Preview of 2022

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13 January, 2022

Georgian politics will continue to be turbulent in 2022. Here are the main issues, that we at GRASS believe, will be most important and worth following.

Fully aware that political prognosis is an ungrateful endeavor, in this Briefing, we still attempt to deliberate what's hot on Georgia's agenda in 2022 and what predictions we can make regarding the 10 most important topics.

1. Whether arrests and prosecution of Georgian Dream's political opponents will continue

Since 2012 Georgian Dream (GD) arrested a number of political opponents, including former President, Prime Minister, Minister of Defense, Minister of Interior, Mayor of Tbilisi, and a number of others mainly from the opposition United National Movement (UNM) party. Leaders of the opposition party Lelo, Mamuka Khazaradze, and Badri Japaridze were sentenced today, on January 12, with seven years in prison, however, the judge requalified Prosecution’s case and used the article in the Criminal Code, which fell under the statute of limitations, therefore Lelo leaders won’t have to serve time. Trials of former mayor Gigi Ugulava and chair of the UNM Nika Melia are ongoing and could accelerate in 2022. Several other political leaders are also awaiting court hearings, which have been artificially stalled but are expected to be fast-tracked if it so suits the GD (Khazaradze-Japaridze’s case is a good example of fast-tracking after months of slow-rolling). Our prediction is that some of the high-profile cases against the political opponents, particularly Nika Melia, might be fast-forwarded in 2022 and could lead to another political crisis.

2. Whether Saakashvili will be kept behind the bars, released, or transferred to Ukraine

Third President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili is now jailed in Rustavi, serving a 6-year sentence. Other cases against him are ongoing and a few more years could be added, as the PM Irakli Gharibashvili threatened. Saakashvili's political party - UNM is demanding his release through protest rallies, hunger strikes, and threats of disobedience campaign, however, none of these have so far been successful, save a brief episode, when Saakashvili was moved to Gori military hospital after his hunger strike. Our prediction is that Saakashvili will be kept in jail unless internal and outside pressure increases dramatically on Bidzina Ivanishvili and he is forced to get rid of his main political opponent either by transferring him to Ukraine, or Presidential pardon.

3. Whether the process of de-escalation and reconciliation launched by the President of Georgia will yield results

President Salome Zurabishvili initiated a process of national reconciliation at the end of 2021, meeting with various opposition parties and civil society representatives and embracing soothing rhetoric towards political opponents. While it is unclear what exactly this process can achieve and how long it will last, it is certainly something to watch in early 2022. Our prediction is that the process of reconciliation will soon fade out, as the interests of the political parties are too polarized and uncompromising and without pardoning President Saakashvili, Zurabishvili is running out of instruments and sympathy from the main opposition parties.

4. Whether new elections will be called in 2022

After almost 7 consecutive years of elections (2016 Parliamentary, 2017 Local, 2018 Presidential, 2019 - several mid-term, 2020 Parliamentary, 2021 Local) there are no more elections planned until 2024. However, questions about the validity of the elections in 2020 and 2021, widespread allegations of vote-buying, intimidation, carousels, and ballot-stuffing, cast doubts on the legitimacy of the GDs power. Almost all opposition parties are currently calling for repeat elections, even though some of them might not have enough resources to compete. In any case, if the political crisis deepens, snap elections could be a way out, especially because any election before 2024 needs to be conducted with a 120/30 (120 proportional and 30 majoritarian MPs) electoral system, which still suits the GD more than fully proportional elections. Our prediction is that, unless the political crisis deepens, 2022 will be the first year without elections since 2016. Opposition parties, however, will likely continue linking major political demands to the snap elections.

