One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: Institutionalized Political Suppression in Georgia

LOS ANGELES — In all its pro-West glory, Georgia — long revered as a “beacon of democracy” in the Caucasus — is now troubled with an alarming trend. 

In what can only be characterized as a regression of the significant strides forward made during the 2003 Rose Revolution, Georgia’s ruling party has undertaken harsh crackdowns against their opposition in recent years, targeting leaders of the United National Movement (UNM) among others. From political activists to the former president, the ruling Georgian Dream party’s arrests and prosecutions of UNM leaders raise serious questions about political motivations, the state of human rights and the future of democracy in Georgia. 

Under the de facto leadership of an oligarch with deep economic ties to Russia and a changing dynamic of engagement with the West, the Georgian Dream party’s new direction sets Tbilisi down a dangerous trajectory. Recent developments have prompted calls for increased monitoring by human rights groups, civil society organizations and foreign policy experts in light of political patterns which spell trouble for the Georgian people and Western allies.

Georgia’s political evolution in the decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union sets the stage for understanding the motivations behind the Georgian Dream’s political persecutions, what this means for Georgia’s democratic future and what it means for the West. 

Background

Tucked away behind the vast Caucasus Mountains and the sprawling Black Sea lies Georgia, a small country with great political significance. Its recent political history is one riddled with a dichotomy of reforms and conflict, democratic progress and setbacks, mobilization and civil unrest. 

Beginning with the Rose Revolution of 2003, Georgia saw drastic changes as sweeping reforms completely transformed the political landscape of the country and ousted Soviet-era elites from the government. Under the leadership of Mikheil Saakashvili and his party, the United National Movement (UNM), corruption was largely rooted out, economic reforms were swiftly implemented and Georgia’s institutions were strengthened. 

Emerging at the center of international attention, Georgia’s democratic success became a symbol of hope for the West in a region otherwise so firmly under the Kremlin’s sphere of influence, placing pressure on Baku and Yerevan to follow suit with democratic progress of their own. 

In conjunction with Saakashvili’s ambitious reforms, his decline in popularity, largely attributed to the 2008 invasion of Georgian territory by Russian forces, thrust Georgia into a period of great uncertainty. The Five-Day War, catalyzed by rising tensions in Moscow surrounding Georgia’s aspirations to join NATO, left hundreds dead and hundreds of thousands of refugees displaced. In a 2019 report on human rights in Georgia, the U.S. State Department condemned “unlawful or arbitrary deprivation of life” and killings by Russian and de facto authorities in occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia, highlighting the continuous nature of Russia’s human rights abuses beyond its own borders. 

Four years later, with the backdrop of Russian forces on Georgian soil and Saakashvili’s popularity lingering at an all-time low, the UNM admitted defeat to Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream party in the 2012 parliamentary elections in a peaceful transition of power — perhaps Saakashvili’s parting gift to the country he left so deeply divided.

The deteriorating state of human rights in Georgia sets the stage for the Georgian Dream party’s recent abuses. Human Rights Watch reports that “political tensions and sustained protests over electoral reforms marked 2019 in Georgia,” citing excessive use of force by police among other human rights concerns including labor regulations, LGBTQ+ rights and harsh drug laws. During the summer 2019 protests, clashes between protesters and police officers ensued in the infamous Gavrilov’s night, led by European Georgia and UNM opposition leaders. In the following weeks, opposition forces launched a series of major protests in front of the Georgian parliament building, mobilizing thousands in their demand for electoral reform.

Though significantly less dire than neighboring countries in the region, Georgia’s human rights landscape facilitates the Georgian Dream party’s politically motivated arrests of UNM leaders in recent years—setting up the crucial question of political prisoners and whether or not Georgia is guilty of having them. 

United National Movement Cases

Since its rise to power in 2012, the Georgian Dream party has employed various tactics to maintain its position as the ruling party in Tbilisi, not least of which being abuse of power. The string of arrests and political persecutions of UNM opposition leaders in the years since 2012 reveals a concerning trend about the behavior of ruling regimes in Georgia’s recently democratic past, leading experts to speculate about the deteriorating state of the country’s political future. 

