Opinion | To Challenge Authoritarianism, Georgian Democrats Need a New Strategy

Democracy activism and democracy support can not continue as before when the ruling “Georgian Dream” party was regarded as a benign actor, reluctantly accepting basic democratic norms and generally staying in line with Georgia’s traditional Euro-Atlantic foreign policy. It is now a political force taking Georgia towards authoritarianism, away from the EU/US partnerships, and into the abyss of Russian imperialism. It can be countered, but to do so, democracy activists and their supporters must recognize the need for new strategies, better tools, and more nuanced political language. If they are to succeed against these difficult but not impossible odds, they must also be able to access more targeted and expanded financial and material support.

Levan Tsutskiridze is an Executive Director of the Eastern European Centre for Multiparty Democracy (EECMD). Before joining EECMD in 2009, Levan was the Rector of the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs (GIPA).

The Georgian society demonstrated this March that despite the aggressive push of the ruling Georgian Dream party to turn Georgia into a Russia-style autocracy, it is strongly committed to liberty, democracy, and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic foreign policy focus and will resist such attempts forcefully. By opposing the draft law on the “transparency of foreign influence,” also known as the “foreign agents bill,” which the ruling party initiated, it showed a remarkable ability to mount a well-organized, autonomous, and yet, highly effective resistance. The Georgian Dream, caught by surprise by this massive protest, was forced to kill the bill at its second hearing in its most humiliating political setback of a decade.

While the bill failed in the face of strong opposition, the goal that the GD set out to achieve with it – eliminating the islands of pluralism and dissent in the run-up of the parliamentary election 2024 – remains.

What can the Georgian democrats do and achieve under these circumstances? Is there a strategy forward for the true Georgian democrats? Is it doable if such a strategy can be articulated?

There are important elements that any such strategy should incorporate if it is to succeed.

Reviving the public space

Georgian Dream believes that part of the quest for unchallenged power lies in restricting the space for critical reflection on politics (NGOs, independent media, political parties, foreign democracy funding), simplifying, to the extent of absurdity, whatever discussions remain, and eliminating alternative platforms for channeling political interests.

In line with this propaganda strategy, the GD has conjured the chimera of the “global war party” – a “liberal fascist” conspiracy of the collective West, trying to force Georgia into war with Russia; the ever-increasing anti-EU/US propaganda aims to downplay the importance of EU integration and thus solve an important electoral issue for the Georgian Dream: a strong consensus (including within the GD voters) around the European project.

“Gay Propaganda,” “Attacks on Family Values,” and “Liberal Fascism” are now the buzzwords of GD leaders as they try to instill irrational fears of the Georgian citizens who, or so the GD thinks, will be consolidated around it as a bastion of traditional, family-based, Christian values, successfully weathering the incessant attacks of liberal minorities besieging the rights of the majority.

Therefore, the only way these lies can succeed is for Georgian society to cease critical reflection on politics. This is where the role of democratic civil society organizations and independent media is most important and why GD casts them as “the enemies of the state.”

A strategy to counter this starts with informed dialogue about the benefits of democracy and EU integration but does not end there. Democracy Schools, civic education centers, and voter education programs must spread out significantly more and lead the way for the emergence of specific visions, strategies, and action plans.

By countering the propaganda of fear, falsehood, and apathy with positive, realistic, and credible visions, civil society will be able to bring out the best of what the Georgian society has and carve out a vision of a better, more forward-looking, unafraid Georgia. This potential is still there, we have seen it in March, and it must be tapped and nurtured.

Engaging with Conservative Democrats

If asked, a large part of the Georgian population would identify as socially conservative. By contrast, the Georgian civil sector is largely liberal, left-leaning, often seen as decisively anti-clerical, and limited to its outreach and appeal to relatively small, urbanite, well-traveled elites.

These elites have been the driving force behind most of the pro-democracy movement and are important groups that can influence public opinion and frame the debate. However, they alone cannot spearhead a long-term, strategic pro-democracy action – it will need to spread nationwide and be sustained.

Civic actors have yet to find a way and a language necessary to consistently engage with the mostly theist Georgian population that feels a strong linkage with the church, land, family, and tradition while, at the same time, being largely pro-democratic and supportive of Georgia becoming an EU member.

The absence of organized, European-conservative allies in the common struggle for democracy is one of the critical weaknesses of the country. The best way to start addressing this gap is to acknowledge that this is an important problem, look for potential partners outside the usual centers for activism, and welcome them into a larger civil-society and political network of the country. No politically significant group can be left at the mercy of true Russian agents of influence and be allowed to sway public opinion (and Georgia’s future) only because the democratic political forces have fallen prey to intellectual laziness and their own organizational tunnel visions.

Strengthen democracy networks by practicing wins

Democracy movements cannot succeed if they are not accustomed to winning. Apart from instilling hope and re-energizing citizens, victories strengthen networks, improve cooperation, and consolidate political resolve.

