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2021 in Georgia: Year in Review

In Georgia, 2021 was a tumultuous year of continued and new crises, but also a year of attempted solutions, many of them with no success and some of them still underway. The year of memorable departures and arrivals, 2021 was of deals sealed and unsealed, unprecedented attacks against media, alleged surveillance leaks, and ravaging COVID-19 pandemic, to name a few. The past 12 months also saw an unusual impact of collective actions.

Below are some of the most remarkable moments and trends that unfolded over the outgoing year.

Ivanishvili Quitting Politics, Again

Bidzina Ivanishvili, a Georgian billionaire who founded the Georgian Dream and shortly served as a Prime Minister in 2012-2013, was still the ruling party chairperson as 2021 arrived. But early in January, he stated about quitting politics for good, including giving up his party membership. Days later, he also stated about handing a significant part of his assets to Cartu Foundation, a charity organization he founded. His departure met skepticism for it was not his first time doing so. But Ivanishvili largely remained in shadows for the rest of the year, even though government critics mainly attributed the ruling party’s decisions to its reclusive founder.  

Gakharia’s Leaves, Garibashvili’s Second Coming

The departure of GD’s popular Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia, promoted to his post after the violent dispersal of June 20-21 protests in 2019 for which he took responsibility as Interior Minister, was long rumored. Ironically, it was the June 2019 developments that still came for him: a crisis erupted as opposition leader Nika Melia, charged with inciting and leading violence the same night, refused to post bail and the police were about to detain him amid the resistance of his supporters.

Gakharia resigned on the morning of February 18, citing the need for reduced polarization and disagreement with the party over the matter.  The act of sacrifice boosted his popularity further as he shortly disappeared from the scene. He was replaced by Irakli Garibashvili, a rather socially conservative former PM who had returned to politics as a Defense Minister in Gakharia’s cabinet. Melia was still detained. Gakharia came back months later as an opposition politician inaugurating his own For Georgia party.

Twice Replaced Parliamentary Speaker

Archil Talakvadze had served as Parliamentary Chairperson since the Gavrilov controversy on June 2019 ended the Speaker career of his predecessor Irakli Kobakhidze. But in April this year, he stated about his resignation after the EU-brokered April 19 deal between the ruling and opposition parties, passing the post to MP Kakha Kuchava, who he said would lead the legislative body from a “more neutral position.” The new Speaker, indeed, enjoyed a reputation of a relatively moderate, non-confrontational, and outspokenly pro-Western politician.

But his tenure turned out short-lived too. Stepping down in December with few explanations, Kuchava surrendered his position to Shalva Papuashvili, GD PR secretary, who came into the public eye since 2020 as a more hardliner GD MP. With 2021 coming to an end, the public is left guessing whether the changes mean GD sidelining relatively moderate figures or, on the contrary, booking more influential leadership roles for them.

EU-Brokered Deal Sealed, Unsealed

The end of the government crisis that started with the opposition boycotting the Parliament after the 2020 contested parliamentary elections was not in the sight, and the Prime Minister Gakharia’s resignation and jailing of the opposition leader made things only worse. European Council President Charles Michel designated a special envoy to mediate between the parties and later arrived himself to lead the process. Weeks-long talks culminated in April 19 deal, a compromise agreement envisaging steps and reforms to defuse the crisis. The ruling party and part of opposition MPs signed, ditching boycott and paving the way to constitutional amendments for judicial and electoral reforms. The United National Movement, the largest opposition party, refused to sign, which the GD used as one of the excuses to quit the deal late in July. UNM signed later, but GD never rejoined.

July 5 Homophobic Pogroms and Rise of Far-Right

Right-wing politics were back in the game in mid-year when ultra-conservative, Russia-friendly businessman Levan Vasadze formed his own party, but he soon retreated from the spotlight citing health complications. But far-right sentiments saw dangerous rise again as large crowds gathered to oppose and obstruct the LGBTQ+ pride planned on July 5. The organizers had to cancel the pride over safety concerns as mobs vandalized activists’ office and physically assaulted over 50 media workers. Lekso Lashkharava, a cameraman who was severely beaten during pogroms, was found dead in his home days later. No justice has been served into Lashkarava’s case so far.

The government and the ruling party leaders faced backlash for not doing enough to prevent the violence, as well as for inciting the crimes through anti-Pride statements, and for failing to punish the violence organizers. The developments also gave a rise to worries over the freedom of the press, that saw rise of attacks. Later, members of Alt-Info, a right-wing and openly Russia-friendly media outlet whose role in leading the July 5 homophobic pogroms has been well-documented, went unhindered to establish their own political party which they called “Conservative Movement.”

