The protests in Tbilisi which have been ongoing since 20 June have revealed the potential for discontent in Georgian society; the public has been disillusioned by the country’s bad economic and social situation (high unemployment, rising prices, and the weakening of the national currency), and the broken promises of the Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia (GD) party, which has been ruling for nearly seven years. The demonstrations have also exacerbated the political struggle between GD and the increasingly strong opposition, dominated by the United National Movement (UNM) party of former President Mikheil Saakashvili, and European Georgia (EG), which was established after a split in the UNM – writes Wojciech Górecki, analyst at Ośrodek Studiów Wschodnich (OSW).
During the protests anti-Russian slogans and symbols appeared; this, together with a speech by the President of Georgia Salome Zurabishvili calling Russia “an enemy and an occupier”, provoked sharp reactions from Moscow, including a statement by President Putin’s spokesman Dmitri Peskov which spoke of “a Russophobic provocation”. Moscow has also introduced sanctions hitting the Georgian economy; President Putin signed a decree suspending air links between Russia and Georgia and recommending that travel agencies withdraw from Georgia; also Rospotrebnadzor (the consumer protection service) has banned the import of certain brands of Georgian wine in connection with an alleged deterioration of its quality.
The immediate cause of these incidents was when the Russian parliamentary deputy Sergei Gavrilov sat in the speaker’s chair of the Georgian parliament during a session of the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy (Gavrilov is the chairman of this body). This met with an outcry from Georgian opposition deputies, who called on their supporters to take to the streets. As a result the proceedings were discontinued, and the Russian delegation returned home. On the night of 20/21 June a crowd attempted to seize the parliament building. More than 300 people were detained, some of whom were jailed, and over 200 people required medical assistance. In the following days, the protests reduced in size. The demonstrators demanded the release of all the detainees, the resignation of the interior minister, and early parliamentary elections (scheduled to be held in autumn 2020). Despite the presence of anti-Russian slogans and symbols, the protests are directed not so much at Russia itself as the Georgian government (everything indicates that the incident was a result of an oversight by the protocol service of the Georgian Parliament).
The opposition has supported the protests, but has not become directly involved in them (some figures from the political opposition were jeered by the crowds). Despite this, the demonstrations have objectively strengthened the government’s opponents, who argue that it has not been fulfilling its tasks. This has led to an escalation of internal political conflict, and exacerbated the rivalry between the major political forces. GD has twice won the parliamentary and local elections in recent years, and both the current president and her predecessor won thanks to the party’s support. However, the presidential elections in autumn 2018 showed that GD’s popularity is beginning to fall. In the first round, the candidates of the UNM and EG obtained more votes in total than Zurabishvili, and her win was made possible by using administrative resources to put pressure on voters, as well as the announcement that the credit liabilities of several hundred thousand people indebted to the banks would be paid. However, GD’s decline in popularity, due to natural fatigue with the long-ruling party and its failure to keep its electoral promises (such as creating more new jobs), does not automatically translate into an increase in support for the opposition. Some voters are worried that a return to power by the post-Saakashvili parties could lead to new tensions and clashes. Saakashvili, who is in exile but still arouses extreme emotions, resigned from the UNM’s leadership in order to change this mood. The opposition is not pushing for early elections, as it hopes that over the next year GD will become even weaker, which will enable it to achieve a better result.