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Campaign Beat: June 10-24

After two months of uninterrupted protests, Georgia is taking a deep breath. The law on foreign agents has been passed, but its opponents are defiant. The country is living in anticipation of the October elections that many believe will be consequential. The campaign is taking place against a backdrop of deteriorating relations between the government and its Western partners. Just as Moldova and Ukraine have begun negotiations to join the EU, Georgia expects the EU and the United States to take action in response to the adoption of the Foreign Agents Law and other controversial legislation passed in recent months, as well as a general backsliding on democracy. Opposition parties are mobilizing and seeking the optimal configuration to participate in the upcoming elections.

The following covers election-related updates spanning June 10-24.

Campaign Context

Football (Temporarily) Unites Georgians: UEFA Euro-2024 has taken off, and the Georgian national football team, which qualified for the senior tournament for the first time, is now playing in Germany, giving its best. For a brief moment, it seems like the entire nation is united, if only for the sake of football. President Salome Zurabishvili, members of the government headed by PM Irakli Kobakhidze, and many other GD politicians attended the matches in Dortmund and Hamburg, and they are likely to be seen at the upcoming match in Gelsenkirchen. Coincidentally or not, the annual Ambassadorial took place in the German capital at the same time as the Euro 2024 matches with the participation of the Georgian national team. But football seems to be just another arena for political forces. Even in such times, minor political tensions have surfaced: Kakha Kaladze, Tbilisi Mayor and a former football player himself, criticized the President for not responding to the initiative of the Parliament Speaker Shalva Papuashvili and PM Irakli Kobakhidze to award orders of honor to national football players and the heads of the Georgian Football Federation. The Presidential administration soon announced that Zurabishvili will indeed award the players orders of honor in September, but some omissions from her list drew further criticism from Kaladze and Kobakhidze. 

Unity Dilemma: Although Salome Zurabishvili’s Georgian Charter brought most of the opposition parties together under a common pro-European umbrella, the parties have yet to decide in what configuration they will run in the elections. UNM-Strategy Aghmashenebeli and Girchi-More Freedom-Droa, are already allied before the elections, but the expectation is that the opposition alliances will have to grow larger for the opposition to be able to defeat the ruling Georgian Dream. The four parties advocate for the united elections list, while others oppose it or drag their feet, mostly fearing the loss of support that competing together with the UNM might bring. Some say they are waiting for the results of opinion polls before making specific decisions. Meanwhile, the 5-percent threshold poses a challenge to the more or less fragmented opposition. If a party fails to reach the 5 percent threshold, its votes are redistributed to those that did. Parties with more votes receive a proportionally larger share of these “lost” votes. 

Majority Pushes Through Homophobic Legislation: On June 20, four parliamentary committees endorsed the GD-initiated homophobic legislative package “On the Protection of Family Values and Minors,” which purports to combat “LGBT propaganda” in the country and includes a law and 18 related amendments to various Georgian laws that threaten some fundamental rights, including freedom of expression and assembly, and allow for the censorship of literature, film, and media. The opposition did not participate in the committees’ deliberations. Concurrently, the Legal Issues Committee endorsed the constitutional amendment stipulating that “the protection of family values and minors shall be ensured by constitutional law” in its first reading and the corresponding constitutional bill. 

Campaign Trail

GD Promises Teachers Pay Raise:  On June 17, PM Irakli Kobakhidze announced an increase in teachers’ salaries at a government meeting. There are about 52,000 teachers in the country. According to PM Kobakhidze, the salaries of all teachers will be increased by at least 200 GEL. In addition, 37,000 teachers, about 70 percent of all nationwide, will receive a raise of at least 500 GEL, with some teachers receiving raises of up to 800 GEL. The pay raise will begin on July 1, Prime Minister Kobakhidze said.

