The parliamentary elections of October 2020 rocked Georgia like an earthquake. Allegations of fraud sparked protests and triggered a deep crisis that resulted in the resignation of Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia and the arrest of the leader of the opposition ENM party, Nika Melia, in a raid on its headquarters. Melia had already been arrested and released on bail when, in June 2019, he led violent anti-Russian demonstrations after a speech in parliament by visiting Russian MP Sergey Gavrilov, which was seen as a provocation.
The unresolved issue of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and with the current political crisis (which some observers consider to be systemic), jeopardizes the path of democratisation and a closeness with Europe that began in July 2016, when the long-awaited Association Agreement with the European Union came into effect. Despite the undeniable successes achieved by the Caucasian country since independence in the fields of democracy, rule of law, human rights, and fundamental freedoms, the ongoing deep political crisis worries Western partners, especially considering the risk of reigniting the conflict with Russia.
The recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states by Moscow in the aftermath of the war provoked strong anti-Russian protests in the capital Tbilisi and spread the fear of a Russian desire to annex the two regions, which never happened. There has been little tension in the two territories in recent years. The only notable episodes involved some minor anti-Russian protests on the border with South Ossetia in 2015, after the Russian military (which occupies the region) installed barbed wire fences and signs marking the border.
In the wake of the war, the European Union deployed a monitoring mission, EuMM, to help re-establish and regulate the area, observe and respect human rights, and uphold the 2008 Russia-Georgia agreement.As of November 2018, Salomé Zurabishvili succeeded Giorgi Margvelashvili as the country’s president. Zurabishvili, like her predecessor, belongs to the “Georgian Dream” party, formed by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. In 2006, the country began a process of pre-accession to the Atlantic Alliance, which recently intensified military cooperation with Tbilisi.
What is being fought for
After the fall of the USSR, South Ossetia and Abkhazia declared their independence from Georgia, rekindling tensions that had lasted since the Tsarist era and creating the first conflicts in the region. After the clashes in Abkhazia in 1998, the summer of 2008 saw an escalation of tensions and confrontations in both regions. In August of the same year, a large-scale Georgian military operation started against the city of Tskhinvali in South Ossetia, which resulted in an armed conflict involving Russia. After the signing of the ceasefire in August 2008, Moscow formally recognised the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
This resulted in an armed conflict that involved Russia. After the ceasefire of August 2008, Moscow formally recognised the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.International organisations, such as Human Rights Watch and the European mission in charge of investigating the causes and responsibilities of the conflict, found evidence of human rights violations on both sides.
Abkhazia and South Ossetia are now de facto independent regions claimed as their own by Tbilisi, whose position is supported by all EU member states and NATO, as well as by the United Nations itself.The conflict, which remains intact since the withdrawal of Russian troops from South Ossetia, continues to condition Georgia’s international relations, especially with Russia. South Ossetia is inhabited by a majority Ossetian-speaking people, unlike Abkhazia which has a more varied population.
Georgia is a Transcaucasian state and was a republic of the Soviet Union until 1991. The independence process began in 1990, with the first multi-party elections, followed by a referendum to leave the USSR, approved by 98.9% of voters. Formal independence was declared on April 9, 1991. To date, it is a member of the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
In its early years, the Georgian Republic suffered a period of political and economic turmoil. The years of transition to democracy and a market economy were accompanied by slow growth rates and bloody internal conflicts with the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
In response to a new law that made the Georgian language mandatory in all state bodies, the newly formed People’s Assembly of South Ossetia, declared its independence in a referendum in January 1992, also expressing the will to join part of the Russian Federation. A conflict ensued between the Georgians and the rebels of the Autonomous Region which ended, also in 1992, with a truce. The agreement underlying the ceasefire involved the deployment in the area of a contingent of “mixed forces for peace support” made up of soldiers from Russia, North Ossetia and Georgia. From 1991 to 1993, an even more serious conflict inflamed Abkhazia. A peace agreement was reached only in 1994, after Georgia agreed to join the Commonwealth of Independent States (CSI) and agreed to the presence of Russian bases on its territory. The agreement, signed in Moscow on May 14 1994 provided for a ceasefire, the deployment of a peacekeeping contingent from the CSI and a commitment by the parties to resolve the conflict peacefully. In practice, the peacekeepers included only Russian soldiers, mostly from bases already present in Abkhazia and Georgia. Later, the presence of a United Nations observer mission (Unomig) was established, with the task of monitoring its work. South Ossetia and Abkhazia have since been de facto independent regions, members (together with Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh) of the Community for Democracy and the Law of Nations, an international organisation that brings together territories of the former USSR with limited recognition.
