Unhappy memories in Georgia

It’s a sobering anniversary in Georgia: one hundred years ago today, the Soviet army occupied Tbilisi and declared the establishment of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. The Georgian government retreated to the coast and then into exile, and Georgian statehood was extinguished for seventy years.

Georgia had only existed as a country for three years; it declared independence in 1918 after the collapse of the Russian empire. In 1920 the Bolshevik government in Russia recognised its independence in the Treaty of Moscow. But Lenin and his colleagues had no intention of permanently giving up territory, and they soon seized on a pretext to mount an invasion, as they had previously in Azerbaijan and Armenia.

The invasion of Georgia, like the suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion a few weeks later, was one of the things that discredited the Bolsheviks in the eyes of western liberal opinion. It was controversial within the Soviet government; Stalin (himself a Georgian) was a strong proponent, while Trotsky, his leading rival, was opposed – not through any particular love of self-determination, but because he felt the time was not yet ripe.

None of this, though, was any help to the Georgians, who regained their independence only in 1991 with the breakup of the Soviet Union. Since then they have gone through a regular cycle of authoritarianism and revolt, including a short war with Russia in 2008, before establishing a somewhat precarious democracy. This week, its survival again hangs in the balance.

Parliamentary elections last year saw the Georgian Dream government, under then prime minister Giorgi Gakharia, win a third term in office. (See my preview here and report on the results here.) The opposition, led by the United National Movement, claimed fraud and boycotted the second round of constituency voting. While it certainly appears that the election fell short of democratic best practice, the allegations of sufficient malfeasance to change the result have not been substantiated.

Since then, however, things have deteriorated badly. The opposition continued to boycott parliament and stage protests against the government, and last week the interior ministry obtained an arrest warrant for opposition leader Nika Melia. Gakharia, however, feeling that things were getting out of hand, resigned rather than allow his own government to implement it.

In his place, the ruling party (generally believed to be under the control of oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili) turned to former prime minister Irakli Garibashvili, who had no such scruples. He was sworn in on Monday, and on Tuesday police stormed the UNM’s offices and took Melia into custody, to the accompaniment of domestic and international outcry.

The opposition sees the hand of Russia’s Vladimir Putin behind this – as it tends to with everything it opposes. Having provoked Russia into war when it was in government, and losing the subsequent election as a result, it’s natural for it to accuse its opponents of being Russian stooges. This week’s centenary gives the accusation just that much more emotional force.

Georgian Dream, however, while it has been more conciliatory towards the Kremlin, is not “pro-Russian” in the sense of some parties in former Soviet states. There is no constituency in Georgia for becoming part of the Russian orbit; the political question is whether independence is best safeguarded by confrontation or by détente. Many countries – Taiwan is an obvious example – have to deal with the same sort of issue.

And the sad truth is that, like previous Georgian governments, Georgian Dream is quite capable of being authoritarian of its own motion and in its own interests, without needing Putin’s encouragement. Melia had clearly exhausted its patience, and it reacted in the way governments usually do when democratic norms are not strong enough to restrain them.

Gakharia’s resignation, on the other hand, was a sign that some within the ruling party recognise the danger of an authoritarian course. The west should try to give them every encouragement to resist democratic backsliding. But painting the crisis in broad geopolitical terms is probably not the best way to do that: this is not 1921, and Russia this time has its hands full elsewhere.

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