An examination of some of the individual cases among those detained by the current ruling party in recent years uncovers the pattern of suppressing political dissidents and opposition voices in Georgia.  

Gigi Ugulava   Giorgi “Gigi” Ugulava is a Georgian politician who rose to prominence in 2003 as one of the leaders of the Rose Revolution alongside Mikheil Saakashvili. A former journalist, Ugulava’s professional background includes experience working with international organizations like Transparency International, the World Bank and the Eurasia Foundation. During his time with the United National Movement, Ugulava was appointed, and later elected, mayor of Tbilisi, serving from 2005 until 2013 when the Georgian Dream party took power. 

Shortly thereafter, in 2013, several charges were brought against him by the Tbilisi City Court under the mandate of new ruling party officials, accusing Ugulava of abuse of power and embezzlement of state funds. In 2014, he was sentenced to several months of pretrial detention and in 2015, he was found guilty and sentenced to four and a half years in prison. Despite his release from prison in 2017 on account of a reduced sentence, Ugulava was once again charged in 2018 on similar allegations of embezzlement and convicted by the Supreme Court after an unsuccessful appeals process by his lawyers, this time accusing the ex-Mayor of embezzling 48 million lari in state funds in a closed hearing. 

The Supreme Court’s ruling on Ugulava’s case was met with backlash from dissidents both in Georgia and abroad. Within Georgia, several opposition parties responded to the Georgian Dream’s actions by halting negotiations with the ruling party over electoral reforms, which were a priority in parliament at the time. Opposition leaders like Tamar Kordzaia of the Republican Party and Shalva Natelashvili of the Labour Party spoke out against Ugulava’s detainment, labeling the court’s ruling ‘diktat’ and calling for demonstrations in support of his release. In a joint statement released in February 2020, several non-governmental organizations outlined the civil rights concerns in Ugulava’s case and accused the Georgian government of ignoring “the country’s interests and recommendations of its Western partners.” According to Ugulava himself, his conviction by the Georgian Supreme Court was “politically motivated” and a “personal decision” of Bidzina Ivanishvili. 

Meanwhile, Western politicians like chair of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Jim Risch and U.S. Congressman Adam Kinzinger turned to Twitter, expressing disappointment in Georgia’s “politically motivated abuse of opposition politicians” and “unacceptable behavior”, going as far as to assert that “using courts as a weapon is NOT democracy” with regards to Ugulava’s arrest. 

On May 15, 2020, faced with international and domestic pressures, Georgian President Zurabishvili pardoned Ugulava. Despite succumbing to pressures to release Ugulava, the president in her remarks reaffirmed the Georgian Dream party’s position that “there are no political prisoners in Georgia”, citing instead “national interests” as the reason for her pardon and placing blame on the opposition. After his release, Gigi Ugulava went on to found the European Georgia party with other former leaders of the UNM, and continues to be one of the most active opposition members in Georgian politics. 

Irakli Okruashvili   Another important UNM case in the Georgian Dream’s campaign against opposition forces in Georgia is that of Irakli Okruashvili, who joined the UNM in 2002 and served in a number of government positions under President Saakashvili, including as governor of Shida Kartli, Minister of Internal Affairs and Minister of Defense. 

Despite working alongside Saakashvili during the Rose Revolution, Okruashvili broke away from the UNM in 2007 to form his own opposition party. Okruashvili’s departure from the UNM was marked by personal allegations he made against Saakashvili, accusing him of corruption, human rights abuses, incompetency and the deaths of Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania and businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili. In response to his Defense Minister’s opposition, then-President Saakashvili had Okruashvili arrested on broad charges of corruption including extortion, abuse of power and money laundering, a suppression of political dissidence not unlike the Georgian Dream’s own persecutions of UNM leaders in recent years. 

