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Editorial | Time to Pull the Handbrake

Georgia is hurtling towards authoritarianism

The arrest of the opposition leader marks a turning point for Georgia. Not because cracking down on the opposition is exceptional in Georgia’s recent history – although the arrest of the opposition leader is. But because it is a culmination of a long trail of the Georgian Dream policies that make the authoritarian rule in Georgia structurally possible. It will be based on subservient police apparatus, reactionary ideology, and citizen apathy. It is backed by oligarch’s money. It is time to pull the handbrake and change the incentives of the actors now.

As we wrote in November 2019, the illiberal oligarchy has been lurking behind the facade of Georgia’s half-hearted efforts to comply with democratic rules. Now that curtain has fallen and the machinery behind it is whirring into overdrive. There will be more theatrical indignation about foreign meddling. There will be attempts to confuse and shift focus – the reported cyber-attack on the police has all the hallmarks of such action.

The point of a well-prepared anti-democratic coup – if you want it to hold – is to disable the institutions of the state, to render citizens inert and foreign actors confused.

True, the checks and balances of the Georgian democracy were fragile, to begin with. But the Georgian Dream, which came to power pledging to correct the wrongs, has qualitatively furthered institutional decay. The private wealth of Mr. Ivanishvili, his power deployed from behind the scenes, created the parallel incentive structure for the Georgian Dream and senior civil servants. This subverted the institutions of state: insulating both Ivanishvili and his henchmen from both legal and democratic accountability while selectively targeting whoever threatens their domination.

The gradual and irreversible takeover of the courts, that culminated in stacking the Supreme Court bench by the people beholden to Mr. Ivanishvili, means that the law can be used to clubber the opposition – whether partisan, media, or civil society, while ensuring that the sting of law would never, ever turn against the holders of power.

Anesthetizing the larger society has been, sadly, easier. Angry at the wrongdoings of the previous administration, which now became opposition, tired by the repeated crises over the decades, weakened by the daily woes of the pandemic, the Georgian public has grown increasingly fragmented and apathetic. Yet, Georgians have voted for the multi-striped opposition parties in significant numbers last October.

The media campaigns ran on the government’s behest have tried to deepen polarization and discord. The latest “Gareji is Georgia” campaign has raised the specter of the “deep state conspiracy” that is likely to seek – and find – more victims if the authoritarian trend is not checked.

Of course, civil society organizations and some independent media remain and are active. But their public support base is weak, and the international backing is not as powerful as it once was. The case of a coordinated political and media attack on ISFED, an election watchdog, demonstrated, the CSOs are vulnerable internally. In the meantime, a cohort of GONGOs has been nurtured in the background. Some have even received support from the international donors, in a vain hope of gaining a back door into the Georgian Dream’s decision-making. If – no, when – the leading CSOs are taken down one by one, there would be plenty of more “cooperative” faces to take their place.

The current top brass of the regime – Irakli Garibashvili and Irakli Kobakhidze are Mr. Ivanishvili’s factotums. Yet, it would be wrong to deny them their own agency. The two combine individual qualities that augur ill.

Mr. Garibashvili’s breakneck ambition and crusader’s animus against what he terms “radical opposition” are not checked by the democratic political considerations – he reports to the constituency of one. For the same reason, he is insensitive to international scolding. His ideology, which was clearly on display during his confirmation “hearings” by the party colleagues that now constitute Georgia’s rump Parliament is openly reactionary: imperative of order, disregard to outside opinions, state intervention in the economy, empowerment of the Church – which he, tellingly, listed among the state institutions.

Mr. Kobakhidze embodies a perverse, cynical, and pedantic understanding of the law as a punitive tool so characteristic to the post-Soviet legal profession. His inflated ego took a painful hit when he was forced to step down as Parliament speaker amid opposition protests. Now he is back: in petty vengeance, he awarded himself the medal for constitutional order. In an Orwellian twist, he also stated that Mr. Melia “has arrested himself” today.

The combination of the two leaders that so chronically lack in statesmanship, with Mr. Ivanishvili’s brand of 1990s Russian gangster politics may prove fatal for Georgia’s future.

None of this justifies the opposition’s own failings: less than full-hearted support to democratic norms, its penchant for brinkmanship and empty showmanship, and its suicide-pact of boycotting the parliament after an impressive showing. This is not the opposition Georgia needs, but this is the opposition that Georgia has. The continued ability of the opposition to exercise free speech, to hold the government to account is paramount for the continuity of Georgia’s democratic statehood.

Georgia’s friends must understand – this is not a crisis that can be “defused.” The fuses have burnt a long time ago. Georgia is now descending into authoritarianism. It is certainly important to try and prevent further violence, but the lack of violence in itself won’t slow or stop this slide.

Still, in contrast with Russia, or even Ukraine, Georgia is now so closely linked to one man and his wealth, that targeted, personal sanctions can and will work. And the earlier, the better.

It is also clear, that the Georgian Dream has cheated its own voters. The two leaders that led the party into elections – Mr. Ivanishvili and Mr. Gakharia – are now – officially – gone. In many a parliamentary system, the fall of the cabinet is sufficient for triggering snap elections. Georgian citizens deserve to be asked, whether they back Mr. Garibashvili’s declared, and enacted course.


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