Crisis in Georgia: Comments from diplomats and experts

Was the recent crisis in Georgia a surprise to you, or did you expect such developments sooner or later? How do you assess the reactions of Russia, the Georgian government, and the opposition? What are the expected broader international consequences? 

03.07.2019. Today the foreign diplomats and experts are answering these questions for the readers of Caucasian Journal.

Lukas BEGLINGER, former Ambassador of Switzerland to Georgia:  

While the concrete events triggering the crisis were rather unexpected, the underlying political problems and issues have existed for many years, without being adequately addressed. In the Georgian context, it is not surprising that at some point, people - including „ordinary“ citizens - start to vent their irritation and frustration about major political problems remaining unresolved, even more so as economic and social conditions remain difficult as well.

One of the major political problems mentioned is obviously the unresolved conflict with Russia, which has several dimensions and also affects domestic affairs. The protests show that the substantial normalization of Georgian-Russian relations in the economic, trade, transport and other fields, which was achieved in the past years, cannot compensate the lack of progress in political relations and the lack of will on all sides in seriously addressing the conflict about Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The Russian government’s reaction to the recent events is obviously exaggerated. While it is understandable, that the Russian authorities are angry about the treatment of a Russian MP in Georgia, international practice in such cases would normally consist of a diplomatic protest or similar demarche. Also, Moscow's interpretation of the protests as an „anti-Russian provocation“ ignores the unresolved political conflicts in relation to Georgia, which directly concern Russia’s (co-)responsibility. The question is whether the parties concerned understand the need to seriously address the issues underlying those conflicts rather than administering them rhetorically, as was largely the case in the past 10 years. Hopefully, the recent protest movement in Georgia will provide food for thought in this direction.

Another major cause for popular irritation and frustration is the domestic political context, which has been marked by an attitude of „the winner takes it all“ of the ruling majority ever since Georgia regained its independence. The legitimate request for introduction without delay of proportional parliamentary elections which opposition parties and civil society organizations have voiced for years, illustrates the lack of dialogue and compromise characterizing political culture and practice in Georgia. In light of the protests, the leadership of „Georgian Dream“ has now reacted and announced a fully proportional system for the next parliamentary elections. This concession is likely to have far-reaching effects on Georgia’s political landscape and should be applauded.

Honorable Kent N. BROWN, former Ambassador of USA to Georgia:

Was it a surprise? In hindsight we could all have predicted some demonstrations, but not on such a „minor“ issue. In the case of Mr. Gavrilov's speech, I wonder if the loudest of Tbilisi protesters were those who thought their actions could undermine the current Georgian government.

One of President Putin's initial reactions, abolishing flights to Georgia, would seem overdone to me. The US should not address this issue, except to quietly volunteer to help the parties find common ground, especially when tensions in Russian-Georgian relations are not in the US interest.

Honorable John A. HEFFERN, former Ambassador of USA to Armenia:

Understandable that Georgians became upset at sight of Russian parliamentarian in the chair of the Georgian speaker. After all, Russia refuses to abide by the 2008 ceasefire agreement and occupies 20% of Georgia’s territory.  We can’t speak of normal relations under such circumstances.

At the same time, I am concerned to see some protesters incite violence and some police respond with excessive force. These incidents require full and balanced investigation and accountability all around.

Welcome the decision to move to a fully proportional system for the 2020 parliamentary elections. This will be important to provide greater opportunities for pluralism. Also important to create a more level playing field for all parties and address the shortcomings seen in the 2017 and 2018 elections. That’s why it’s also important for Georgia to implement election reforms, including OSCE/ODIHR recommendations, in time for the 2020 elections.

As to Russia, its reaction is obviously disproportionate and intended to put pressure on Georgia’s economy. We’ve seen this before, and Georgia responded by raising the quality of its products and diversifying its export markets.  Probably Georgia will experience some short-term losses from Russia’s unwarranted flight ban and other strong arm measures, but Georgia has proven its resilience.

Pierre ORLOFF,  former Honorary Consul of Belgium in Georgia

About Gavrilov: How a communist can be an orthodox, and how an orthodox can be a communist? Isn’t he ashamed? It makes me laugh, it makes me cry, it makes me burst!

About Georgian authorities: They knew all about the above-mentioned person; why the hell did they invite him? Was it an enormous stupidity or a malicious plan?

About the protesters: They are good, they are brave, but during the first hours of the first day, they were really too aggressive against the police and against their own parliament. Most of them seem nice persons and good patriots, but wasn’t there a certain part of the opposition leaders who were trying to manipulate them for provoking a great and dangerous paroxysm?

