Fyodor Lukyanov: Georgia is gripped by huge protests, is a Ukraine-style overthrow of the elected government on the cards?
A violent change of power is unlikely, but the current tensions expose the weaknesses in the country’s political system
By Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor-in-chief of Russia in Global Affairs, chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, and research director of the Valdai International Discussion Club.
The entire modern history of Georgia, dating back to the late 1980s, is a chronicle of temperamental lurches towards change. These consist of chaotic attempts at implementation, followed by work to stabilize the situation and build a sturdy state structure, before a new cycle begins. Each time there are objective socio-political preconditions for these perturbations, which are overlaid by both domestic and external factors.
At home: Excessive personalization of politics and an obsession with certain leaders at each stage – Zviad Gamsakhurdia (1991-1992), Eduard Shevardnadze (1995-2003), Mikhail Saakashvili (2004-2013), and Bidzina Ivanishvili (de-facto leader for the past decade). Outside influence: A real, or perhaps fictitious, struggle for influence between Russia and the West.
This time it’s notionally about the government’s attempt to introduce a ‘foreign agents’ law, which the opposition claims is very close to similar rules imposed in Russia. But the root of the issues goes far deeper.
The problem with the current government is that it has attempted to adopt a detached, neutral stance in a situation of increasing international instability, by reducing the grand gestures previously associated with Georgian politics. Its assertion that it’s protecting its own people from the costs of a spreading foreign military-political crisis is legitimate. However, in the main, the crisis is acute and involves a growing number of actors who demand certainty. Secondly, the game of detachment presupposes strong internal (power) and external (recognition by the elites of the right to a certain sovereignty) positions. In other words, to insist on a ‘third way’ while being at the center of things you have to be Turkey, or at least Hungary.
Georgia is not like these countries, because the political identity under all regimes has been built on the desire to join ‘the West’, by almost any means possible. And on any terms. The legitimacy of all authorities has been based on promises of ‘European integration’. Another issue is that Georgia, due to its geographical location (which is transcontinental, and far from the current EU borders), has never really experienced the benefits of this. Nevertheless, this has not prevented alignment with Brussels from being proclaimed as a goal and even as a means to an end.
The attempt to withdraw from EU diktats is now perceived as a betrayal of ‘European ideals’, which involve self-sacrifice. Moldova is an example of ‘correct’ European (sic) behavior, while the ‘wrong’ type is being exhibited by Georgia. Accordingly, internal pressure from a restive minority is backed up by external pressure from the EU and US.
They claim that the government is colluding with Russian President Vladimir Putin, as former Western-favorite Saakashvili languishes in prison. The fact that Moscow’s influence, in this case, is completely fictitious is irrelevant. The Russian issue is too deeply embedded in Georgia’s political consciousness.
A Maidan-style overthrow of the authorities is unlikely; there are no real hardline forces, such as those seen in Kiev, in the opposition. The main front now will be external – EU and US pressure to force Tbilisi to abandon neutrality and the authorities’ ability (or inability) to evade it. Their resources are limited.
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