Domestic politics in Georgia have devolved in a distressing and perhaps inevitable manner in recent weeks. The contretemps and court cases surrounding Rustavi Two, as well as the leaked recordings of conversations between former President Mikhail Saakachvili with his former NSC Chief Giga Bokeria as well as with Nika Gvaramia, also a former member of Saakashvili’s cabinet who now runs Rustavi Two, have been the strongest indicator of this. While the facts of the case and the ownership of Rustavi Two are disputed, it is harder to dispute the notion that the station has been harassed. Rustavi Two has been a stalwart critic of the Georgian Dream (GD) government since that government was elected. During these three years, Rustavi Two has consistently pointed out, and often exaggerated GD faults and given a platform to the government's opponents. While this undoubtedly frustrates the government, Rustavi Two is behaving as many media outlets in countries that enjoy freedom of media do.
Efforts to restrict, shutter or otherwise damage Rustavi Two are, on balance, more damaging to the government, particularly, but not only, with regards to international observers, than anything Rustavi Two could have done. These efforts give good rhetorical, and substantive, fodder to those who seek to portray this government as limiting democracy and who claim that the government is more focused on settling scores with the United National Movement (UNM) than on moving Georgia forward.
The controversy surrounding Rustavi Two is emblematic of some of the worst elements of democratic development and domestic politics, in Georgia today. The two largest political blocks are resorting to tactics aimed at consolidating and mobilizing their base by continuing to rehash the political issues and battles of the first years of this decade. For the GD, this takes the obvious form of constantly restating UNM abuses from the years they were in power. For the UNM, this consists largely of seeking to create a false equivalency between problems of democracy, in this case media freedom, between the current and previous governments. While seeking to repress or seize Rustavi Two is not good for Georgia’s media climate and raises questions about this government’s commitment to democracy, it is not comparable to the government violently breaking into a television studio, destroying the studio and then shutting it down, as the UNM government did to Imedi in 2007. In recent weeks, UNM tactics have also manifested themselves in the phone calls between Saakashvili, Bokeria and Gvaramia that raise great concerns about their commitment to Georgia’s democratic future. The west’s reaction to these discussion has so far been muted, but perhaps that will change.
Interestingly, neither party appears to benefit from this strategy. The UNM has added almost no voters since the 2012 election as recent polling indicates that its numbers are still on the lower end of the 15-25% range, while the GD is losing support rapidly and has few supporters beyond its core base. Thus at a moment while each party desperately needs to add new voters, they have not found a way, or perhaps a willingness, to do that. While it is not fair to blame the Rustavi Two controversy entirely on party politics, this basic dynamic has characterized much of Georgian politics over the last few months.
Thus is an electorate where, according to recent public opinion surveys, a huge number of voters are undecided, neither major party is speaking to them in any meaningful way. At this moment, domestic politics in Georgia can, with only slight exaggeration, be described as two parties few people like arguing about big picture issues about which few people care. Moreover, the differences between those parties are primarily about power and interpretations of the past, rather vision or substantive policy.
This is obviously not a great strategy for either party as the election approaches, but it is also not good for Georgia or Georgian democracy. It is possible that a continued failure to speak to voters outside of their narrow base will create an opening for another party or block. Perhaps pro-Russia forces will reap this benefit or perhaps the Free Democrats can plausibly present themselves as a third way and take a place as one of Georgia’s leading parties.
There is, however, another more likely scenario. Turnout in next year’s could be very low with whoever wins the election having a small electoral margin and the support of a relatively small proportion of voters. Low turnout elections are not unknown in many democracies, particularly the US. These elections are not, in of themselves, damaging to democracy, but in a new and still fragile democracy like Georgia, the perils of a government with little popular electoral support on which to base their legitimacy are real.
If few in the Georgia see the government as representing their views or even of having earned their vote, and only slightly more people feel represented in the legislature at all, forces seeking to weaken the Georgian state will be empowered and have an easier task. Less ominously, that Georgian government will have a very difficult time implementing policy or building and maintaining support for bigger picture national goals like further integration into the west, rule of law or economic reform.
It is clear that both parties could benefit from moving the political debate in a different direction, that is also something of an oversimplification. The problem both parties face is that unilaterally breaking away from the familiar tactics of vilifying the opposition and bickering over who is to blame for the problems in Georgia only is half a solution. The question of what to talk about instead is confounding. Research has consistently shown Georgians, like most people around the world, are very interested in seeing their government strengthen the economy and create jobs, but turning that into a plausible platform is very difficult for both parties.
The UNM and GD will struggle to find something new and plausible to say about job creation and economic development. Georgian voters are sophisticated enough to look at both major parties as having had their chance at fixing the economy and at failing. Therefore, a campaign based on platitudes about jobs or economic development is not going to help either party get out of the current political morass.
As the 2016 election approaches, this creates a significant problem for Georgia. The UNM and GD may become increasingly desperate as their numbers stagnate-lost in much of the reaction to the GD’s poll numbers is that the UNM has not demonstrated any ability to grow beyond their loyal but limited base in the last few years either. Additionally, neither party has evinced a willingness to adapt a different approach or explore new ways of presenting themselves to the electorate or of framing political issues differently.
The Rustavi Two case as well as recent statements by the Prime Minister about the UNM are worrisome signs, but for now at least, they are, to an extent, just that. The GD leadership, since coming to office in 2012, have made numerous inappropriate statements and threats. That is a very troubling development, but they have not consistently acted on those statements and threats. Clearly, these types of statements matter and, appropriately, have generated scrutiny and condemnation from domestic watchdog groups as well as Georgia’s friends and allies internationally. Equating this with the collapse of Georgian democracy, or a return to the darker days of the late UNM period is not only inaccurate, but it concedes too much to the partisan narrative of the opposition. Nonetheless, the bar for Georgian democracy must be higher than the last years of the UNM government; and the Georgian government must play a leading role in building that democracy.
For the GD, this means taking the risk of talking less, or at least speaking differently, about the abuses of the previous regime, while not allowing the UNM to define the three years of GD governance to both foreign and domestic audiences. It also means articulating a governance strategy that draws on the efforts and accomplishments, that while not overwhelming are considerably more extensive than the current narrative, particularly outside the country, suggests, of their time in power. If the GD is able to do that, it will force the UNM either to craft a message that goes beyond Russia baiting and borderline apocalyptic statements about the state of democracy in Georgia or risk further alienating the roughly 80% of the Georgian electorate that has not warmed to the post-2012 UNM.
In general, the bad news is that the last few weeks have raised new and potentially more weighty questions both about democracy in Georgia and about the ability of the major parties to address those questions. The better news is that there is a way out, but that it requires taking risks and moving out of political comfort zones. The party that does this first and best will be helping themselves and Georgia.
The Georgia Analysis is a twice monthly analysis of political and other major developments in Georgia. Lincoln Mitchell is a political development, research and strategic consultant who has worked extensively in the post-Soviet space. If you would like to be on the Georgia analysis mailing list or are interested in more research, analysis or consulting for your business, government, campaign or other organization, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.