After his release following a guilty plea and retraction of accusations against Saakashvili (which some speculate the Victorious Georgia party leader made under pressure by the prosecution), Okruashvili spent his expulsion from Georgia in France, where he remained politically active in his criticisms of Saakashvili and eventually returned to Tbilisi upon the UNM’s defeat in 2012 parliamentary elections. 

Fasting forward to present-day, Okruashvili again found himself detained, but this time under a new ruling party—one whose appetite for abuse of power seems to follow precedence set by Saakashvili in his second term. Following the 2019 protests, Okruashvili was arrested, charged and convicted of participating in group violence. In response to Okruashvili’s arrest and subsequent sentencing of five years in prison, “leader of [the]European Georgia opposition party Giga Bokeria said that Irakli Okruashvili was and remains a political prisoner.” The U.S. embassy in Georgia also expressed concern over Okruashvili’s arrest, declaring that the ruling party’s actions amounted to “political interference” and the “selective use of justice.” 

On May 15, 2021, President Zurabishvili pardoned Okruashvili along with Gigi Ugulava, caving into domestic and international pressures to release the opposition leaders. Since then, Okruashvili has been an active member of the opposition in Georgia, heading Victorious Georgia. 

Nika Melia   Since the self-imposed exile of former president and leader of the UNM Mikheil Saakashvili, Nikanor “Nika” Melia, a member of the Georgian Parliament, has come to replace Saakashvili as the main opposition leader against the current Georgian Dream ruling party. 

Earlier this year on Feb. 23, 2021, Georgian police stormed the UNM’s headquarters to arrest Melia. In the chaos that ensued, his supporters clashed with the police, who in exchange met them with use of excessive force, tear gas and pepper spray in attempts to detain the opposition leader. Melia was arrested on charges of inciting violence during the June 2019 anti-government protests and refusing to pay the increased bail set for his case; however, the UNM party chairman denies these charges, denouncing them as part of a series of “ongoing repressions against the opposition. Moreover, in the week before Melia’s detention, Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia had stepped down, seemingly disagreeing with his party on the grounds that Melia’s arrest would cause further “political escalation” and risk the health of Georgian citizens. 

The arrest of Nika Melia quickly came to attention on the international stage, as domestic and foreign demands for his release placed pressure on the Georgian government. Melia’s detainment drew swift condemnation from other opposition leaders and the U.K. and U.S. embassies in Georgia, the latter of which released a statement outlining concerns regarding “the arrest of opposition leader Nika Melia and other members of the opposition in Georgia” and emphasizing that “polarizing rhetoric, force and aggression are not the solution to Georgia’s political differences.” 

Furthermore, Amnesty International released a report on the arrest and clashes at UNM headquarters, including a statement by Deputy Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia Denis Krivosheev that “Georgian authorities’ flagrant disregard for the rule of law and authority and integrity of the judiciary… suggest the arrest is politically motivated.” Meanwhile, an international community of civil society organizations and human rights groups came together in support for the jailed opposition leader, advocating for the immediate release of Melia by Georgian authorities. 

Ultimately, in response to mounting international pressures and allegations of political motivation behind his detainment, a court ruling ordered Melia’s release on bail, which was posted by the EU on his behalf. 

Mikheil Saakashvili   The Georgian Dream party’s crackdown on political opposition in Georgia via detainment and prosecution of opposition leaders can be further examined by Georgia’s most prominent self-proclaimed political prisoner yet: former President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Upon his return to Tbilisi from a self-imposed exile ahead of Georgian municipal elections, Saakashvili was detained by authorities on Oct. 1, 2021. Having been convicted of abuse of power by a Georgian court back in 2018, Saakashvili had been warned that he would be imprisoned immediately if he “[set]foot on Georgian soil”. Despite the charges against him and a warrant for his arrest, Saakashvili went ahead with his decision to return to Georgia — and while all eyes were on Saakashvili, the Georgian Dream party’s victory in local elections was largely glossed over. 

