia,” upsetting Abkhaz hardliners. Tbilisi has been too busy with internal squabbles to articulate a response.
Letters of Concern
Georgia received an unprecedented amount of letters of concern from the U.S. and the EU lawmakers, who worried about the state of the rule of law and economic freedoms in the country. The politics surrounding the Anaklia Port Project, the dispute with Texan-based Frontera Resources, allegedly politically motivated imprisonment of Gigi Ugulava, former Tbilisi Mayor, the failure to pass the electoral reforms in 2019, an alleged increase of the Russian influence in Georgian governance – these were some of the key charges brought up in these missives.
Georgian officials downplayed the concerns, attributing some to lobbyism and others to miscommunication. Georgia’s Washington envoy Davit Bakradze pointed out that U.S. signatories mostly came from Frontera Resources’ home turf. In the end, Tbilisi seemed to have tried to handle the crisis through its own lobbyists, hoping that the administration change in the U.S. would break the vicious cycle.
- Letters of concern tag
- Letters Gone Unheeded: New Normal of U.S.-Georgia Relations?
- FM Zalkaliani Meets U.S. Officials, Congressmen
- Georgian Parliament Speaker Concludes U.S. Visit
Foreign-Facilitated Talks Vol. 1 – March 8 Deal, Passing Electoral Reforms
When the ruling Georgian Dream backtracked on the promise to transition to the fully proportional electoral system, a political crisis ensued. In 2020, foreign partners facilitated four rounds of talks between the GD and the opposition – with no results. On February 10, opposition parties quit the table after the jailing of Gigi Ugulava, European Georgia leader. But the fifth round convened two weeks later, owing to EU and U.S. Ambassadors’ efforts broke the mold. On March 8, at the residence of the newly minted U.S. Ambassador Kelly Degnan (she arrived in Tbilisi in late January) the ruling and the opposition parties reached an agreement. It said that of 150 MPs, 120 would be elected through proportional-party lists, and 30 through the majoritarian districts, a significant improvement – in opposition’s mind – from earlier, 77/73 ratio. The electoral threshold was lowered to 1% of the votes.
Yet, another component of the agreement, which the opposition claimed envisaged releasing alleged political prisoners, Gigi Ugulava, Irakli Okruashvili, and Giorgi Rurua, led to controversy. The ruling party denied any agreement, even though the first two left the prison. In the end, the Georgian Parliament passed the reforms amid a boycott by the United National Movement and European Georgia parties. The acrimony this generated came to haunt Georgia’s politics several months later.
- President Zurabishvili Pardons Gigi Ugulava, Irakli Okruashvili
- Georgian Opposition: Rurua’s Release Precondition to Back Electoral Changes
The first COVID-19 case was registered in the country in late February. After a swift and hard lockdown, the handling of the first wave of the pandemic earned Georgia some positive international media notoriety – widely used by the government to burnish its previous image of bumbling inefficiency. But the tide has turned in early autumn. The Black Sea region of Adjara, a tourism hotspot, became the hotspot of the second-wave outbreak which then swallowed up the whole of the country. The total of all confirmed cases that stood at 1469 in August, skyrocketed to 226 thousand in the next four months, as Georgia shoot to the sad top of daily infection charts.
“It’s the Economy, Stupid”
The COVID-19 pandemic took its heavy toll on the economy: the Georgian national currency, Lari plummetting against U.S. Dollar from 2.86 in late December 2019 to 3.27 as of today. On March 7, GEL was trading at 2.7748 against U.S Dollar, while on March 24, it dipped to a historic low, trading at 3.54 to U.S. Dollar.
The Georgian Government rolled out fiscal stimulus measures while the Central Bank intervened through foreign exchange auctions 26 times, burning through a total of USD 773.2 mln of its reserves only this year.
Real GDP contracted by 5.9% year-on-year in the first eleven months of the year. Some 100,000 workers lost their income, an official said in October. The annual figures are likely to stand higher as the country was forced into a second lockdown by the end of November.
The “Cartographers’ Case”
The controversy concerning the delimitation of the Georgia-Azerbaijan border amplified during the year, leading to the arrest of two civil servants, Natalia Ilychova and Iveri Melashvili, on charges of conspiring to cede lands to Azerbaijan in their capacity of members of the state commission on the delimitation of borders. The CSOs and opposition politicians were quick to say the case was politically motivated. Indeed, the ruling party made “David Gareji is Georgia” one of its election cat-calls to taunt the opposition, which led the country when the alleged “treason” seems to have taken place.
