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Analysis | Could a Belarus-style Crackdown Occur in Georgia?

Comparative Notes on Violent Mass Repression and Regime Consolidation

The authoritarian turn of the government led by the Georgian Dream turn caught many observers by surprise. The regime, facing a spontaneous mass protest, remains defiant and is rapidly descending towards autocracy. With the exhaustion of its plebiscitary legitimacy, GD’s increasing readiness to encourage and employ violent repression rings alarm bells. Comparisons with Belarus are both made and dismissed with competing vigor. This piece attempts to respond to this debate with the help of the explanatory theories of authoritarianism and comparative perspectives on authoritarian regimes. 

Davit Zedelashvili is a fellow at Research Institute Gnomon Wise

Not long ago, any comparison of the Georgian regime’s trajectory with that of Belarus was alien to expert thinking and public imagination. However, the current state of affairs in Georgia is so dire and is deteriorating so fast, that this course of events remains imaginable and rationally possible. All authoritarian regimes were, at some point, unfathomable before their consolidation. The art of authoritarian regime-making lies in realizing what was previously deemed unthinkable. As historian Timothy Snyder wrote, those who can defeat the regime shall remain calm upon the arrival of the unthinkable, because they can anticipate its happening. 

Crumbling Democratic Façade: A surprise that wasn’t   

Democracies, even imperfect ones with qualifying adjectives, decay slowly and then break down suddenly. The unraveling of Georgia’s freshly minted illiberal democracy took many insiders and outsiders by surprise, and while the swerves and turns on that road have been apparent to internal observers, the decisive descent towards a consolidated authoritarian regime and isolation from the West appeared as a sudden U-turn. 

Some find the behavior of the Georgian Dream (GD) regime and its leader, oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili perplexing and irrational. However, the rational framework they refer to only assumes a system that
András Sajó called a plebiscitarian leader democracy. In such a system, the leaders even if not democratic in the liberal sense, have at least to pretend that they take the critical preferences of the electorate seriously and act to deliver on them. 

Such a framework applied to the Georgian political regime until recently, but that façade crumbled irreversibly after the regime reintroduced the Russian-styled “foreign agent” legislation and a Russian-styled constitutional amendment on “the protection of family values.”

It is likely that Ivanishvili always held deeply anti-Western views and believed in wild conspiracies hatched in Russian propaganda factories. But he and his party had to camouflage as pro-Western and reluctantly follow the path of Georgia’s European integration – because this was a firm choice of the majority of Georgians. 

This is no longer relevant. Ivanishvili and key figures of his party and government (which increasingly became one) communicated a manifest intention to peel off the remnants of a crumbling facade. Ivanishvili’s anti-Western manifesto of April 29 foreshadowed the rapid consolidation of a substantively anti-western authoritarian regime. 

That manifesto defined all political opponents and civil society as hostile foreign agents and contained the direct announcement of repressions against them, a clear indication of his use of authoritarian methods to maintain power. Once the decision is taken to abandon the pretense of requiring popular legitimacy, there is nothing irrational in the choice of mass violent repression as the primary tool to achieve the objective. 

There is nothing unusual situation, it has been tried before in Georgia’s neighborhood. Ivanishvili is keenly aware of the quandary – how to pull the “Yanukovich maneuver” and avoid Yanukovic’s political fate?

Lucan Way, an acclaimed scholar of authoritarianism, has a theory that those states that regained sovereignty after the Soviet collapse and did not immediately revert to authoritarian rule could be understood as examples of authoritarian weakness. Ivanishvili seems to believe he has overcome this weakness: Yanukovich was weak, but he is not.  

Spiraling violent crackdown of youth-led spontaneous protests against the Russian law, the regime’s determination to pass this law at all costs, and the escalation of the rhetoric on the use of mass repression all point to another role model for Ivanishvili – Belarusian dictator, Alexandar Lukashenka. He projects authoritarian strength instead of weakness. After losing all plebiscitarian legitimacy, he clings to power after having clamped down on revolt with an iron fist. But could that work in Georgia?

The Limits of Comparison         

Sadly, Georgia and Belarus should no longer appear as unlikely comparators. Still, comparative analysis is susceptible to context. Broad generalizations usually sound less convincing. Comparing the possible path of violent mass repression that the GD regime may take to the similar path taken by Lukashenko in 2020-2021 comes with many caveats. Nonetheless, this comparison retains explanatory and analytical power. 

Authoritarian consolidation and assuring the regime’s survival through violent mass repression need several institutional, political, and social conditions to succeed. Analyzing these dimensions, Georgia and Belarus exhibit some striking similarities, yet, also some significant differences.  

To start with institutional preconditionsBelarus is a personalist dictatorship. After three decades of brutal rule, Lukashenka consolidated his grip on all public institutions. There are virtually no internal institutional checks on his unbridled rule. While Georgia has been considerably more democratic, its political regime has also been characterized by personalist power. Since coming to power in 2012, Bidzina Ivanishvili has embarked on a path of comprehensive state capture. His control over the political branches of power and the judiciary is now complete. The presidency is the only constitutional institution over which he no longer enjoys full and unconditional control. 

The degree of state capture and personalization of power around Ivanishvili has passed the acceptable limits within the definition of hybrid regimes. According to the Freedom House’s recent report, “Georgia is on the way to becoming a Semi-Consolidated Authoritarian Regime.” Another influential democracy rating project, V Dem, categorized the Georgian case as a “near miss of autocratization” in 2022. That “near miss” may yet become a full-on hit.