Municipal Elections: Referendum that Wasn’t

2021 local self-government elections was loaded with added significance due to the virtual 43% government legitimacy threshold. But the ruling party scoring up to 47% in the first-round proportional vote turned the so-called referendum irrelevant. But the Georgian Dream still suffered losses in most large cities, and 20 mayoral races went to runoffs. Smaller opposition parties underperformed compared to the United National Movement, with the return of ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili on the eve of the election believed to be a polarization booster. But they still emerged as kingmakers in several local councils. Ex-PM Gakharia’s party ended third, albeit far behind GD and UNM.

In tense runoffs, the ruling party won 19 out of 20 mayoral races amid concerns on part of local reputed watchdogs that election violations may have affected outcomes. Opposition protests erupted but slowly subsided. By the end of the year, the opposition managed to cooperate to elect a council chair in one hung municipality of Chkhorotsku, from where ex-PM Gakharia hails from, but things remain tense in five others where the Georgian Dream failed to secure majorities or build coalitions.

Saakashvili’s Arrival, Hunger Strike

Exiled former President Mikheil Saakashvili secretly arrived in Georgia in the end of September and was detained on October 1, on the eve of the municipal elections. The ex-President went on hunger strike, and reports about his declining health, his forced transfer to a penitentiary hospital against his will, further deepened polarization and sparked concerns about inhuman treatment and inadequate medical care. After continuous calls for his transfer to a properly-equipped clinic, Saakashvili was taken to Gori Military Hospital, where he stopped his hunger strike. As later revealed, earlier on the same day, the European Court for Human Rights ordered his transfer to a multi-profile clinic as requested by the Ombudsperson-convened medical council. The story is not over: by the end of 2021, over a hundred of his supporters went (and remain) on hunger strike demanding the former President’s release. Saakashvili himself was discharged despite his own protest from the hospital and moved back to the prison cell in Rustavi early on December 30.

Namakhvani Protests – Hopes Flushed

The grassroots protest movement against the construction of the controversial Namakhvani HPP project in west Georgia emerged in 2020 and gained on strength and support throughout the first half of 2021. The activism created rare unity among people from various social and political backgrounds and produced several large-scale rallies. The protests revolved around environmental, economic, and human rights concerns, and as its opponents would argue — xenophobia. Leaked government reports echoed some of these complaints. The excitement over the unity faded after leaders of local activism spoke openly against queer rights and went to take part in the July 5 anti-Pride prayer-demonstration. As for the HPP project, despite the reports about the withdrawal of the investor company, authorities have been hinting they are still considering building the cascade. Local protests continue.

Country Roads: Local Concerns Demand Attention

Besides Namakhvani HPP activism, other local problems, too, shifted the focus from the center to the regions. The examples were tensions and violence in the ethnically mixed town of Dmanisi, Kvemo Kartli, erupted in May over local shop incident and ended in a handshake between ethnic Georgian and Azeri seniors; months-long protests of residents of Shukruti village of the Chiatura municipality demanding fair compensation for mining activities that damaged their living environments; or protests in Upper Racha region against planned manganese extraction in nearby lands. The heavily loaded municipal elections further amplified local problems and drew media and public attention towards the regions, with the trend expected to persist through 2022.

Year of Collective Action

2021 was particularly memorable for a wave of workers’ strikes, many of which ended with full or partial success. Some of them include the May strike of industrial workers in Rustavi who achieved pay rise, partially met demands for Chiatura miners, and a successful strike of Borjomi mineral water factories. The year culminates with another won battle – this time by port workers in the coastal city of Batumi being granted key demands on compensation and labor conditions. The trend may continue in 2022 as concerns about dire labor conditions and low wages persist, particularly among medical workers.

Secret Files

Various reports leaked in media throughout 2021 pointed at questionable surveillance practices, including officials spying on each other and Georgian authorities eavesdropping on western diplomats. A leak of tons of alleged files of the State Security Service of Georgia (SSG) in mid-September marked a culmination and sparked outrage: on the one hand, the files pointed at massive state spying, including on clergy, diplomats, and media. On the other hand, the leaks exposed possible wrongdoings and abuses by clergy which both the state and the Georgian Orthodox Church turned a blind eye to.

Independent Agencies Going Bold

Public Defender’s Office and State Inspector’s Service, two independent state agencies, were propelled into the spotlight in 2021 for their principled stance over abuses of powerful institutions. Particular highlights were the Ninotsminda orphanage controversy, which emerged after Ombudsperson Nino Lomjaria raised alarms over denied access to a Church-run boarding school. The issue attracted public scrutiny amid sensitivity over the exposure of alleged cases of child abuse and immense informal power maintained by the Georgian Orthodox Church.

