“It’s them that I have a problem with – how they poured water over the United National Movement’s mill.”
This statement was made by the leader of the ruling party, Bidzina Ivanishvili, during an interview with TV Imedi on 9 April. The state was made about the MPs who left his team, in particular Eka Beselia, Gedi Popkhadze and Levan Gogichaeshvili. These three MPs had been actively opposing the United National Movement (UNM) during their time as the opposition, later while in government, and recently again after leaving Georgian Dream. Their opposition comes even though they share similar opinions with UNM regarding the appointment of judges in the Supreme Court.
On the other hand, the opinion of UNM and this trio on this particular topic coincide with opinions of many political powers and non-governmental organizations. The government refers to them as the ones “pouring water on UNM’s mill”. Many statements made by Georgian Dream regarding the appointment of judges can be cited to prove the similarities in opinions. The campaign launched against the non-governmental sector is especially interesting because it shows that neutral institutions who are critical of authorities are a supporter of the UNM and an enemy of the ruling party. What people fail to mention is that this is a joint opinion and has nothing to do with supporting the UNM in particular. In reality, the ruling party is on one side and everyone who does not share the Georgian Dream opinions on every issue a-priori unconditionally is on the other. This side is deemed “the enemy” by Georgian Dream.
In this case, it is easiest not to include judiciary reform benefits or disadvantages because it is an entirely separate topic. Instead, there is greater interest in the attitudes of judiciary reforms towards those who disagree with their opinions. The issue of appointing Supreme Court judges can demonstrate the polarisation of Georgian political (and non-political) spaces. Analysis of the polarisation in Georgia can help identity factors contributing to the problem, which can in turn point to a potential solution.
“Those who are not with me are my enemies.”
The popularity of this phrase has been observed in many aspects of everyday Georgian life, from politics to current media to human relations. Regarding academia, there are numerous international research publications and reports that assess the current situation in Georgia as alarming. These reports often find Georgia to be one of the most polarised democracies in Europe: a sentiment that has even been repeated by European Council resolutions. The International organization, Reporters Sans Frontières (Reporters Without Borders), recently published their annual report on global freedom of press. This document recognized the polarisation in Georgia as a significant problem facing press freedom.
Additionally, the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association and Democracy Reporting International have published a joint report on the country’s extremely polarised environment and ways in which to improve it.
Although polarisation is currently a very acute problem, it is not new to Georgia. Instead, the problem has very deep roots that likely extend back to the Soviet period where anyone with opposing views of the government was considered the ‘enemy’. This was also problematic because there was no free press to discuss differing views openly. After the restoration of Georgian independence, the polarised political situation remained when UNM came to power. A deeply entrenched resentment towards different opinions has led UNM to distrust even their own supporters – a situation that has been taken advantage of by the Russian Federation. Although the political polarisation in Georgia is ultimately a very broad issue, a critical factor is the ruling party’s perception of differing opinions has resulted in significant feelings of animosity. This political divide has also affected societal relations – going so far as to cause divorces amongst married couples.
Radicalized confrontation continued since the Soviet era, and the aforementioned quote has helped even current governments come into power. In October 2011, Ivanishvili was quoted saying “middle should be rooted out” during a political campaign interview with Ia Antadze. The is the idea that a person can only be on one side or another and therefore anyone who is not aligned with the ruling party is a “National” or an enemy.
Even though the problem is not a new one, there has been evidence of its recent escalation. While some analysts argue that over-discussion of the problem makes it seem more pronounced, the issue is indeed older and thus more complicated.
Gia Nodia, a political scientist and professor at Ilia University, pointed out that politics in Georgia have always been polarised, but that the topic was discussed at greater length when the term polarise was introduced. “There was a time when people used to be more apathetic, although, in general, more or less activism results in deepening of the polarisation.” Nodia attributes the lack of public trust in the political elite as the main reason for polarisation.
“Criticism of politicians is generally quite popular, and politicians attempt to gain trust through negativity rather than positive issues. Politicians believe that you should attack the opponent in order to obtain scores. The best competition method is to be the most uncompromising towards your opponent.” Nodia notes.
Polarisation in Georgia
Polarisation is not a phenomenon unique to Georgia. Even the labelling of political systems as “left” and “right” is a consequence of this radicalization. However, in western civilizations, it does not imply that the whole country is confronting itself on every level.
Nowadays, the call for ‘rooting out the middle” goes beyond the confrontation between political parties and affects society in many ways. Thus, when discussing polarisation, a primary question is what causes the formation of the so-called Georgian polarisation phenomenon. Emzar Jgerenaia, a sociologist, explains this phenomenon in relation to the behaviour of society.
“Generally, public thinking is a very complex phenomenon with a lot buried deeply. For instance, today in society you can meet the supporters of Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Eduard Shevardnadze, Mikheil Saakashvili and Ivanshvili, but we can only see two opposing sides. The reason for this is that every individual considers their own needs and assesses what benefits each political party can offer them. These individual perspectives is one of the reasons that polarisation is created within the society.” Jgerenaia points out.
Political scientists associate the sociological factors to the lack of alternative ideologies that is commonly featured on polarised political environments.
Bakur Kvashilava, Doctor of Political Sciences and a professor at GIPA, points out that “due to political culture peculiarities, a political party may try to demonstrate that it is the only unconditional portrayer of society and people’s will. Accordingly, it is difficult to find compromises between parties, or even decide which is the opposition, such as a party that represents another segment, another layer of the population or another legitimate point of view because each claim to represent the whole nation.”
He believes that the main problem is not the ruling party, but rather that all the actors agree on the subject and then have nothing unique to tell society.
