This commentary was prepared by the editorial team of commonspace.eu. A shorter version was first published in the Caucasus Concise newsletter published on 27 May 2021.
The decision of the United National Movement (UNM), Georgia's largest opposition party, to enter parliament after a seven-month stand-off that threatened Georgia's political stability is the correct one.
The UNM emerged from the euphoria of the 2003 Rose Revolution led by Mikhail Saakashvili. In government, it shook Georgian society from the inertia into which it had found itself in its post-Soviet period, and gave Georgia a new beginning. Many argue that the cost in terms of human rights and rule of law was too high. Given the opportunity, and after the disaster of the 2008 Georgia-Russia War, the Georgian people voted the UNM out of office in 2012, to be replaced by the Georgian Dream, at the time led by Bidzina Ivanishvili.
In opposition the UNM has had a rough ride. Many argue that it failed to move with the times, and remained stuck in the discourse and mindset of the Rose Revolution. Saakashvili continued to cast a shadow over the party from exile in Ukraine, and various factions left the party over the course of the last nine years. But to the surprise of some, the UNM did not implode. It in fact regrouped and remained by far the largest opposition group. In last October's parliamentary elections it – in coalition with some smaller parties – secured 27.8% of the vote, and 36 out of 150 seats in parliament.
For a moment, it basked in the glory of co-ordinating all the other opposition parties as they challenged the results of the elections, refusing to enter parliament declaring that it was not legitimate. But the united front of the opposition – never as united as it presented itself anyway – fragmented dramatically in the process of complicated negotiations, which also involved international mediation. UNM could not keep its own members in line, let alone other parties. The other opposition parties broke ranks and entered parliament. UNM – with one leader in exile, and another Nika Melia, for some time in prison – looked uncomfortably isolated and risked becoming irrelevant.
On Sunday (30 May), the party finally agreed to come in from the cold and to enter parliament, although it has refused to sign the so-called "Charles Michel Document" that is supposed to provide a new basis for Georgian politics.
However, the decision to enter parliament is an important one for UNM, and for Georgia. Up to now the UNM had preferred the street and the square to the tribune of parliament. Saakashvili and others who had tasted the sweet victory of the Rose Revolution thought they could play the script a second time. It was a mistake. The situation is different. UNM could not mobilise the numbers to make a street uprising credible. The fact that it may now have reconciled itself to this reality is a positive thing for Georgia as it faces serious challenges which require good and sensible government, not revolutions.
In its odd way over the last seven months, and in the shadow of a terrible pandemic, Georgian politics has moved on and have taken a number of unusual twists. The GD leader, Bidzina Ivanishvili, announced he was leaving Georgian politics for good; the former prime minister, Giorgi Gakharia, credited to have steered the Georgian Dream government through the difficult election and pandemic period, resigned, broke with the ruling GD, and on the same day the UNM decided to enter parliament, launched his own political party. Rumours of continued personality clashes within the GD persist, despite strong denials. The opposition may describe these developments as purely ornamental, but they reflect a deeper process.
Very little of this political intrigue is related to policy. Personalities remain the dominant factor, but with the two personalities that have dominated Georgian politics for the last years – Bidzina Ivanishvili and Mikheil Saakashvili – now less prominent than before, the long-awaited mutation of Georgian politics now appears to have started. The problem is that what will emerge at the end of the process is far from clear.
Nika Melia struck the right note yesterday when announcing the UNM's decision to enter parliament, sending a message to the rest of the opposition that he was ready to work again with them, despite the differences of the last weeks.
The next episode in the Georgian political soap-opera will be local and municipal elections scheduled for October. According to the agreement achieved between government and opposition in March through EU mediation, Georgian Dream must secure 43% of the vote in those elections, otherwise early parliamentary elections must be held. GD is confidant that they will. Others are not so sure. And plenty can happen between now and October as well.
source: This commentary was prepared by the editorial team of commonspace.eu. A shorter version was first published in the Caucasus Concise newsletter published on 27 May 2021)
Photo: UNM Political Council members address media on 30 May 2021 after taking a decision to enter parliament. (picture courtesy of InterPress News Tbilisi).