Democrats must learn to fight different battles simultaneously. They need to be able to coalesce for major events at critical moments, as they did in March. But these moments, while possibly forthcoming, may not occur often and may not always succeed.

Such political “time gaps,” if not filled with local, tangible wins, may provide useful opportunities for the usual anti-democratic propaganda to set in. Combined with the chilling effects of the Government’s persecution of independent activists and protesters, it may further weaken the sense of belonging to the movement, erode the fledgling democratic enthusiasm that rekindled after the March protests, and eventually, dissipate into apathy.

Making the private sector a stakeholder in democracy

No democracy can succeed without the private sector having a big stake in it. The Georgian private sector, however, has always been a reluctant democratic actor: most significant, large business holdings opt to bandwagon with the incumbent pollical force, regardless of who it is or what political program they are building. The rest – small to medium businesses – are highly risk-averse because they are vulnerable to the weak system of the rule of law and the politicization of justice.

But businesses are, too, gradually realizing that the threats to democracy will eventually catch up to them. In March 2023, several business associations put out strongly worded public statements against the proposed “foreign agent law” – a highly unusual step for the groups that prefer more institutionalized and diplomatic means for channeling their interests and concerns. Some small-scale businesses (and a few larger ones) have contributed to the local-level protest by providing services and support at discounted rates or for free.

This is a positive sign that must be nurtured. Democracy activists need to talk more often with businesses – this will help them explain the cause they are serving and become more aware of the sensitivities and considerations of the private sector. Not all are ready for full-throttled political activism, nor all must be asked to engage in one.

Finalizing electoral reforms

The key decisions that will have the most bearing on the quality of forthcoming elections in fall 2024 are the election of the Chair of the Central Electoral Commission, the electoral threshold, the electoral barrier, and electoral observation.

GD has already brought the CEC under its partisan control and intends to keep the electoral threshold at a relatively high 5%. It is regularly undermining the credibility of the independent election observer NGOs. These actions threaten to eliminate whatever trust remains in the integrity of the electoral process and will further fuel polarization.

The introduction of electronic voting brings a set of new challenges ranging from managing the voting process to creating trust in these innovative technologies. Delays, queues, technical glitches, and misunderstandings that may occur can spiral into a serious electoral crisis in the already charged political atmosphere. Only a trusted, credible, and highly professional CEC can handle an innovation of this magnitude without endangering the integrity of the electoral process. The more the CEC is subject to partisan control, the less ability and political credibility it will have to manage the problems.

Georgia needs long-term international observers deployed sufficiently early in the process. They need time to understand, adapt, and communicate about elections sufficiently well and on time. Georgia’s democratic stakeholders need to coordinate on the highest level possible to ensure that Georgia has solid international observation missions able to work effectively across the country.

No single organization can address these challenges alone. A sustained dialogue and coordination between political parties, public agencies, CSOs, and observer organizations should gauge the extent of the problems, communicate to the public and other stakeholders, and make sure that fundamental aspects affecting the electoral process are well understood and, if necessary, defended.

Re-energizing democracy funding

In the current political reality, democracy support cannot continue as before, when GD was regarded as a benign actor, reluctantly – but still – following at least some democratic norms and generally staying true to Georgia’s traditional Euro-Atlantic foreign policy.

Democracy support to Georgia should refocus and offer more direct, core support for pro-democratic democracy movements and political groups that will inevitably emerge from this current debacle.

Most of these organizations live on project-based funding. Mission-based, institutional funding is needed to allow for flexibility and continuity in times of crisis. Democracy Schools, civic education programs be expanded, and more aggressive measures to stifle Russia-style propaganda explored.

The Georgian Dream, seeing it is powerless against the inspired citizen movements, will aim to constrain funding to democracy NGOs, political parties, and citizen movements by any means available to them. GD is likely to introduce new legislation to curb foreign funding to “political” work (however loosely it may be defined) and otherwise instrumentalize religious feelings or “LGBT propaganda” fears.

To deter this, Georgia’s international partners shall design and implement a constraining and sanctioning regime for officials and individuals who act in line with the Russian cause or lead and support anti-democratic legislation and/or violent movements.

The Georgian citizens demonstrated that there is a big gap between its authoritarian government and the society that strives for liberty, democracy, and a European future against all the odds. Its society remains remarkably pro-democratic even in the face of a total capture of the state institutions by an anti-democratic, pro-Russian political force.

By rethinking the entrenched modus operandi of democracy activism and democracy support and putting together a set of resolute actions, a democratic breakthrough is entirely possible. The fight for democracy in Georgia is far from over yet, and the Georgians are soldiering on.

The views and opinions expressed on Civil.ge opinions pages are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Civil.ge editorial staff. 


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