“If we look at our election campaigns, we see that the parties with their own polls were aware that they could not obtain more than 7-8% of the votes. It was these parties that always promised the electorate they would win the majority of the votes because they believed this was the only message that would ensure them at least 7%. These are the parties that believe society will not accept a party or organization that admits it only represents a small segment of the population or that another party could win more votes. Accordingly, this creates a situation where the other side tries to relate the opponent to the enemy of the country, internal or foreign, to win more votes.” Kvashilava mentions.
This poses the question: why would society accept all of this and allow the political parties to radicalise the situation? According to Kvashilava “the society itself expects such behaviour . . . the society expects the political party to unite the country and confront others cooperatively. Society does not recognize that there may be significant differences, such as between employers and employees, or between the youth and elderly in terms of interests. Society believes that these toast-like promises or programs being implemented can make both pensioners and youth happy. So while everybody promises heaven, society prefers to believe those whom they trust on a personal level.”
Therefore, there is no ideology in the country that the parties can dispute about in a way that would help society make a choice between the parties. The easiest approach is to declare each other as enemies in a way that reflects very aspect of life and society.
“This is alarming because while there is talk about destroying the enemy, there is no ongoing discussion about what is better for country development. Instead, the focus is on who is to blame. We are going through cycles where each new government wants to eliminate all the signs of the previous one. Georgian Dream was unable to achieve this and now supporters are dissatisfied that there was not a more complete destruction of the United National Movement. We are going in circles that is negatively reflected in our development.” Nodia explains.
This overall damages the democratisation process and could be contributing to a prolonged transition process.
A key principle of democracy is that democratic decision making needs the incorporation and debate of the differing ideas or opinions provided by the opposition party. If the ruling party views everybody else as an enemy, a consensus between the government and opposition is not achievable. This has been observed during all significant decision-making processes in Georgia, showcased by formal one-party decisions made by the government.
Another important democratic principle is the conditions and freedoms of media and civil society. In Georgia, it is evident that the media is polarised, pro-government and being pressured to refer to the public sector as an enemy. This hinders the potential power of the two actors, which is a serious problem for democratisation.
These two issues, as noted by Kvashilava, can “cause damage to the democracy, as one party is a considered a destructive force which creates a monopolistic democracy. Democracy is abstractly recognized by all political parties as the best form of governance, however, they also believe that democracy can function without opposition parties. Such democracies do not exist. Rather than focusing on discussion, debate and how to best help the electorate, this system operates on the idea that one party is more honest, more or less Georgian, who is the most trustworthy, and what one party can do better than the other. Therefore, the focus is placed on the heads of parties and the trust that comes from an individual, rather than the rationale of the political agenda. It ignores the feasibility of the offer made to the population in favour of private offers and relationships.”
It is noteworthy that these problems are referred to in aforementioned research that considers polarisation as a “significant hinderance for Georgian democratic consolidation.”
When considering such a significant problem, finding the solution is of paramount importance. However, due to the complexity of the problem, some analysts do not see the way out in any immediate timeframe.
“No leverage has yet been identified. The roots are quite deep in political culture. The way out is for the society to have more trust in political elites; however, the presence of polarisation and confrontation only deepens political distrust and drags itself down,” Nodia points out.
Nodia also believes the solution can be sought in emerging public trust towards political elites. Regarding how to raise this trust, Bakur Kvashilava discusses long- and short-term opportunities:
“One issue that may impact trust in an evolutional way is economic development. When a large part of the population becomes middle class (recent studies have shown that 75% of the population does not represent the middle class) and the middle class becomes critical (at least 40-45%), then more importance will be given to rational understanding of the programs presented by political parties and politicians, along with personal trust. For instance, nobody will believe that, for instance, the decrease of taxes would cause an increase in social and healthcare expenses. This concept must be sold to a population who does not cling to hope but rather calculates whether or not this offer is rational.” Bakur Kvashilava notes.
Kvashilava refers to emerging financial resources as a comparatively short-term perspective: who will consider funding alternative political parties that will not be successful against one concentrated financial power plus administrative resources? This current situation puts competitors in a bad position to act against the ruling party.
“When the parties are able to grant regular members actual rights along with obligations, then these parties will become more dependent on the population. Eventually this will be successfully presented within the government with fewer financial resources. This will be much easier starting in 2024 with the introduction of proportional representation in the Georgian electoral system.”
According to him, if the opposition choses this route, tactics should be correctly selected. For instance, to depend on more members who pay for membership, they must be aware that they will decide who is within the ruling structure of the party. However, according to Kvashilava, even if done this way, achieving victory will be impossible after the first cycle.
“We will have to wait for several cycles to see a change, unless something unexpected happens such as increased opposition party funding. A significant financial resource for the opposition would have a dramatic impact in Georgia. The majority of parties are conformist and still hope for money, but it is out of their control. Nobody knows if money will be provided or where it would come from. Where the money comes from represents a separate problem because it could be to finance the party that favours the interests of our northern neighbour. The way out of this situation is a medium-term problem as well, but the results will not appear immediately. Announcing “I am the third party” will not make you the third one.” Kvashilava points out.
This article was submitted in a contest for journalists organised by DRI, GYLA and ForSet as part of the project “Strengthening political pluralism in Georgia – Phase III” part of the German governmental programme “Expanding Cooperation with Civil Society in the Eastern Partnership Countries and Russia”, funded by the Federal Foreign Office of Germany.
The content of this article is the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of DRI.
*The quotes have been edited in their English translation to preserve meaning and enhance clarity.