Opinion: A deeply personal tragedy spinned into a political crisis

In Georgia, what started off as a public manifestation of solidarity with a bereaved father quickly became instrumentalised into a move to distabilise the government. There are lessons from history to be learnt, argues George Mchedlishvili in this commentary

Massive street protests started in Tbilisi on May 31, following a highly controversial court ruling over an incident that took place last December, which resulted in two 16-year old teenagers stabbed to death. The public outcry followed the acquittal by the Tbilisi City Court of the suspects in the case of one of the murders, and what was perceived as unjustifiably light sentence for the other. The image of Zaza Saralidze, the bereaved father, utterly devastated and distraught by the verdict that denied him justice, became an iconic symbol of the current rallies. It also laid bare massive deficiencies in the judicial system in today's Georgia. Indeed, the judiciary remains one of Georgia's most unreformed state institutions, and requires much more than just tweaking. For 27 years of Georgia's independent statehood, successive leaderships failed to do so. It would be more accurate to say that every government has tried to shape it to serve their aims, and at each tenure there comes at some point a trial that brings to light the corruption-and nepotism-ridden modus operandi of the court system. The sloppily conducted investigation, and the 31 May judgement  by the City Court, serve  as an eloquent case in point.

The thousands of people who showed-up on the Rustaveli avenue - the traditional venue for street protests in Georgia -   were, in foremost, demonstrating their solidarity with the bereaved father, and demanding justice. Saralidze himself, along with the multitude of protesters, on the first night was stressing the essentially apolitical character of the rallies. Just a few hours after the rally began, it seemed to have achieved its main goal, as the Chief Prosecutor announced his resignation.

related content: Protests in Tbilisi after Court judgement

But when Zviad Kuprava, the self-proclaimed defender of Saralidze, the head of government-bashing NGO by the name Law Enforcement Reform Center, took the lead of the rallies, the latter instantly acquired a distinctly political twist, with forceful demands calling for the immediate resignation of the government and snap parliamentary elections, to be held together with the upcoming presidential vote.

The protesters booed the Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili when, after expressing his condolences to the downtrodden father, he tried to convince the crowd to keep the protests within the legal framework. The Prime Minister's proposal to transfer the investigation to the Interior Ministry fell on deaf ears, and he had to leave the stage due to heckling.      

Despite the forceful assurances to the contrary, it seems that a number of political parties, first and foremost the United National Movement (UMN), the former ruling party between 2004 and 2012, decided to capitalize on the tragedy, and  cause maximum harm to the government, and even sow destabilization and chaos. So far the tactics seem  to have been backfired, as the crowd of protesters started to dwindle and even fragment  shortly after the late hours of the first night, with many people  rejecting out of hand the  idea of political vendetta, and the calls that "the system must be destroyed",  especially given   the pretty abhorrent record of extrajudicial killings associated with the UNM government

Politicking, vitriolic and endless

Political life in general is largely a no-holds-barred competition, virtually in every country. But the hostility between the incumbent Georgian Dream (GD) and their predecessors United National Movement brings even this commonly rough affair to another level. From the day the reclusive billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili entered the politics in October 2011 to establish the Georgian Dream, (the party itself was founded in early 2012), he and his movement became the target of massive intimidation and harassment campaign from the UNM elite and the president Mikheil Saakashvili. The victory of the GD coalition in the October 2012 parliamentary election essentially turned the tables, and now former government officials  are at the receiving end of infringements and oppression, albeit to a lesser extent.

In the political realm, the original line of attack on "Georgian Dream" was based on the accusation that "it is a party founded by the Russian oligarch", since Ivanishvili earned the bulk of his fortune when he lived in post-Soviet Russia in the 1990s and early 2000s. International traction and credibility of this accusation have faded since the policies of the current government, as well as the people in key positions, are decidedly pro-western, particularly after the more resounding 2016 parliamentary election victory.

The second, currently dominant line of critique on the part of UNM, tries to picture the GD government as incompetent and riddled with nepotism and corruption. And this botched up investigation of murder of the two teenagers,  along with some others, like the protests in mid-May after the heavy-handed police raid of two night clubs, does partially support this accusation.  

In its defense, the government usually counterattacks by claiming that the protest demonstrations are rather a sign of drastically increased freedom of expression. A number of international rankings from reputed organizations like "Reporters without Borders" or "Freedom House", tend to corroborate the argument about freer political space, but the accusations of incompetence and corruption linger.  

So do the questions related to super-majority that the ruling party enjoys in virtually  all levels and branches of governance. Many Georgian and international experts believe that the authorities often cannot resist the temptation to exploit the   absence of any significant opposition.

The pause and possible scenarios

The long-anticipated meeting between the justice-seeking father Zaza Saralidze and the Prime Minister finally took place on June 4.  The father gave the government a week to bring to justice the killers and officials he believes were involved in the cover-up.

 A 17-strong interim parliamentary commission was established to further investigate the incident, with opposition "European Georgia" party, having a majority with nine seats.

