The post-election political crisis in Georgia propelled Levan Vasadze, a businessman well-known for his illiberal leanings, as the lynchpin of Georgia’s radical right. Vasadze made the bid to consolidate the Georgian ultra-conservative movements and to establish a united, powerful party. But the internal dynamics of the Georgian ultra-right movements may prevent Vasadze from attaining his goal.
Vasadze announced on May 6 about entering into politics and founding a public movement “Unity, Essence, Hope”, known with its Georgian abbreviation ERI, meaning “the nation.” Vasadze said he seeks the way out from “a permanent crisis” in which he sees the EU-brokered April 19 Agreement as “the last straw” – “a gross violation and reduction of the country’s sovereignty.”
While Vasadze never shied away from controversial statements, his entrance on the scene with his own political movement comes at a crucial time. Various polls show that a considerable part of the Georgian population expresses socially conservative sentiments, with approving the special status for the Orthodox Church, opposing LGBT rights, against their daughter/son marrying a person with a different religious background.
Interestingly, however, most of the ultra-conservative parties fail to pass the election barrier, let alone form a government. True, the governing party, the Georgian Dream, stands on firmly conservative positions in internal politics (that, despite being a member of the family of the European Socialists). It should be capturing some of these votes. But radical right still performs badly – on the 2020 Parliamentary Elections, only the nativist Alliance of Patriots managed to garner more than 1% (3.14%) of votes, while others fell well behind the threshold. In this context, Levan Vasadze hopes to capture the voters that feel under-represented.
Korneli Kakachia, who leads the Georgian Institute of Politics (GIP), a think tank, considers that Vasadze’s potential success would hurt the ruling Georgian Dream party, taking away some of their radical supporters.
Man for the job?
Levan Vasadze’s biography resembles, in part, that of Viktor Orbán, perhaps Central/Eastern Europe’s most outspoken illiberal leader. Vasadze was benefited from the U.S. government scholarship and has spent the mid-1990s in the United States, where he graduated with MBA at the Emory University in 1995. His political views seem to have taken a radical turn after his graduation, in Moscow, Russia. Here, he is mainly reported to have worked as “a businessman,” but also studied the life of the apostles and theology in 2006-2007 at Moscow St. Tikhon Humanitarian University.
In Georgia, he ran two companies – “Bagrationi 1882” known for its sparkling wines, and “Samoseli Pirveli” – a clothes brand trying to revive and upgrade Georgia’s traditional clothing.
Back in Georgia since 2009, he has been publishing regularly, mixing nativist, Christian mystical, and messianic messages. He has been called “one of the chief ideologues of Georgian nativism.“ Vasadze is married and raises eight children.
Hard quest for consolidation
Seeking the unifying core
Georgian right-wing is eclectic and scattered. With dozens of political parties identifying themselves with the ultra-conservative and traditionalist ideas never managed to create a homogenous movement. As is often the case in Georgia, this type of unification may come under a charismatic and authoritative leader. Vasadze has to yet prove to the multi-striped radical right – some nativist, others illiberal conservatives, yet others with neo-Nazi paraphernalia, some pro-Russian Putino-Stalinist factions, and other ardently anti-Russian nationalist-militarists – that he is the right candidate for propelling the radical right to power. So far, Vasadze articulates several key unifying messages:
- Anti-liberal and anti-West: ending what he calls the “liberal hegemony” in Georgia is Vasadze’s key objective. The rejection of minority rights, aggressive confrontation with such notions as gender equality, LGBT rights, minority rights – but also evils of the liberal economy such as “the sale of land to foreigners” is resonating with all radical groups in Georgia. These notions are said to be “a forcibly imposed ideology” upon the Georgian society by the West and the Western affiliated parties and civil society groups.
- Family and “demographic revival”: Vasadze is a founder and board member of a conservative school, as well as “Georgia’s Demographic Revival Foundation”. It forms the part of the ultra-conservative World Congress of Families (WCF), which has been rallying against LGBT rights, and against abortions. Vasadze considers the reversal of the “demographic decline” of the Georgian ethnic group as one of the key challenges to national security. (WCF was added to the list of organizations designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as anti-LGBT hate groups in February 2014 for its involvement with the 2013 Russian LGBT propaganda law and opposing LGBT rights internationally)
Allies: a cool reception
Statements from some key figures of the Georgian right-wing seem to suggest Vasadze’s consolidating quest will be a complicated one:
- Dimitri Lortkipanidze, former MP, the Director of the Primakov Georgia-Russia Public Center, advocating for direct talks and rapprochement with Russia. He welcomes Vasadze’s open arrival on the political scene as “a serious statement” but says it will be difficult to implement, as many nationalist-conservative political parties are “hiding behind the liberal agenda.” He says Vasadze was under “severe pressure of the neo-liberal paradigm,” but appreciates that the EU mediation of the Georgian political crisis was a pivotal moment since it “tampers with Georgian internal affairs and insults [its] sovereignty.” Claiming he sees himself “in the civil sector” and does not intend to return to the political scene, Lortkipanidze told Civil.ge he expects Vasadze’s “serious political statements” with “relevant steps.”