The early years of independent Georgia saw former Soviet Union foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze in power. In 2003, after Shevardnadze had once again won the political elections, in a context of tensions and accusations of fraud, corruption and nepotism, a popular protest was mounted. Shevardnadze resigned on November 23 in the face of spreading demonstrations. The Rose Revolution, as the protest movement was called, occurred without bloodshed and represented a moment of democratic hope not only for Georgia, but also for the other Caucasian republics of the former Soviet Union.
With the resignation of Shevardnadze, Mikheil Saakashvili took over the presidency of the country. His leadership of Georgia, uninterrupted until 2013 (when Giorgi Margvelashvili succeeded him), resulted in a vigorous shift towards alliances with the United States and Europe, as well as in a clear policy of rapprochement with NATO. It was a decade that characterized the recent life of the country and that saw the tragic episode of the 2008 war, but also a much-discussed change in the structure of power. A constitutional reform launched in 2004 centralised many powers of the president, emptying the role of Parliament and characterizing Georgia with authoritarian traits. Following street protests in 2009, the Constitution was again amended to reduce presidential powers in favour of the prime minister and, in part, Parliament.
Salomé Zurabishvili of the “Georgian Dream” party, a former French diplomat from a Georgian family, who was born and lived in Paris, has been president since 2018. The current prime minister of the same party is Irakli Gharibashvili, nominated in the running after the surprise resignation in February 2021 of Giorgi Gakharia, also of “Georgian Dream”, as a sign of dissent against the arrest of the opponent Nika Melia.
Key figure or organization: Bidzina
Nika Melia, a former security man, is considered the number one political opponent of former Prime Minister Boris Ivanishvili, known by all as “Bidzina”. Founder of the ruling party “Georgian Dream” and a multimillionaire, Bidzina is considered the real driver of Georgian politics. For Melia, he is also Putin’s man in Russia. This is one of the reasons why Melia’s detention in February 2021 marks an extremely critical point in Georgia’s approach to the EU and NATO and, above all, the democratization of the country. Melia’s arrest took place with a daring blitz by the special forces inside the headquarters of his party (United National Movement), where the politician had taken refuge, defended by his comrades. His arrest warrant was issued for violation of probation, after allegations that he was the organizer of the violent demonstrations in 2019.
Focus 1 – On the other side of the curtain
Not even South Ossetia can be said to be calm in terms of domestic politics. Contrary to what one might imagine for a de facto state under Moscow’s control, the government fabric of the self-proclaimed separatist republic is far from uniform. In 2021, it took over six months to find a Head of Government following the previous Cabinet resignation in August 2020, due to the scandal following the death of a man by the hands of the police. The continuous boycott of the majority of parliamentarians caused the stalemate until an agreement was reached, when it was possible to reach the quorum for the designation. The figure appointed by the de facto president Anatoly Bibilov is Gennady Bekoyev, former deputy prime minister.
The origin of the crisis was in fact the death of Inal Dzhabiev while he was in custody of the armed forces as a suspect in the attempted murder of Interior Minister Igor Naniyev. South Ossetia is governed by a single-chamber parliamentary system consisting of 34 deputies. The president is directly elected for a five-year term. The prime minister is appointed by presidential decree on the candidature of Parliament.
Focus 2 – De-facto republic
Abkhazia, to the north overlooking the Black Sea, is also a de facto state not recognized by the majority of the members of the United Nations. Since the war of 1992-93, from which the Georgian army was defeated, the status of Abkhazia has remained in limbo, except for a rekindling of the crisis at the diplomatic level with the recognition of independence by Russia in 2008. For the Government of Tbilisi is still formally speaking of Georgian territory. Abkhazia recognises Sukhumi as its capital and, from 2020, Aslan Bzania as president. In May 2021, in a rare “official” visit abroad, Bzania met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.