Public Defender’s Office played a decisive role in examining and reporting on possible abuses during the hunger strike crisis of the jailed ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili. The State Inspector’s Service, another independent institution, was also actively involved in the process, at times critically assessing the performance of authorities. The expedited procedure to dismantle the agency at the end of the year, sparking massive backlash, is perceived by critics as an attempt to punish the body and State Inspector Londa Toloraia.

Flawed Reforms, Spats with West

Reform agenda and related controversies continued to plague the country throughout 2021. The highlights were election and judicial reforms, both envisioned in April 19 deal. Despite quitting the deal, Georgian Dream pledged to commit to the reforms and passed some changes. But the ruling party drew criticism from both Washington and Brussels over backtracking on adopting key changes, such as in the case of the rule of electing a prosecutor or constitutional amendments concerning the rule of conducting the next two parliamentary elections, as well as for the moves that would go against the reform spirits, such as the rushed process of filling vacant positions of Supreme Court justices.

The flaws eventually led the EU to warn not to disburse the macro-financial loan should Georgia fail the court reform, and Georgian leaders to refrain from asking the EU for the disbursement of the macro-financial loan citing economic revival while moving ahead with Supreme Court appointments. Other disagreements also followed as ruling party leaders did not hesitate to lash out at Western politicians and diplomats in response to their criticism.

Regional Diplomacy

Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili repeatedly voiced his commitment to contribute to regional peace and cooperation in the South Caucasus. Aside from multiple meetings with his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts, the PM took pride in his contribution to U.S.-Georgian mediation, resulting in Azerbaijan swapping Armenian captives for mine maps. Vague statements on part of authorities over Georgia’s potential engagement in the 3+3 platform involving Russia, Turkey, Iran along South Caucasian countries, attracted controversies. However, Tbilisi chose to skip the first platform meeting in Moscow on December 10.

ECtHR Ruling on 2008 War

An important development was the January 21 ruling of the European Court of Human Rights over the Georgia v. Russia Case over the 2008 war, holding Russia responsible for the breach of six articles of the convention and a failure to conduct an effective investigation into the alleged breach of the right to life. The Court found the events following the ceasefire agreement of 12 August 2008 that ended the active phase of the war fell within the Russian jurisdiction for its effective control over the regions of Tskhinvali/South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which was welcomed by Georgia as strong documentation of Russian occupation of these territories.

Abkhazia: Shots Fired

The Russia-occupied region of Abkhazia ends the year with heightened tensions that have been unfolding over the past months: a series of controversies, including the Sokhumi shooting incident, concerns over law enforcement, as well as the volatility of the Kremlin-backed Abkhaz leader Aslan Bzhania about the relations with Moscow and Tbilisi culminated in the opposition-led unrests in Sokhumi on December 21. The dissatisfaction persists and the current energy deficit may add to the looming crisis.

Pandemic Raging On

In 2021, the COVID-19 virus continued to affect Georgia’s public health, with the spread of the Delta variant increasing its devastating effects. By the end of 2020, the country had recorded 227,420 infections and 2,505 virus-related deaths. On December 30 this year, the number of confirmed cases stood at 932,641, while fatalities had reached 13,758. Throughout the year, Georgia went through various lockdowns and curbs and introduced vaccines, with 1,145,424 persons – 39.9% of the grown-up population – fully jabbed. The vaccination process, which slowed down in autumn, again picked up somwhat lately. Still, vaccinating a larger part of the country’s citizens is expected to remain a challenge throughout 2022.

Economy – Richer, But Poorer

Georgia’s economic performance demonstrated contrasting tendencies throughout 2021: authorities took pride over the rapidly recovering economy and quickly improving balance after the pandemic-induced recession. But the main problem remained record-breaking inflation rates, with general complaints that the citizens could afford far less this year than in the year before.

President Initiates ‘National Accord’

In the face of persisting political polarization and deepening divisions among political parties and their supporters, Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili initiated what she calls a process of ‘national accord’ on the eve of 2022. The process is supposed to be all-inclusive, transparent, and with no preconditions. With rhetorics and actions of the leadership of Georgian Dream and United National Movement – two key pillars of the polarization – remaining largely uncompromising, the initiative still appears to be moving ahead, and photos from meetings at Presidential Palace regularly popping up in social media show that Zurabishvili is serious about it.

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