Why the Georgian Local Elections Matter
Georgians go to the polls on 2nd October to elect mayors and local council members. In an EU-facilitated deal, the ruling Georgian Dream party had agreed if they did not achieve 43% of the proportionally representative vote, they would hold early parliamentary elections in 2022. On 28 July the Georgian Dream, recently described as displaying “growing authoritarian tendencies”, backed out from this agreement. Observers and opposition parties now say that this election has, in effect, become a referendum on the Georgian Dream.
In addition to reneging on the EU-facilitated deal, Prime Minister Gharibashvili’s Georgian Dream party has recently refused to take a second tranche loan from the EU, and according to former President Misha Saakashvili’s UNM opposition party, is trying to turn Georgia “into a Russian swamp”.
Whether or not Georgian Dream achieves over 43% of the vote in the local elections, they will almost certainly not hold early parliamentary elections in 2022 as they previously agreed in the deal, representing another step in Georgia’s weakening Euro-Atlantic integration and growing vulnerability to Russian state influence.
Why and how has this local election become a wider domestic issue?
In 2020 eight opposition parties rejected the 31 Oct 2020 parliamentary results. From his exile in Ukraine, the de facto leader of the primary opposition party UNM was quoted as saying that Georgian Dream officials were "massively falsifying election results”.
All eight parties alleged fraud and boycotted the scheduled second round on 21 Nov 2020, with protestors gathering at Parliament on 1 Nov 2020 accusing the electoral commission of falsifying elections on behalf of the ruling party. The parties did not sit in the new Parliament and demanded repeat elections - a demand that was never met.
Tensions increased again when the chairman of the UNM, Nikanor Melia, was arrested in Feb ’21. The EU on 10 May funded his bail.
The EU previously brokered a peace agreement aimed at solving the political deadlock on 19 April. Controversially and highly unusually, one of the clauses provides a trigger for a “snap parliamentary election if Georgian Dream fails to achieve a 43 percent threshold in local elections”.
Most of the opposition parties signed it and took their seats in Parliament, although the UNM only later signed it on 2 Sep, over a month after the Georgian Dream withdrew from the agreement on 28 July. The Georgian Dream cited that it had “conscientiously fulfilled each clause of the [19 April] document”.
On 31 Aug the opposition parties jointly said “the ruling party is once again refusing to fulfil its commitments to the European Union, including judicial reform, thus significantly undermining the country's democratic development and international reputation, and poses a significant threat to Euro-Atlantic integration.”
Observers and opposition parties now say that the upcoming local elections have, in effect, become a “referendum” on the Georgian Dream.
What has the environment been like in the lead up to the election?
International election observer the OSCE published an interim report in mid-September which outlined that “the pre-election environment is marked by deep polarization between governing and opposition parties”, describing “the discourse as aggressive, with frequent accusations of disinformation being spread”. The report adds “most opposition parties met by the ODIHR EOM [the OSCE team in Georgia] state that the political environment unduly favours the ruling party”.
The Georgian Dream’s political posters dominate Tbilisi, the capital city. Additional police have been mobilised to patrol the capital.
What are the strategic implications?
Georgia is geographically and culturally nestled between Asia and Europe. To the north is Russia and to the south is Turkey. Its rugged and mountainous terrain has in part explained that despite the significant geopolitical influences, Georgian identity and the Georgian nation has remained fiercely resolute. Georgia resoundingly voted for independence in March 1991 and became the first non-Baltic Soviet republic formally to proclaim independence from Moscow, seceding from the USSR and creating the modern-day Georgian state. Despite the country's strong independence and linguistic and cultural differences, Russia’s influence in Georgia is not insignificant.
The Abkhazia and South Ossetia problem persisted post-independence, with Russia lending (continued) military support to the Abkhazians in 1993 and South Ossetians in 2008. Both are autonomous Georgian regions that do not participate in Georgian elections that Russia recognises as “independent”. The two regions account for a fifth of Georgia’s territory.
"Despite the country's strong independence and linguistic and cultural differences, Russia’s influence in Georgia is not insignificant."
Russia has soft power influence through the 70,000 members of the Russian diaspora in Georgia. Additionally Russian tourists make up the majority of foreign visitors in Georgia.
Russia is Georgia’s second largest trade partner, comprising 11 percent of total Georgian trade in 2017-2018. In addition to trade, remittances from Georgian citizens living in Russia make up a significant share of Georgia’s economy.
The Georgian Dream is “at the command of a pro-Russian oligarch, Bidzina Ivanishvili”. Ivanishvili, who has spent a good deal of time in Russia favours closer ties with them, and has previously been accused of bribing voters.
The Georgian Dream’s refusal to accept the second tranche loan and “dumping” of the EU’s 19 April agreement damages the country's Euro-Atlantic integration, and by consequence, increases its vulnerability to Russian state influence.
"These developments damage Georgia's Euro-Atlantic integration, and by consequences increase its vulnerability to Russian state interference"
It is not just the results of the local election that will provide insight into the possible strategic implications of this, the actions of Georgian Dream following the election will also be key. Winning the election with over 43% of the vote will likely embolden their anti-democratic and pro-Russia moves. On the other hand, if they lose the election or fail to reach 43%, Georgia will likely see the opposition parties resume their protests, and increase the country’s political polarisation.
Domestic instability skews in favour of the Russia-friendly Georgian Dream. These developments in Georgia are significantly in Russia’s interests, as is the continued “oligarchisation” of Ivanishvili and his party, which makes Georgia more vulnerable to the Kremlin’s meddling.
Georgia’s local election on Saturday will likely be conducted in relative safety, but the strategic implications of the election will be significantly higher than the potholes and waste collection issues that are the usual focus in local elections.
Written by Luke James
Edited by Owen Swift