Under Ivanishvili, the consolidation and personalization of power have reached a critical point where only a thin line distinguishes it from personalist dictatorship; with mass violent repression and authoritarian elections, that line can be instantly crossed. No institutional restraint remains that could effectively prevent Ivanishvili from crossing this line. Only overwhelming protest mobilization could potentially arrest that inevitable slide by exhausting the regime and leading to its collapse. How did Lukashenka stem that tide?   

The Calculus of Violent Mass Repression

Violent repression is a costly enterprise. It has many complex tradeoffs which the regime needs to balance out. That is why modern autocrats consider it a measure of last resort after all available “soft tools” – election manipulation, propaganda, voter bribing, abuse of courts, and the like – have been exhausted. Violent mass repression brings to the forefront two leading authoritarian institutions: the regime’s security agencies and the army. 

These security agencies are the primary enforcers of violent repression and are indispensable for its survival. At the same time, they pose a significant hazard to the regime’s stability: the more powerful they become, the more effectively they can challenge the autocrat’s leadership. Autocrats need to make their security agencies both coup-proof and defection-proof. 

Ivanishvili has followed Belarus and Russia in implementing these precautions and modeling his security services to these states. His police and internal security services are well-trained, well-paid, and highly loyal to the leader. They know they are shielded from all responsibility while the regime is in place, and the more crimes they commit in repressing citizenry, the higher their stakes in regime collapse—a classic authoritarian model of ensuring loyal security agencies. 

When Lukashenka’s security official ordered his men to shoot protesters in the face and use lethal force at the leader’s command, they complied unconditionally. Ivanishvili’s security personnel are likely to do the same. They have never betrayed the leader before and have fewer personal motives to do so in the future. Yet, it remains unclear how pervasive that culture of unconditional personal loyalty is within various branches of police service.

Ivanishvili’s security machine is also coup-proof. The repressive apparatus is split into Ministry of Internal Affairs and State Security Service agencies and outsourced to private security firms and various thugs-for-hire groups. None of them enjoys primacy, and they compete for power and spoils, which makes them easy to tame. 

Authoritarian repression is also costly because it can trigger massive backlash, including violence and potentially a civil war.  Autocrats exploit armies to subdue mass-scale violent resistance unleashed in response to repression. Authoritarian armies are trained for this function. Given this additional function of authoritarian armies, precautions are also needed to ensure the army is coup-proof. 

Here, we have to register the first significant difference. Compared to the Belarusian army, the Georgian army’s combat experience comes from the 2008 war with Russia and the US/NATO-led counter-terrorist operations. To the publicly available knowledge, the Georgian army is not trained for internal security tasks, making its classic authoritarian use for crowd control and mass protest suppression less likely. Lukashenka, in contrast, widely used army units in protest crackdowns. 

Another significant distinction lies in the extent of Russia’s intervention. Russia gave decisive help in terms of financing, advice, and personnel to Lukashenka in 2020-2021. It is expected to help Ivanishvili, too, but the scale and modalities of this assistance remain highly uncertain due to Russia’s preoccupation with its war of aggression against Ukraine. This uncertainty could factor in the attrition of the regime’s security resources by mass protests, downgrading the chances of a successful crackdown.  

However, a central distinctive feature of the Georgian context, which prompts a further caveat regarding the chances of a successful Belarus-style crackdown, lies in Georgian civil society’s relative infrastructural and organizational capabilities. Protests in Belarus occurred after Lukashenka’s three-decades-long brutal rule, where civil society organizations and political opposition were systemically repressed. Many faced legal obstacles to operate, were dissolved, or otherwise made illegal. True, under Georgia’s plebiscitarian regime, civil society, media, and opposition had also experienced some targeted repression and harassment; but overall, they remained free to operate, institutionalized, and relatively organized.

Belarus and Georgia are similar regarding regime-engineered scarcity of internal funding of civil society. In Belarus’s state-dominated economy and Georgia’s patronal economy, internal funding for civil causes is effectively cut. The situation is still different regarding external funding. Belarus has long shut down foreign funding. It has remained open in Georgia until now, providing a lifeline to Georgian civil society groups. This is why the foreign agent legislation is designed to make Georgia more like Belarus. 

Another relevant factor is the absence of prior violent mass repression in Georgia. Lukashenko’s use of repression usually went beyond the targeted and calculated hits and assumed systemic proportions. As a result, by 2020, Belarus’ society had already undergone massive authoritarian engineering and had been considerably atomized and demobilized. 

The Georgian regime, in contrast, succeeded in social cooptation and transformed large portions of the population into its wholly or partially dependent clients. But large segments of society remain highly capable of mass protest mobilization, as recent days and weeks have shown.

Nonetheless, if the massive violent repression, including mass torture, imprisonment, and use of lethal force, is suddenly unleashed, it would create a shock that could help the GD regime to subdue the protest and achieve its autocratization objectives. 

So, could it happen here?  

Belarus-style crackdown remains within the horizon of the possibility. The key risk factors are the security forces outside public oversight and control, with personal and financial loyalty to the leaders, and the help that may come from a greater autocratic power—Russia.

Yet, the crackdown is not inevitable, and nor is its success guaranteed. The sustained scale of protest mobilization may overwhelm Ivanishvili’s security forces, to the extent that the available Russian assistance may not compensate. Some police services, and especially the Army, may refuse to partake in such repression. 


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