- Irma Inashvili of the Alliance of Patriots of Georgia (AoP), was until recently the most visible leader of the Georgian ultra-conservatives. She denies any talks of cooperation Vasadze, and intends to stay aloof: “I welcome everyone who wants to create a political party and participate in the country’s political life.”
- Levan Chachua, the head of ultra-right Georgian Idea, endorsed Vasadze stating that he “openly expresses readiness to support him in future battles for Georgia’s moral values.” Chachua previously stated that Georgia needs a Lukashenko-style “manly” leader opposed to protection LGBT rights, said that it is time “to renounce unchristian, immoral, lucrative, and unworthy policy.”
- Sandro Bregadze, one of the founders of the ultranationalist and xenophobic Georgian March also welcomed the emergence of a new conservative party but added that “the time will show the rest,” reserving his judgment about possible cooperation with Vasadze. A day after Vasadze’s party announcement, Bregadze spoke about the necessity of nationalist unity, but warned “the overly ambitious leaders”, calling for cooperation on equal terms.
- Guram Palavandishvili, founder of the Society for Children’s Rights who is notable for his hate-filled homophobic agenda, militantly and violently opposing Tbilisi Pride, did not express himself publicly concerning Vasadze. Palavandishvili split from the Georgian March and is in open conflict with Bregadze, who repeatedly called Palavandishvili “an odious figure.”
- Tornike Vashakidze, one of the activists of Georgian National Unity, a Tbilisi-based group that positions itself as a “fascist” and “right-wing national-socialist” organization, dislikes Vasadze, saying that the latter’s “conservatism is no better than liberalism.”
Key ingredients for success:
- Media: Experience shows, that to achieve success, Georgian political parties need privileged access to the media, especially nationwide television. The previous success of Irma Inashvili has been also credited to pro-governmental media platforms, which some see as indirect proof of her association with the Georgian Dream. So far, Vasadze’s relations with the media are tense. He repeatedly complained about media being a part of a “liberal dictatorship.” While he has spun off a successful online media platform Alt-info, which draws heavily on the success of the “Pepe the Frog” alt-right in the United States. In 2020, Facebook removed Alt-info, controlling 50 Facebook accounts, 49 pages, four groups, eight events, and 19 Instagram accounts, from its networks. The national regulator also imposed fines. But the older, more conservative generation in Georgia usually gets its news from television. Vasadze tries to promote ALT-TV, but it lacks the kind of nationwide reach that would be necessary for electoral success.
- Ideology: while conservatism in Georgia may be widespread, Vasadze’s ultra-conservative orthodoxy might be off-putting for the electorate, Iago Kachkachishvili, Professor of Sociology at Tbilisi State University tells Civil.ge. “A political party which is radically nationalist and conservative, almost exclusively so, does not comply with the requirements of ideologically versatile society.” “Vasadze may gather many nationalists around, but that will not enough for coming to power,” Kachkachishvili says.
- Church ties: Almost Georgian political forces, and all who want to come to power, have been borrowing the political capital from the powerful Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC). In this sense, Vasadze has close connections, which might foster the consolidation of other forces behind him. If the influential core of the Church throws its weight behind Vasadze, the religious pulpit might provide him with a nationwide reach that he needs. But GOC is a pragmatic actor, and its material riches depend to a large extent on the largesse of the sitting government, which makes the Church’s support to the opposition fickle – even if the ideologies match.
- Money: Vasadze is a successful businessman, which gives him sufficient resources to fund his own political project. Whether his wealth is significant enough to convince the scattered radical right to gather around, is yet unclear.
- Networks: Vasadze is relying heavily on the networks that are facilitated by Russia, especially by the radical ideologue Alexander Dugin, whom Vasadze counts as a personal friend. Even though Dugin has been known to be welcome in the Kremlin, and his imperial orthodoxy has been instrumentalized by Moscow to brand its foreign policy adventures (think “near abroad”, “Russian World” or “Novorossiya”), his tangible influence over the Kremlin and – especially – its purse is disputed. Such close affiliation with Moscow is also alienating some potential allies.
Georgian pundits seem to agree, that consolidating the Georgian far-right actors is a difficult mission. They seem homogenous from the outside, but the internal dynamics clearly indicate the opposite. Many perceive Vasadze’s ideological expansiveness and his financial assets as a threat to their career and thus are unlikely to welcome him as an uncontested leader in the holy war for Georgia’s liberation from “liberalism.”
In the coming months, Vasadze’s ability to mobilize resources, get into the media, and convert his ideological stance into tangible – and popular – actions will become more obvious. So far, Vasadze’s attempt to piggyback on the popular success of the Rioni Valley Defenders has been a failure – he managed to discredit the Rioni Valley movement in the eyes of some Georgians, but was neither welcome nor accepted by the movement itself.