Given the influence Zviad Kuprava,   holds on desperate Saralidze,  and his stated intent to destabilise the situation no matter what, one can  predict that no progress in the case, however genuine, will satisfy the justice seekers, since a group of other opposition leaders, from UNM and some marginal parties, keep fulminating  and  calling for the overthrow of the government, even though, there is still hope that cooler heads and healthier opposition forces will regain the upper hand.

The extent of the injustice in the case is obvious, and the shortcomings massive. But for many, the uncompromising stance of several politicians and the main opposition party, and their determination to use the case to trigger massive political change is unacceptable.  

History matters, and teaches

History is full of analogies and parallels. Obviously, overall progressive march of history brings about appreciable differences between historical epochs and politico-economic characteristics of the countries, rendering similarities complicated, imperfect and partial. But on the other hand, human nature as well as that of political fights remains largely immutable.

In April 1906, the last Russian Emperor Nicholas II appointed Pyotr Stolypin minister of Interior, for his good loyal and very efficient service of quelling the 1905 revolution in the capacity of a Saratov Oblast' governor. Three months later Stolypin was appointed Prime Minister, tasked with winning the hearts and minds of the increasingly discontented peasantry and neutralizing the radicals, emboldened by the protests and the Tsar's concessions. He launched a series of aggressive agricultural reforms, aimed at expanding the peasantry's political rights, encouraging resettlement to Siberia for some by favorable loans and stimulating moving to cities and employment in industries for the others. Well thought-out and calculated reforms, assisted by the free hand the Prime Minister enjoyed from the Emperor, virtually turning agriculture and industry on their head and brought them almost to the level of leading western industries at the time. More than thirty percent increase in agricultural and industrial output in about five year was no small feat. Needless to say, the means by which Stolypin achieved this economic miracle and pulled Russia economically almost to the level of leading western countries were extremely non-democratic and often pretty harsh, earning Stolypin many enemies. But the people who resented the reforms and economic upswing the most were the far-left revolutionaries, so-called Bolsheviks. One of their leaders, the future mastermind of October Coup and founder of the Soviet Union Vlaidmir Lenin infamously observed: "Few more years of Stolypin's reforms, and we will not be able to stage a revolution". And in 1911 Stolypin was assassinated by an anarchist revolutionary, which contributed to the derailment of stability and growth and thus hastened chaos and a string of revolutions. Of course, those revolutions that ultimately brought about the political monstrosity by the name Soviet Union could have never occurred had it not been for the World War I and its disastrous consequences, but it does not "detract" from the motives of the Bolsheviks to stop the progress of the country because it simply stood in the way of their narrow party goals.   

Domestic and international circumstances of the Russian Empire of 1911 and those of Georgia in 2018 are vastly divergent, the former being an oppressive empire, which politically resisted Europeanization and the latter a small republic determined to integrate into European Union. And yet there are several common features. Just like the Russian Empire of 1911, Georgia today is on the rise, both in terms of economic fortunes and democracy. Furthermore, the Association Agreement with the European Union with the attendant DCFTA, which entered into force almost two years ago, and Free Trade Agreement with China, which took effect this last January, hold considerable economic promise, which, coupled with a favorable investment climate and a booming tourism sector, are very likely to deliver meaningful and sustained economic growth. This convergence of factors, if sustained, might indeed in a short period bring about Georgia's elevation from the category of lower-middle income country.    

Such auspicious developments will knock the bottom out of the principal political opponents of the ruling Georgian Dream government, the United National Movement. The latter's accusatory narrative tries to cast the efforts of the government in the worst possible light, and with sluggish economic growth, widespread poverty and job insecurity, it is far easier for them to make their case. So, the current trends are highly inimical for the UNM and a few other politicians.

Georgia's progress over the past five years in virtually every sector pertaining to democracy, freedom of expression and economic openness is not easy to sustain. It can be easily reversed by purely domestic factors, like institutional inefficiency and lack of professionalism. Virtual lack of meaningful political opposition might lead to the erosion of pluralism, and negatively affect decision making. Besides, rapid economic growth is usually uneven, and tends to increase the gap between the rich and the poor, straining social cohesion.

In the region, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh  has the potential to turn violent without warning, resulting in a very dangerous regional situation that would affect Georgia directly. The Syrian crisis and the overall deteriorating situation in the Middle East is playing out only t a few hundred kilometers away with serious spill-over risks. And, perhaps most importantly, Russia remains a hostile power that is determined not to see Georgia integrating into the western structures. So, threats and challenges abound even without domestic ill-wishers.

But the very fact that there exists a political force that is ready to spin  a deeply personal tragedy  into a political crisis. Given that this is the very party that presided over remarkable reforms in Georgia in 2004-2007 -  reforms that transformed the failing state into a functioning entity with developed institutions essentially placing Georgia onto the world's political map, it is sad to see that they are now sacrificing the national interest for short term political expediency.  

source: George Mchedlishvili is Associate Professor in the School of Social Sciences at the International Black Sea University in Tbilisi. He contributed this commentary to commonspace.eu

The views expressed in opinion pieces and commentaries do not necessarily reflect the position of commonspace.eu or its partners

photo: Protestors in front of the Georgian Parliament on 2 June 2018 (picture courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty



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