About the police: During the first hours of the first day, they were extraordinarily patient. When they finally reacted, the first day, why did they use these terrible bullets, which I personally had never heard of before in other countries?

About the protesters, again: I believe that only one car has been overturned, when hundreds of cars are being overturned or put on fire, in similar situations and actions in most European countries.
Bravo to Georgia! And I have not heard of any window of shops and stores or banks being broken,
which is almost compulsory in other countries. Again, my sincere congratulations to Georgia.

About relations between Georgia and Russia: 
During the last 30 years (of which 26 spent mostly in Georgia) I had directly lived, felt or attentively observed the situation. And I was very proud of my personal links with these two nations. Because their mutual relations have always been on a high level of friendship, understanding and admiration. It was a great example, to be proud of, all over the world, despite the lousy political environment.

Moreover, despite the many indisputable and detestable attempts of some political leaders to instill discord or hate, the people from both sides remained always tolerant, warm and friendly. What is the future made of, how will the recent events impact on the younger generations? I don’t know.

And finally about my personal emotions and feelings: 
-  I was moved to tears when, a few days later, an improvised choir, in front of the parliament, was singing one of the most beautiful Georgian polyphonic song. The song was flowing slowly, heavenly, almost whispering. And in the same time the television channel was showing some of the most brutal images of the first day.
-  But I was shocked when some Georgian artists felt it compulsory to present their excuses to Georgia for having sometimes performed in Russia.

Pierre Orloff, son of refugees from Russia after  Bolshevik revolution, citizen of Switzerland, former Belgian diplomat

Dr. Svante E. CORNELL, Director of the Institute for Security and Development Policy (Stockholm, Sweden)

My general sense is that I am not particularly surprised by the developments. Of course, how and why a crisis is triggered is very much a matter of chance, almost. But the elements of a crisis were there, for several reasons. First, it is increasingly clear that the Georgian Dream government has lacked initiative and leadership. This was most obvious from the situation that necessitated Mr. Ivanishvili’s formal return to politics – I say formal, because everyone knew he was influential behind the scenes. Still, Georgia continues to suffer from a situation where many government ministers are relatively little known people with comparatively limited experience. They also appear not to take decisions on their own, leading to frequent speculation that they must consult Mr. Ivanishvili before making important decisions. And on top of this, is the significant rotation of key positions, meaning there does not appear to be a building of experience within the team. Key talent is summarily dropped from the government, as was the case with Mr. Alasania, Ms. Khidasheli, Mr. Kvirikashvili. And their replacements had less, not more experience. The presidential election summed up this state of affairs rather well, and showed the level of popular frustration with the government.

Second, the Russia policy has been built on the assumption that Russia will be nice to Georgia if only Georgia is nice to Russia. That may be over-simplifying matters. But there is a central truth to it: the assumption was that if Saakashvili’s provocative, anti-Russian policies were changed, there would be less problems. But we see that this is only partly true, as Russia’s aggressive steps continue; it has become clear that the problem for Russia is not Georgia’s tone, but Georgia’s orientation. As long as Georgia continues to go west, Russia will react. And unfortunately, Georgia has scaled down its efforts to enlist support in the west for its independence – and gone so far as to alienate some of its strongest supporters because they were close to the previous government – not understanding that they were close to the Saakashvili government because they support Georgia, not because of Saakashvili. So, Georgia finds itself increasingly alone in its relationship with Russia.

These two dimensions combined, as inexperienced leadership led the government to allow a humiliating situation that could have been prevented, while similar inexperience led the Ministry of Internal Affairs to mishandle the undeniably challenging situation that developed during public protests. What actually happened, and whether the government used excessive force, will be the subject of investigations. But the political cost of the matter may already be apparent. The presidential elections made it abundantly clear that the government can only win elections if the people is confronted with a choice between Georgian Dream and Saakashvili, because many people fear a return to an assertive Saakashvili government, and remember the abuses of justice that happened in that administration’s latter period. Now, if public opinion concludes that the Georgian Dream government is as “violent” as its predecessor, that fear of the previous regime may cease to be a factor providing the government with implicit public support. In other words, it may lead the government’s support in society to erode quicker than expected.

The big question, of course, is the alternative. Georgian politics in 2016 showed that there was only space for two major political forces. But the opposition is fragmented, and there is not particularly strong leadership visible today. Neither is there strong leadership visible in the government. Politics like nature abhors a vacuum, however, so it is very likely that this vacuum will be filled by the time of the 2020 elections. We can expect an interesting period in Georgia, but it is not clear whether this process will be organized and orderly, or increasingly chaotic.


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