In a letter penned from prison one week into his arrest, Saakashvili declared that he was on his seventh day of a hunger strike, one which ended up lasting fifty days before he was hospitalized with serious concerns about his health. His health quickly deteriorated, made worse by his initial refusal of treatment after being denied the right to confidential counsel with his lawyers. After visiting Saakashvili in prison on Oct. 27, Ukrainian human rights defender Ludmila Denisova reported that several articles of the European Convention of Human Rights were being violated in his case, and his doctors alleged torture and mistreatment by the authorities while Saakashvili was in custody. 

Though he remains one of the most controversial and polarizing figures in Georgia today, exemplified by widely-held sentiment that his status as a political prisoner is an attempt to re-enter Georgian politics, Saakashvili’s treatment and arrest raises serious concerns regarding suppression of opposition forces by the Georgian Dream ruling party. In conjunction with previous UNM cases, the developing situation around Saakashvili reveals a troubling trend for Georgia and its democratic trajectory. 

Addressing Political Motivations Behind UNM Cases

When looking at the string of arrests of opposition leaders by the ruling Georgian Dream party in recent years, the burning question remains: were the arrests politically motivated?

In the case of Gigi Ugulava, Irakli Okruashvili, Nika Melia, Mikheil Saakashvili and several others, the answer seems to be yes. Since their rise to power in 2012, the Georgian Dream party has continued the downward spiral towards authoritarianism and abuse of power which began under Saakashvili’s disastrous second term, utilizing politically motivated arrests and the judiciary to strengthen the ruling party’s hold on power. 

In an interview with Glimpse From the Globe, senior Atlantic Council fellow and Georgia expert Terrell Jermaine Starr confirms many of these concerns regarding Saakashvili’s imprisonment and former UNM cases. 

According to Starr, although the United National Movement did abuse power, “the problem [with Saakashvili’s arrest]is the process, not necessarily that he is guilty.” Even though many among other opposition parties would like to see Saakashvili jailed for the authoritarian tendencies he demonstrated in his second term, “the sentiment is that the process is not fair in persecuting him,” and his arrest was, indeed, politically motivated. 

Throughout much of Georgia, the UNM and its leaders, several of whom are profiled above, remain widely unpopular. Criticism surrounding Georgia’s loss in the armed conflict with Russia in 2008 and Saakashvili’s abuse of power in his second term were not easily forgiven by the Georgian public. The reputation of the UNM and the extremely polarizing nature of former president Saakashvili add another layer of complexity to this issue.

What seems to tie all the UNM cases together, however, is a clear and consistent political motivation for persecution by the ruling Georgian Dream party. In every case, a broad criminal charge such as abuse of power or corruption was exploited to imprison the opposition figures who were most vocal in their criticisms of the ruling party. 

The same pattern of suppression of political dissidents that began emerging under Saakashvili now seems to be unfolding under the Georgian Dream Party, becoming a concerning trend in a country that is often regarded as the bearer of democracy in the Caucasus. As Thomas de Waal highlights, for Georgia’s ruling party, “regime survival seems to trump all other considerations” — and this seems to hold true for both ruling parties which have been in power since the Rose Revolution. 

The suppression of political opposition in Georgia is especially concerning when evaluating the overall trends in the country. Ketevan Kukava, a representative from the Georgian Institute for Development of Freedom of Information (IDFI), outlines some of these concerns in an email exchange with Glimpse From the Globe. 

Kukava emphasizes that “the genuine independence of the Georgian judiciary has not been achieved,” arguing instead that “fundamental deficiencies remaining in the legal framework” pose a threat to Georgia’s political direction. According to the IDFI, freedom from improper government influence in the judiciary remains a primary concern for Georgia. 

Starr corroborates the view that the lack of a fully independent judiciary is fueling political suppression in Georgia, because accusations of abuse of power against the ruling party would not be waged as easily if the Georgian people had faith in the justice system. “When you have a judiciary that is essentially hand-picked by the party leader, the financier, Bidzina [Ivanishvili], of course people are going to wage those accusations against you.”

