Political unrest in Georgia: on the 20 June Events in Tblisi

On the 20 June Events in Tbilisi

Tornike Chivadze, 17 July 2019

Tornike Chivadze of the Georgian Social Democrats (SDD) examines the political significance of the events of 20 June 2019 in Tblisi, and Georgia’s growing political unrest.

“if the people do not have their own politics, they will enact the politics of their enemies: political history abhors the void”

– Alain Badiou, The Adventure of French Philosophy

On June 20, an “Orthodox Parliamentary Assembly” was held in the plenary hall of the Parliament of Georgia, led by an “Oxymoron”, Russian Communist Party and Duma member, the Russian Imperial Award winner Sergei Gavrilov. This led to protests from the parliamentary opposition (“National Movement” and “European Georgia”) which spread to the broader society. The opposition disrupted the assembly while crowds gathered in front of the parliament with anti-occupational slogans.

Gradually, the leaders of the opposition party occupied the main stage of the demonstration, and soon called for civil disobedience at the site of the parliament. The opposition (the leaders of the National Movement) called on the people to invade the parliament building, which was followed by an initial clash with the police. A section of the protesters left the area – it was clear that the opposition was using people for their own interests. The confrontation lasted for a few hours before escalating. According to the Ministry of Health, there were from 240 injured, including 80 policemen. Two activists lost their eyes with the rubber bullets fired by the Special Forces, among the 240 citizens received physical injuries. 304 citizens were detained (currently all released).

The opposition media actively disseminated information that the pro-Russian government had dispersed “anti-occupation” protests. In reality, the raid was launched after the attack on the Parliament building and not because of the rally.

Demands and results

At the time of writing [4 July 2019] protests are still ongoing since the day after the dispersal of the protest rally. The main demands of the activists and the opposition is satisfied. The parliament’s chairperson resigned, and a deputy who organized the Orthdox Assembly resigned his seat. A demand for a proportional election system has also been met – parliamentary elections will be held in a fully proportional system next year with a 0% threshold for qualification. Activists detained on the rally are also dismissed. Currently there is only one unmet demand of the protestors – the resignation of the Internal Affairs minister. Participants of the rally say that after that they will suspend protest action.

Proportional elections and neoliberal conesnsus

Before this shift to a fully proportional system, a mixed electoral system was previously operating in Georgia – 77 members were elected through proportional representation system and 73 through a majoritarian system. The main demand for the United Opposition (the informal unity of parliamentary and non-parliamentary opposition) was to hold the election of 2020 through a fully proportional system.The opposition’s media [fn 1has for years advanced the case for fully proportional elections and a multi-party pluralistic parliament. It is symbolic that the opposition is not united around socioeconomic demands, but around the useful rule for taking power.  For example, if the parliamentary elections of 2016 had been held on a fully proportional system with, let’s say 5% barrier, Georgian Dream would take 83 seats instead of 115 (a constitutional majority) and UNM would take 50 sits instead of 27. So, it is true that fully majoritarian elections are preferable for the ruling party, but the main problem of the political system in Georgia is not the electoral system as such, or party pluralism (two or multi-party) in parliament, but the full dominance of economic elites in the political field.

Today, all the dominant opposition parties are representatives of the prevailing social class whose fractional fights have been continuing for the last 30 years (with temporary appropriation of public demands which occasionally coincide with objectives of the distressed elite fractions). In this context, the pluralist argument is based on simple market logic that suggests the rise of the quality of politics through competition. This approach is simply wrong, and is in fact being made in a manipulative manner.

We can look to the contrast with Britain for example, where politics has returned to real life, not because of pluralism, but because of the changes within the Labor Party. The real political process is not determined by competition or by multi-party parliamentary pluralism, but by the development of opposite interests (and not just their goals). 

In reality both, proportional and majoritarian electoral systems are traditionally democratic. Each represents a different method of gaining power, but none of them says – power for what? Neither Georgian opposition parties say what they want to do with the power likely to be dispersed under the new electoral system.

The Georgian political class (both the opposition and ruling party) has already fully agreed on the model of a minimal state, the maximum reduction of taxes for wealthy, the denial of proactive industrial policy and planning of economic development, on the benefits of the fully free trade, on the policy of maximal privatization of state assets, on the privatization of social security (current pension reform for example), on financial deregulation and on the harmful  nature of state financial institutions (developmental banks and etc.). The main “confrontation” in the future parliament will be which party more honestly represent and accomplish the tasks determined by above mentioned neoliberal consensus.

The Impossibility of De-Politicising Protest

“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them”-

 Matthew 18:20

Young people in Georgia are very like to say that their protests are apolitical, but politics does not like empty spaces. Where there is two people there is politics. That is why the National Movement attracts the current rallies as a magnet. Activists of the rally tried to protect the protest from political parties. several times they tried to expel party leaders, but as it appeared it was impossible. Why? Because the rhetoric and ideological coordinates of the protesters fully agree and are even produced by the National Movement’s ruling period. Therefore, it is not accidental that neoliberals and the people directly connected with the National Movement became main leaders of the protests. They have simply insisted on people that it is good for proportional elections. Protester are mainly liberal minded youth or party activists of the opposition parties.

Post-Soviet Nationalism and Neoliberalism

Two types of nationalism dominate in post-Soviet Georgia. Conservative nationalism, which is still marginalized in the dominant political space (though with growing popularity) positions itself against Western and liberal values and has little focus on economic and social issues. In addition, its rhetoric is not anti-Russian and is considered by liberal nationalists as a pro-Russian force. In this context I am more interested in the second type of nationalism that I will call (Neo)liberal nationalism.