GD’s Billionaire Patron Donates Rare Religious Manuscript to National Museum: On June 11, Bidzina Ivanishvili, founder and honorary chairman of the ruling GD, purchased the manuscript of the 10th-century Georgian cleric Ioane Zosime for 1,250,000 GBP at a Christie’s auction in London and donated it to the National Museum of Georgia. Expensive donations have been used by Ivanishvili to enhance his public image among GD supporters and religious Georgians in general.

European Georgia Presses for Regime Change Without “GD-Style Alternative UNM”: At the June 17 briefing, European Georgia leaders announced that they are beginning consultations with other pro-European political parties to create a new “center of gravity” in the pre-election process that will offer society a regime change plan that not only removes the GD from office, but also eliminates the possibility of change with its rivals in power, specifically naming the UNM. Stressing the implementation of reforms and the importance of the Georgian Charter initiated by the President, Giga Bokeria, the leader of the party, said: “An large part of society should clearly see that the alternative to this shameful, Putinist regime is not today’s United National Movement, Saakashvili’s cronies, the force where the rules of the game obviously resemble those existing within Ivanishvili’s oligarchic regime.” 

Ahali Tours Regions: The co-chairs of the Ahali Party, Nika Gvaramia and Nika Melia, together with their team have been touring the regions since June 15 as part of the pre-election campaign. They have already held meetings with locals in Zestafoni, Terjola, Kutaisi (Imereti region), Zugdidi, Khobi (Samegrelo region), Ozurgeti (Guria region), Batumi (Adjara region).  

Opposition Women MPs Tour Regions: With the support of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), opposition women MPs have launched the “MPs for the European Future” campaign and are holding regional meetings to discuss social issues and the impact of the foreign agents law on Georgian citizens. These MPs include Teone Akubardia of the parliamentary Reformist Group, Khatia Dekanoidze of the parliamentary group Euro-Optimists, Tamar Kordzaia, an independent MP, Tina Bokuchava and Ana Tsitslidze of the UNM, and Salome Samadashvili and Ana Natsvlishvili of Lelo for Georgia. Meetings have already been held in Kutaisi, Zugdidi, Batumi, Ozurgeti and Gori. 

Gakharia’s For Georgia Feels “Closest” to Lelo, Down for Cooperation…But Is Rejected: Ex-PM under the GD government Giorgi Gakharia, now the leader of the For Georgia party, which is known for consistently distancing itself from any opposition political union, including the president-initiated Georgian Charter, in part due to its strong reluctance to be associated with the UNM, said on June 17 that among all parties in Georgian politics, the one with which For Georgia could potentially cooperate is Lelo because of their “ideological” convergence.  However, Lelo denied that any consultation or cooperation with For Georgia had ever taken place and ruled out any possibility of this happening in the future. 

Lelo Kicks off Anti-Drug Campaign: On June 19, opposition Lelo’s Saba Buadze announced an anti-drug campaign and presented a nine-point plan to counter the current “Russian-style” drug policy. Key measures include harsher penalties for drug traffickers, regular drug testing of high-ranking political officials, decriminalization of drug use, etc. The plan seeks to shift from a punitive to a caring drug policy. “Drug addiction  is not a crime, but a disease that needs proper treatment like other diseases,” says another member of Lelo, Vato Surguladze. 

Droa Welcomes Former GD State Minister: Alexi (Buka) Petriashvili, former Minister of State for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration in the GD government between 2012-2014, has officially joined the opposition Droa party, an ally of the Girchi-More Freedom party. Meanwhile, Girchi-More Freedom has become full-fledged member of the Alliance for Europe party (ALDE) at the ALDE extraordinary Congress, which took place on June 21-22, in Vilnius. Droa has become an associated member.

Pro-Russian Merge: Members of the Conservative Movement/Alt-info, a pro-Russian and anti-liberal party will participate in the parliamentary elections under Alliance of Patriots, another pro-Russian party. The decision was announced by Zurab Makharadze, a leader of Alt-Info. This comes after the cancellation of Alt-Info’s registration. Makharadze also said that talks are underway with “other conservative forces” to enter the Parliament under the Alliance of Patriots. 

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