As anti-government protests in Georgia continue, activists are warning the former Soviet country and EU hopeful is increasingly governed by the whims of the billionaire chairman of the ruling party.
After a first round of protests in June, the government promised long-debated electoral reform. When this failed to materialise, a new round of demonstrations erupted, which saw protesters drawn to the streets of Tbilisi.
Last week, thousands of people gathered outside the Georgian parliament in the capital for an overnight picket demanding snap elections and those promised reforms. Many brought clothes, food and firewood to stay warm in the frosty weather.
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But the peaceful protests were met with hostility.
“The police searched everyone. They took the firewood from our bags. Some cars packed with logs and food were removed,” says Ani Oniani, who was present at the demonstrations.
And in the early hours of Tuesday morning last week, in temperatures below zero, police used water cannon to disperse protesters, detaining 28 people and injuring four. Around 15 were charged, activists say.
“We are drifting away from democracy,” says Shota Digmelashvili, a member of the citizen-led Shame movement, involved in coordinating the protests.
The electoral reform, which was promised in June this year, would move to proportional representation. In the current mixed system, just under half of the politicians are elected by single-mandate constituencies, and the rest by party-lists. In practice, this system has favoured the ruling party. Though the ruling party Georgian Dream won 48.6 per cent of votes in 2016, until two weeks ago, it held 113 out of 150 seats in parliament.
“The system leaves all the decision-making power in the hands of one political group,” explains Tamar Chugoshvili, a former First Vice-Speaker of Parliament and, until recently, a member of the ruling party.
The move was originally scheduled for 2024. But in response to earlier protests in June, the government agreed to pass the amendments in time for the 2020 elections.
“For months, ruling party politicians entered into public discussions about these changes. We were sure we had achieved our demand,” says Digmelashvili.
But on 14 November, 101 MPs voted in favour of the amendments, 12 short of the required majority, with MPs from the ruling party voting against or abstaining to vote. The failure to pass the reform prompted the resignation of 13 MPs from the ruling party.
“The party made a clear commitment. I was shocked,” says Chugoshvili, who also resigned from her positions.
Last week, a joint statement from the US embassy and the EU delegation in Georgia said they “recognised the deep disappointment of a wide segment of Georgian society”. And, on a session held this Tuesday morning after the protests, all opposition MPs boycotted parliament.
The government’s response has been unflinching. Earlier this week, the ruling party announced that “the issue is closed” and that the proposed amendments would take place on the original date in 2024.
“Instead of engaging in healthy political negotiations with all opposition parties, the government has let the political process go to the streets,” says Chugoshvili. “They are leading the country’s political future in a dangerous direction.”
Many in the opposition believe that the ruling party’s chairman, Bidzina Ivanishvilli, a billionaire and the richest man in Georgia, is simply clinging to power.
Recent opinion polls by the International Republican Institute revealed no clear front runner for the upcoming parliamentary elections, with a third of respondents being undecided on their first choice.
“He knew his party’s popularity had declined and he could have reached out to coalition partners,” says Tina Bokuchava, of the opposition United National Movement party.
Though Ivanishvili has no role in parliament, critics accuse him of ruling behind the scenes.
“It’s a Soviet-style of leadership. He appoints and dismisses prime ministers as he pleases,” says Digmelashvili.
The country’s current chief prosecutor was once Ivanishvili’s lawyer, and the minister of health is his wife’s dentist.
The ruling party says it supports Georgia’s aspirations to join the EU and NATO, but critics believe the party is too close to Russia, which currently occupies a fifth of Georgian territory. This week, protestors picketed Ivanshvili’s business centre in Tbilisi with a poster saying “go home,” in reference to the leader’s perceived ties to Russia.
Amid the uncertainty over Georgia’s political elite, citizen-led movements such as Shame have emerged at the forefront of the protests, coordinating rallies and speaker platforms.
“In the past, opposition parties led their own demonstrations. The current protests are led by citizens, and the politicians have joined us,” says Digmelashvili, his voice hoarse from all the public speaking.
“Every civic movement is united and we have the same goal,” says Oniani, part of the student-led group Shecvale, which means “for change”, formed by demonstrators who met in June.
Likewise, the demand for electoral reform has united opposition parties. Bokuchava, whose United National Movement ruled in the previous government, highlights.
“We needed to form a common front despite our diverse political and foreign policy views,” Zurab Japaridze, the leader of the small party Girchi adds:
“We need to assure the public that law enforcement agencies and the prosecutor’s office will not be under the control of a single party.”
But the crackdown on peaceful demonstrators has raised concerns. Since the first November protests began, 65 people have been detained, and seven were injured by the water canon dispersals. Last Tuesday, one demonstrator was reportedly hospitalised after suffering a shock from the cold of the water cannons, and another broke both arms.
Amnesty International has described the Georgian authorities’ use of water cannon as “neither proportionate or necessary,” and condemned the detentions of up to 15 days. “Doing so violates the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, the right to liberty and the right to a fair trial.”
The Georgian Young Lawyers Association, an NGO providing legal aid to protesters, believes “grave violations” were committed during the recent trials of 12 demonstrators who were arrested earlier in November. Trust in the judiciary systems is low in Georgia, and court decisions are often perceived to be politically motivated.
On Thursday morning, local authorities erected an iron fence around parliament to prevent picketing during a session. Yet the rallies continued, and future ones have been scheduled. “We will not stop until our demands are met,” says Oniani.