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Op-ed | Telling Time the New Way: 17 Years of Reform

In the run-up to the 2024 parliamentary elections, those seeking to challenge the Georgian Dream may want to develop a more compelling narrative of Georgia’s recent history. To win over more voters, it might help to represent 2003 to 2020 as 17 years of reform: when most of the senior people involved tried to move the country forward.

Hans Gutbrod regularly writes on developments in the South Caucasus.

He is on Twitter at

Many achievements made everyday life of people in Georgia better. Next to the ease of doing transactions with the state, some of the less obvious achievements are worth highlighting, as most have become so used to them: building the airport in Kutaisi; cheaper and easier travel to Europe; some excellent trains and newer busses; smoke-free restaurants; updated and gorgeous museums in the regions, too; better parks; and more humane policies in various directions.

In those 17 years, terrible mistakes were made as well. Some of them, with good intentions, such as the expensive experiment to revitalize Kutaisi by relocating the parliament. In other cases, squarely, the wrong people were put in charge. Several of them might have been competent administrators but should never have held unrestrained power, as they could not contain their vicious or vindictive impulses. In other instances, various governments cracked down too hard on protests, whether in 2007, 2011, and 2019, or in other incidents of violence across the years, for which, with a few exceptions, there has not been proper accountability.

Yet overall, an amazing amount of progress was made. Most ministers, deputy ministers, and civil servants kept pushing an ambitious reform agenda. Against tough odds, Georgia was one of the world’s top reformers for a dozen-and-half years. That brought tangible benefits, too, such as a real reduction in extreme poverty. Many families are doing much better than they were not long ago (even if they do not feel much better relative to their neighbors, who are also getting ahead).

Much was achieved. But the ambition of doing better is gone.

It ended with the return of Irakli Garibashvili to the premiership in early 2021. Ever since Georgia has had a little cabal in charge that seems singularly uninterested in making good things happen — other than for themselves and their immediate friends. Not a week passes in which they do not engage in petty attacks of a style unbecoming to a loud teenager, let alone to the leaders of a country.

In the meantime, the cabal seeks to trash institutions that have been built over decades – most recently, the National Bank of Georgia; many cultural institutions, including in Georgia’s renowned film sector; in the civil service, where competent senior civil servants are being pushed out to be replaced by barely qualified loyalists; and anywhere else you look closely.

The recent appointment of one of Georgia’s most corrupt educational managers to head the National Academy of Sciences is just one of many examples of moving in the radically wrong direction. A few holdout technocrats are left, but they are an endangered species. While distracting observers with multiple transgressions, the ruling party, which at a lower level consists primarily of grifters, dishes out subsidies and contracts to its relatives and friends.

Plausible and Perplexing

Telling the story of the last 20 years in this way – 17 years of ambitious reform, but also with grave mistakes, but now a time of rapid regression – is plausible but somewhat perplexing. Until now, the usual way to tell the political time in Georgia was to divide it into two phases: the UNM rule in 2003-2012 and the Georgian Dream administration thereafter.

This established narrative, splitting around 2012, suits the current leadership of the Georgian Dream. Its current leadership keeps implying that people who have left GD have gone to the UNM. The more plausible version is that most people who have left the Georgian Dream government originally served some ideals – and their departure signifies that we are in an entirely different political era now.

Is the account of “17 years of reform, now regression” historically true? This remains for historians to determine. But the framing seems politically expedient.

It is novel when there are too many tired stories around. Telling time this way helps to explain to the hundreds of thousands of citizens who voted for the Georgian Dream that whatever their previous choice, continuing to vote for GD is to support something newly destructive. It draws on loss aversion: “You had something reasonably good, and now it’s about to be taken away.”

This, more inclusive, framing could work precisely because is a bit jarring. Conceding that progress and mistakes were distributed more evenly across the administrations of two political arch-enemies than it is often acknowledged can be a uniting message.

It also lets people engage beyond lambasting the mistakes of others while forgetting their own. The framing of “17 years of reform” overcomes the divide that helps the Georgian Dream. It sidelines the “bloody nine years” narrative deployed to tar anyone who endorsed the post-2003 period. It also gives an outlook to the future: let’s get back to the progress that was possible, let’s unite, and not repeat the mistakes we previously made. (A substantial program with a vision might help, too, see here some earlier ideas.)

The framing has the additional advantage of focusing on the least likable aspects of Irakli Garibashvili and Irakli Kobakhidze and sabotaging their divisiveness. Yes, it may sidetrack the focus on the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, but it may undercut the party morale. In any case, many voters may feel that Ivanishvili is an opponent that cannot be beaten directly, with all the resources at his disposal, and as one of the world’s least visible rulers.

Dividing the dividers this way might be worthwhile when all-out-of-the-trenches frontal assaults have proven less promising. If the destructive duo of Iraklis were to be replaced by their patron’s top-down fiat, it would not solve the underlying problem. Still, their sidelining would at least provide a breathing space for Georgia.

It remains an open question whether those who challenge the Georgian Dream dominance will have the message discipline to convey such a framing.

One small way to improve the conversation is to drop the term “the opposition.” Various political groups are involved, and they are sufficiently diverse not to be compressed into a single entity. Anyway, success is about more than message discipline. It is about finding a compelling, authentic, and realistic approach, as Levan Tsutskiridze recently pointed out.

The When of the Future

Timing matters for how you see the past and how you regard the future. The next election should be presented as progress towards the inevitable end of regression – an incremental change in the right direction, not a decisive battle.

As Victor Frankel highlighted in much more dramatic contexts, the first to perish are those that believe that dark days will be over very soon. When the darkness does not end, they are crushed. The next to falter are those that think the light will never come – they cannot muster hope to continue. Some recent defeats of those who sought to challenge the Georgian Dream can be understood in these terms: going all out for elections and promptly falling apart when the results fall short.

Typically, when people discuss how the current Georgian Dream supremacy could be challenged, the main focus is on who, what, and how. Who should lead? What should they do? How should they campaign?

Perhaps focusing on when – in the past and the future – carries equal importance.

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

This post is also available in: ქართული (Georgian)


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