Crisis in Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia
The high-profile death case of a young inmate, Inal Jabiev, shook Russian-occupied Tskhinvali Region in late Summer. The reports about his torture and passing caused a wave of large protests, eventually leading to the resignation of “prime minister” Erik Pukhaev and subsequent dismissal of the region’s “government” by Kremlin-backed leader Anatoly Bibilov. Although seven suspects were detained over Jabiev’s death, his family resumed the protests in December, demanding a fair investigation. The issue was further exacerbated by the arrest of the deceased’s brother, Atsamaz Jabiev, on what the family says trumped-up charges.
Falling apart: Parliamentary Polls
Opposition parties rejected the results of the October 31 Parliamentary Elections soon after the preliminary results came in. All eight opposition parties/blocs that crossed the election threshold, citing discrepancies in final vote tallies and other alleged vote-rigging issues, announced they would not enter the legislature and hit the streets. The opposition did not participate in the November 21 majoritarian runoffs, with GD having already won 13 races, secured second-round victories in the remaining 17.
Key local election watchdogs assessed the parliamentary polls as least democratic and free under the GD government, while international observers noted that despite irregularities the elections were competitive, with fundamental freedoms being respected.
Foreign-Facilitated Talks Vol. 2
Amid the opposition boycott, the EU and U.S. Ambassadors donned their mantles as facilitators again. On November 12, they launched crisis talks between the GD and the opposition. Four rounds – like the first time around – yielded no result. The fifth round was called off, as just two days before the new Parliament’s opening, GD campaign chief Irakli Kobakhidze tabled the bill to withhold funding from boycotting parties, as well as to terminate the election registration of the UNM, the largest opposition party on the grounds that one of its leaders, exiled former President Mikheil Saakashvili lives in Ukraine without Georgian citizenship and is thus in breach of the law forbidding campaigning by a foreigner.
Truncated Parliament: Single Party
The 10th convocation of the Parliament was inaugurated on December 11 in Tbilisi, with only Georgian Dream MPs present. None of the 60 opposition MPs attended, boycotting the legislature. Most of them formally resigned their seats.
In parallel to the Parliament’s session, the United National Movement, European Georgia, Strategy Aghmashenebeli, Lelo, and Labor Party leaders signed a memorandum, through which their elected MPs pledge to terminate their parliamentary mandates. Kremlin-friendly Alliance of Patriots gave up mandates late in December. Right-libertarian Girchi and the Citizens party did not formally renounce their mandates, holding out for the eventual success of foreign-mediation, but keep boycotting. This crisis will be inherited by 2021.
U.S. State Secretary’s Visit
In the first high ranking U.S. official visit since the 2017 Vice-President Mike Pence’s trip to Georgia, Secretary Mike Pompeo arrived on November 17 in Tbilisi. Over the course of the first half of the next day, he met with President Zurabishvili, PM Gakharia, FM Zalkaliani, Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II, and CSO representatives. The fast-paced visit left many baffled, especially among the opposition, as the visit had come a few days before the November 21 runoffs which they had been boycotting. Secretary Pompeo left behind Acting Assistant Secretary Philip Reeker to hold meetings with opposition parties.
Western Georgia’s Tskaltubo and Tsageri locals have been protesting for some two months against the construction of Namakhvani Hydropower Plant, including by taking shifts in tents near the project site to prevent the construction. Tbilisi City Hall and Mayor Kakha Kaladze, footballer-turned-politician, came under fire for demolishing “illegal” home constructions on state-owned lands in the Africa neighborhood of the Georgian capital a few weeks before the New Year, amid pandemic and winter temperatures. The move prompted social protests on-site and outside the City Hall. Social upheavals are a trend to watch in 2021, as the economic downturn threatens livelihoods.
Media Freedom in trouble
The appointment of a new Director to Adjara Public Broadcaster in 2019 led to a series of dismissals of key journalists, a process which continued well into 2020. CSOs said the broadcaster “persecuted” critical journalists, while media representatives and activists rallied to support Adjara TV staff in Tbilisi and Batumi.
Pankisi Gorge locals rallied against Pankisi Community Radio Way, voicing threats of violence against the outlet and its founder. The Radio on its part claimed the ruling Georgian Dream party and the State Security service were pulling the strings behind the protest, having targeted the radio for “covering and exposing state policy in Pankisi.”
- Journalists, Activists Rally outside Adjara TV
- Journalists, Activists Rally to Support Adjara TV Staff
Victims of Closed Crossing Points
Moscow-backed authorities of Tskhinvali/Region South Ossetia began closing down major crossing points along the dividing line with Georgia proper in 2019. However, as soon as Tbilisi confirmed the first case of the COVID-19 virus, the occupation regime moved to close all remaining checkpoints as well. Restriction of movement and lack of access to Georgian medical services took a severe toll on occupied Akhalgori residents. The Reconciliation Ministry, overseeing occupied regions, reports at least 16 people have died since last year due to denied access or delayed transfer to Georgia proper.