Emerging patterns of politically motivated arrests, therefore, are facilitated by the lack of an independent judiciary — one of the major shortcomings of the 2003 revolution. Instead, the judicial branch becomes a tool, a resource to be exploited in the Georgian Dream’s pursuit to solidify and maintain their power in Parliament. Using the courts to their advantage, the ruling party in Georgia is able to silence opposition leaders through political convictions and sentences doled out by a judiciary that is under their power and manipulated to serve party, not public, interests. 

“Relative to the Rose Revolution, they’re backsliding,” Starr said. “While the Georgian Dream is the opposite of what the Rose Revolution was, it’s not Belarus or Azerbaijan yet, and it’s a long time before it gets to that point.” 

Starr also points to another dangerous trend in the country. That is, the trifecta of far-right groups, the Church and the government. Far-right groups with direct links to Putin pumping a constant stream of Russian disinformation and the Georgian Orthodox Church have always been factors of Georgia’s political landscape. 

“What you have not had is a government that manipulated these two,” Starr said. “That didn’t happen with the United National Movement, and that didn’t happen with Shevardnadze.” 

Dangerously manipulating the dynamics of Russian influence, the omnipresent Church and far-right groups, the Georgian Dream party’s institutionalization of political suppression campaigns strengthen the ruling party’s regime at the cost of undermining Georgia’s democratic development.

Solutions: A More Proactive Role for the West

Georgia now finds itself at a crossroads. The suppression of political opposition by an increasingly bold ruling party threatens to undermine the democratic progress which pushed Georgia to international prominence nearly two decades ago. For the West, the loss of Georgia’s democracy would mean the loss of a success story and an ally in a crucial part of the world which, until now, seemed to have successfully broken free of Russia’s wide-reaching sphere of influence. Standing to lose Georgia, therefore, would have grave consequences for the West. 

As the Georgian Dream party solidifies its power in Georgian politics, it also solidifies the influence of Bidzina Ivanishvili, a Georgian oligarch with deep economic ties to Russia who is widely believed to be calling the shots for the ruling party behind the scenes. If the fate of Mikhail Khodorkovsky holds a lesson, it is that economic dependence on Russia — particularly for oligarchs with billions at stake​​ — guarantees Putin’s sphere of influence reaches well beyond its political pursuits. 

Despite attempts to appear otherwise, the Georgian Dream is significantly more tolerant of Russian influence than Georgia ever was under Saakashvili, even though deeply-rooted distrust and antagonistic sentiment towards Russia has not changed among its people. According to Starr, because it makes its money in Russia, the Georgian Dream Party is “not as pro-Russia as people think they are, they just don’t care about the impression they give off [to the West].” Recognizing that economic dependence on Russia is now a factor for the ruling party under Ivanishvili, the Georgian Dream instead attempts to manipulate this relationship with Russia for their gain, including being tolerant of association with far-right groups who have direct ties to Putin in some instances, Starr highlights. 

This strategic adoption of strategy towards Russia should cite a major concern for the West, whose main investment in Georgia is its formerly aggressive anti-Russia, pro-West approach under Saakashvili which serves Western security interests and allowed its allies to keep Putin’s power in check. Upholding democratic progress in Georgia, therefore, must remain a priority for Western players. A commitment to human rights in the region must be affirmed by the United States and European allies, while being careful not to alienate the Georgian public with political stances that do not reflect the will of the people. 

Through pro-democracy efforts, human rights-oriented foreign policy and the promotion of Western values abroad, the United States and Europe have the power to help preserve the democratic progress Georgia’s people paved the way towards. Because Georgia’s future hangs in the balance, and how we choose to act today will shape its prospects for decades to come.  

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Mane Berikyan

Mane Berikyan is a Deans Scholar freshman majoring in International Relations and minoring in Russian Area Studies on the pre-law track. On campus, Mane is a fellow at the Global Policy Institute, a student worker at the Institute of Armenian Studies, and is involved in the Society for Women in Law, Trojan Review, and Armenian Students Association. Outside of USC, she currently serves as the Membership Director for the non-profit organization Armenian Engineers & Scientists of America. Her areas of interest include international human rights law, foreign affairs and national security as it pertains to the post-Soviet states and the Middle East.

berikyan@usc.edu