The shooting of Aleksei “Buka” Petriashvili came as a shock to many Georgians as well as to foreigners who pay close attention to Georgia. At the moment, it looks like Mr. Petriashvili is receiving good medical care and will recover. Mr. Petriashvili needs our thoughts, and if you are predisposed, prayers, for a full and speedy recovery. Buka has been a good friend of mine and undoubtedly of many reading this. In the several years I've known Buka, he has always time for a conversation, has been one of the rare optimists in Georgian politics, and has always greeted me with his warm smile.
The attack on Mr. Petriashvili was particularly repugnant, and cowardly because the assailants apparently snuck up on the victim while he was paying his respects at the gravesite of his friend and colleague Levan Mikeladze. It should also be noted that while Mr. Petriashvili is a partisan political figure, serving as general secretary of the Free Democrats (FD), he has also served his country loyally and effectively as a diplomat and cabinet minister for years.
Mr. Petriashvili has long seemed like one of the calmer, more reasonable voices in Georgian political life. Although he was an important member of the Georgian Dream (GD) coalition that defeated the United National Movement (UNM) in 2012, and later one of the members of the FD who resigned in late 2014, Mr. Petriashvili, unlike many across Georgia’s political spectrum, has never been given to stoking popular anger, making outlandish accusations or employing ad hominen attacks against political opponents.
The shooting of Mr. Petriashvili occurs as the parliamentary elections are only about seven months away. It is therefore somewhat inevitable that these events will be examined through that prism. Although thus far there has been little speculation that this attack was orchestrated by the government as an attempt to silence a critic, the incident highlights concerns that Georgia is returning to pre-Rose Revolution conditions when streets were unsafe and public safety was a major concern. Additionally, the shooting of a major political figure for whatever reason is a reminder of the times in Georgia’s history over the last decades when political violence was more widespread.
It is worth noting that while current critics of the GD seek to compare the rising sense of disorder with what are broadly recognized as the difficult years of the Shevardnadze period when governance was extremely poor and public security an enormous concern, there was also a spate of political violence during the Saakashvili years that was very destructive as well. One of the better known examples, perhaps ironically, given the current situation, was the death of Leven MIkeladze, the man whose grave Mr. Petriashvili was visiting at the time of the shooting. The precise circumstances around Mr. Mikeladze’s death remain disputed; and some have raised the possibility that he was killed due to political intrigue or rivalry.
The Georgian government’s response to this shooting has been strong. Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirkashvili’s statement that “The law enforcement agencies are applying all the necessary measures in order to investigate the case, to arrest perpetrators and to bring them to justice in the shortest period of time,” struck the right tone, but at the moment tone is not enough. The Georgian government must turn these words into actions, find the shooters, prosecute them in a clear and transparent way and bring some closure to this even. If they are unable to do to this, the government will be damaged.
During their roughly three and a half years in power, the GD has made some mistakes and experienced some failures as well as successes. The GD has been unable to turn the economy around, crime and disorder has risen and NATO membership has remained elusive. They have, of course, had accomplishments as well including the EU association agreement, a popular health care program and increasing freedoms and civil liberties.
They GD has also been extremely fortunate that their strongest political opposition has come from the UNM, a party that while still enjoying a loyal and active base of support, has a relatively low ceiling of popular support. Moreover, the themes with which the UNM has consistently attacked the GD have either gotten no traction, such as the constant accusation that the GD government is a pro-Russia front, or, while largely accurate, do not seem to be of great concern to the Georgian people. An example of the latter is the role that GD founder Bidzina Ivanishvili continues to play in the government while holding no official position. Thus, despite their intentions, these UNM lines of attack against the GD have often obscured their greater vulnerability on governance issues.
A campaign that is a referendum on whether or not the country is run by a “Russian oligarch,” as the UNM generally phrases it, is one that would not cause much panic among the GD and which they would probably win handily. However, a campaign that is about more substantive issues such as the economy or crime, could potentially be worse for the GD. If, however, recent Georgian history is any indication, the GD will likely get the campaign they want.
Events, particularly high profile dramatic ones, can sometimes change the dynamic of a political contest. It is far from apparent that will be the case with Petriashvili’s shooting, but it cannot yet be ruled out. It is, of course, difficult and sometimes inappropriate to politicize an attack like this, but the attempted murder of a high profile politician is unavoidably political. The effect this shooting will have on the current campaign is not certain, but much will be determined by how the government responds, what they find out about the shooters and how convincing those findings are to the Georgian public.
A slow or incomplete investigation that raises more questions than it answers will confirm the fears of many voters, that the GD is losing control of the country, taking Georgia backwards, and cannot guarantee even basic security for its citizens. A competent investigation followed by arrests and an explanation that is plausible will have the opposite effect, suggesting that the GD has turned corner under its new Prime Minister and will strengthen the government as the election approaches. Thus, for the Georgian government, as well as for all thoughtful Georgians, there is a strong incentive for a good judicial process with an outcome that is broadly respected. Getting from here to there, however, is never guaranteed.
Additionally, the GD, if they are particularly clever and politically deft, would follow this investigation with a battery of policies aimed at strengthening law enforcement and public safety. An election year effort to make Georgia safer would require crafting meaningful policies, but would still be more or less a transparently political ploy. It could nonetheless be successful as both a policy and a political tactic. Given there is a new Prime Minister in office it could dovetail with a broader GD election year theme that reflects that the GD knows it made some mistakes but is still listening to voters and trying to solve problems. Declining crime rates as the year goes on would, of course, be a great election year story for the GD.
The myopia that is often unavoidable in an election year also may obscure the bigger picture issues surrounding Petriashvili’s shooting. If Georgia becomes, or returns to being, a country where politicians are shot under mysterious circumstances, or one where every event is assumed to be driven by nefarious political motives, it will be very unfortunate. Thus far, one of the more significant post-shooting developments is that the discourse surrounding the shooting has not devolved into the accusations and counter-accusations that have characterized much of Georgian politics for so long. This is, in significant part, due to the leadership of the Free Democrats, notably Irakli Alasania whose statements have stuck a balance between expressing outrage and demanding answers, “(S)ocial order should be preserved in the country for all citizens to feel secure. This is a serious attack on the party as well as great challenge in terms of our social security," while not encouraging irresponsible actions or rhetoric by anybody. “I had a direct communication with Georgia’s Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili. I want to thank him for showing interest in Petriashvili’s condition and he promised us he would support us, be it with medical or any other resource.”
The shooting of Mr. Petriashvili is, in addition to being terrible event, a reminder of the unpredictability of political life, particularly in an election year. However, there is also a possibility of reading too much into events like this. In Georgia some events stick in the craw, and the memory, of voters and the political class for a long time, and others are pushed away reasonably quickly as newer developments occur. It is not yet clear which will be the case with this shooting.
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.