I want to talk about this neoliberal nationalism because the main ethos of the current protests is fully produced by this discourse. This is a dominant discourse that begins from the 90s but gained full legitimation during the Saakashvili period, when radical neoliberal policies and aggressive anti-Russian rhetoric became a settled part of Georgian politics. Neo-liberal policies have made it necessary to activate anti-socialist rhetoric, which means aggressive anti-Russian sentiments in the post-Soviet space. An Anti-socialist ethos was presented as the issue of self-determination of the nation with western-style capitalist development as the natural path of Georgia from which the Soviet Union temporarily moved us away. Of course, for our liberals today Russia is more like Soviet Union than capitalism [fn 2], and therefore anti-Russian and anti-socialist sentiments are identified with one another. This discourse bases patriotism exclusively on foreign policy, namely the pro-Western liberal socioeconomic values, ​​and excludes any other emancipatory project.

Despite the success of the “Georgian Dream” coalition in stabilizing relations with Russia (most notably in terms of  economic relations, whereby Russia was only 10th in terms of Georgian exports in 2010, whereas last year Russia became the largest importer of Georgian products), the aggressive irresponsible rhetoric of the UNM  (the United National Movement) was actively used by Georgian Dream to maintain good relations with liberal elites and western partners. At the same time, Georgian Dream also claims unconditional loyalty to NATO and to the USA. Because of this double policy, with the ruling too weak to convince the community to pursue a pragmatic policy with Russia, they could not convince people that its in our interests to talk with Russian politicians.  Instead, when the rallies began, they started to turn their finger on each other – “it turned out”, or so they claimed, that neither the government nor the parliament knew about the arrival of the Russian MP.

Despite the fact that Russia protects the separatist regimes on the territory of Georgia [fn 3], anti-Russian sentiment, and the anti-occupational activism of neoliberals, could not become an unifying narrative of national liberation. On the contrary, it distinctly divides the society. This, on the one hand, can be explained by the dominance of the conservative anti-western sentiments of the majority and, on the other, by 70 years of cohabitation with Russia. But more fundamentally it is connected with the collapse of the neoliberal project of Georgia’s modernization.

Independent, pro-Western, neo-liberal Georgia does not offer anything to its own citizens which people would like to protect, and which could be taken away by Russia. There is nothing in peoples’ consciousness that can be threatened by Russia. A movement that looks for the invaders outside but does not see the enemy at home cannot become a liberating movement. The Anti-Occupational Movement which is based on a neoliberal ethos does not have a chance of becoming an emancipatory, uniting project. The only path for it is towards disorder and chaos.

A Crisis of Politics

The proximate cause for the UNM to lose the elections was the spread of video recordings from jails recording how police were torturing and abusing prisoners. But even before these video recordings came to light, there had been many cases of police brutality and political repressions. Until now, Georgian Dream has demonstrated its superiority and distinguished itself not by its ideological or fundamental reforms in distinction to the National Movement, but more simply by the denial of violence and a greater “humanism”. On the other hand, they introduced neoliberal reforms more actively, which, as we know cannot be accomplished without the strengthening of repressive mechanisms of the state apparatus. Georgian Dream was building its legitimacy and difference through this falseness, and that’s why it is losing the game. But while we must say that there is large difference between violence of Georgian dream and UNM, there is another big issue. Georgian Dream could not (did not) overcome growing inequality and mass poverty in the country, and this will be translated (consciously or unconsciously) into massive social tension in future.

And so at this moment the biggest political debates are going on among the National Movement and Georgian Dream, while there is a great political nihilism among the people in general. The Georgian people are closed within a vicious circle; they are choosing what they want but choosing against what they don’t want. That is why people are widely of the view that there is a need for a so-called “third power” in Georgian politics, though no-one seems to know what form this ‘third power’ should take. Despite little progress, unfortunately at this stage the Georgian Left is unable to form massive or representative organizations that could disclose the false dichotomy of the Georgian Dream and the National Movement, and put them on one side of political compass (that is, where they really are, on the side of policies that are against the interests of most Georgian people). The appearance of the National Movement as the leading power of protest wave is not accidental. It is also not accidental that the National Movement is showing good results  in elections- when people do not have their own politics (and in the absence of a larger organized Left party), people are left with their enemy’s policy. With the full hegemony of neoliberal forces in Georgia, political crisis in the country becomes more and more intensive. In Georgian politics, a period of great uncertainty is coming.

* * *

 [fn 1] When I refer to the opposition’s media, I have in mind primarily the large television stations that have great influence and are effectively propaganda organizations of opposition parties. For example Rustavi 2, which is a propaganda organization of the “National Movement”.

 [fn 2] As we know from history, the capitalist transformation of any social system is always connected with crime and the formation of predatory elites. It’s true that post-Soviet capitalism has its own specificities but it does not mean that there is some kind of “semi-capitalism” in the post-Soviet countries. If Russian and other post-Soviet capitalist regimes are so brutal it is exactly because of their capitalist reforms, and because the private appropriation of wealth that was collectively produced, both now and in the past, fully suits the capitalist spirit.

 [fn 3] In the 1990s, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Abkhazian people (living in the west of Georgia) declared independence and, with the help of Russia, won war with Georgia. Later, after the irresponsible policies of Saakashvili, the Russian army invaded Georgia, in August 2008, and Georgia lost another territory in the north, called Samachablo (the Tskhinvali Region), now South Ossetia.

Published by:

Tornike Chivadze

Tornike Chivadze has worked as a policy adviser for the Georgian Social Democrats, working on a range of issues in economic policy, including taxation, industrial policy and pension policy. He graduated from the Social and Political Sciences Faculty of Tbilisi State University. He is a member of the editorial board of analytical media portal European.ge.

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