The main thoroughfare of Tbilisi, known as Rustaveli Avenue, has borne witness to many a political reversal, from civil war to revolution. Since this summer, the tree-lined boulevard has once again seen throngs of protesters rise up against eccentric billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who has ruled the country, both formally as prime minister and informally as the ultimate decision-maker behind his Georgian Dream party, since 2012. The protests are entering a critical phrase this week, and their success or failure could determine the democratic trajectory and geopolitical future of Georgia.
Since his ascent to power, Ivanishvili — an oligarch-turned-politician — has attempted to warm relations with Russia, which occupies 20 percent of Georgia’s territory. He has adapted many tactics from the Kremlin’s playbook to the Georgian context: taking over critical media outlets, persecuting political opponents and tightening his grip on the country’s business environment. He has backed pro-Russian parties. In September, he appointed Giorgi Gakharia, a Russian citizen until 2013, as prime minister. In short, he has presided over what Transparency International has called a slow and steady process of state capture, made all the easier by the absence of Western attention.
This summer’s protests were the product of a broad frustration with Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream, which increasingly feels like a nightmare to those in the streets. At first, the protests focused on the government’s closeness to Moscow, but soon the demonstrators were calling for political reform and accountability at home. After trying to put down the unrest with tear gas, special forces and a hail of rubber bullets — blinding two and injuring more than 200 people — the Georgian Dream government appeared to give in, promising to enact electoral changes that would open up the system to all political parties. But on Nov. 14, the government backtracked, and people took to the streets again — only to be met with further violence.
The protests are being led by young people, those who have most benefited from former president Mikheil Saakashvili’s Rose Revolution, a rare post-Soviet success story that saw living standards rise and entrenched corruption get meaningfully dislodged. But the Rose Revolution was about more than domestic reforms; it was also about embedding Georgia more broadly in the West to ensure its future. For a country that has fought hard to achieve independence, to secure individual freedoms, to defeat corruption and to move the country out of Russia’s orbit, the past seven years have been tough to take. This generation — my generation — now sees all this under threat. Georgia’s very future as a liberalizing democracy faces uncertainty.
In a country whose population overwhelmingly supports a Westward orientation and sees Russia as a major political and economic threat, Ivanishvili has been seen by Moscow as a comfortable candidate. He has sought to balance Russian interests against those of Washington.
Now, however, that balancing act appears to be nearing its end. Western partners are urging Ivanishvili to deliver on electoral reform, which he sees as blocking his path to victory in the upcoming parliamentary elections in October 2020. For Moscow, on the other hand, helping Ivanishvili stay in power seems the best bet. Like other oligarch rulers in the post-Soviet space — Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych comes to mind — Ivanishvili might try join forces with Kremlin, against the popular will.
So far, the protests have brought unlikely actors together from across the Georgian political spectrum; sensing his increasing isolation, some members of Georgian Dream have already jumped ship. Ivanishvili hopes that the discontent will wither away over something as technical as electoral reform.
But he might be miscalculating. A majority of the population supports the reform, and 68 percent of people think that the country is going in the wrong direction. Ivanishvili has failed to deliver on his promises: Growth has slowed, the currency has lost more than 50 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar, and unemployment and poverty have remained chief concerns of the population.
Over the years, the Georgian public has demonstrated that it is hostile to overreach among its political elite and unforgiving about the blatant abuse of power. In 2003, Georgians took down then-President Eduard Shevardnadze, whose rule was dominated by political chaos, mafia control and corruption. In 2012, they voted out Saakashvili, whose increasingly erratic rule had left many unhappy. Now, they’re opposing the informal ruler who has monopolized power.
Georgia stands at a critical juncture of its democratic development. It is not just the future of a small post-Soviet country that is at stake. The fate of Georgia — a staunch U.S. ally — is intertwined with the larger question of whether the West can successfully restrain Russia’s regional influence. It is critical that Georgia’s Western partners maintain the pressure on Ivanishvili. They must not allow yet another front-line state, instrumental in thwarting Moscow revisionist ambitions in the region, to fall into the Kremlin’s hands.
Ani Chkhikvadze, a Georgian journalist based in Washington, is a contributor to Voice of America (VOA). Views expressed in this piece do not represent the opinions of VOA, the U.S. Agency for Global Media or the U.S. government.