5. Whether the Government will continue to crack down on critical media

In 2020-2021 prosecution initiated a number of court cases and legislative changes, which severely undermined free media. Founder of TV Formula, director of Mtavari TV, founder of TV Pirveli - all have ongoing court cases, which could severely undermine the financial stability and independence of free media. Georgia's National Communication Commission (GNCC) has made controversial decisions, imposing heavy fines on critical media outlets. GNCC and several senior GD MPs are now entertaining an idea of limiting "fake news" through the law, which, if adopted by the Parliament, could turn into a punitive instrument in the hands of politicized GNCC. Moreover, pogroms of journalists on July 5, continued demonization of free media by the Government, and refusal to go to political debates organized by the critical media, have contributed to further polarization of Georgian society. The new law on gambling adopted at the end of 2021 severely limits financial flows through ads to the free media already leading to massive lay-offs. Our prediction is that the attacks on free media will continue and some of the critical independent TV outlets will either be shut down or will have significantly downsizing.

6. Whether smaller opposition parties will manage to grow public support and coalesce

Smaller pro-Western opposition parties (European Georgia, Lelo, Strategy the Builder, Girchi More Freedom, Girchi, Citizens Alliance, Droa) received low double-digit electoral support in 2020 and 2021. The big question remains, however, whether they will manage to coalesce and create an alternative centre of gravity, or whether they will continue to go at it alone. Personal discrepancies, ideological differences, and mutual jealousy have prevented them from joining forces, however, the experience of previous elections and the 2024 horizon could drive them to try finding common ground. The constitutional clause that prohibits electoral blocs from 2024 in fully proportional elections is, however, not conducive to further coalitions. Our prediction is that in 2022 contours of pre-election coalitions might emerge, though no final decisions will be made until the election date is clearly set.

7. Whether GD's anti-Western rhetoric and actions undermining independent institutions will continue

In 2021 GD leaders have repeatedly snapped back, attacked, challenged, and ignored the advice of Georgia's Western partners. Withdrawal from the Charles Michel mediated agreement, refusal of EU loan (ridden with the conditionality of judiciary reform), and challenging US Ambassador's credentials on constitutional and judicial issues, are some of the few examples of anti-Western rhetoric, which was abundant in 2021. In 2022 the term of the Public Defender expires and one can expect the GD to appoint the party loyalist, instead of an independent-minded Ombudsman. At the end of 2021 GD all but abolished the institution of the State Inspector, whose decisions and statements often went contrary to the GD party line. Our prediction is that, as Ivanishvili tries to accumulate more informal power at the expense of state institutions, Western pressure and critical assessments will continue and will be met with increasing anti-Western statements and attacks from the GD leaders.

8. Whether the opposition parties will boycott the Parliament, or continue working within it

Present Parliament, elected in 2020, is half-baked. Initially, all opposition parties boycotted it, however after the political agreement of April 19, mediated by Charles Michel most of the opposition entered the Parliament, except for the European Georgia and Labor party. Currently, almost all seats are taken up, save one seat, however, the main opposition party - UNM has not yet fully engaged in Parliamentary work. The party is split, some leaders are in favor of walkout and boycott, expecting such drastic measures to lead to political crisis and subsequent early elections. Others are willing to take the political fight from the streets to Parliamentary sessions and committees. The idea of setting up parliamentary investigative committees is already floating (it requires only 50 votes to create such a commission, and the opposition has the votes). Our prediction is that the political process in the Parliament is likely to resume, however, one should not expect power-sharing and consensus-based decisions. The role of the opposition in the legislative process will remain either extremely limited, or non-existent.

9. Whether the influence of Russia will continue to increase

Russia's influence on political life in Georgia has increased in recent years. Pro-Russian ultra-right political parties have proliferated, the final addition coming in fall 2021 when far-right ultra-conservative and on the record pro-Kremlin Alt-Info, responsible for the July 5 pogrom of the journalists and NGOs turned into the political party. Patriots' Alliance, which as leaked materials showed was funded from Moscow is also around, albeit taking a more passive stance. So are the Georgian Marche and Eri - both anti-LGBTQ and pro-Russian. It is likely that minority-related topics will flare up once again either around May 17 IDAHO day or if LGBTQ organizations decide to hold pride. Georgia will likely be pressed to join the 3+3 format, created by Russia and Turkey with the purpose of settling regional issues without EU and US involvement. Growing economic dependence on Russia, including on energy import, is likely to continue. In March, the occupied Abkhazia region will have de facto parliamentary elections, which will determine whether the current pro-Russian swing of the de facto president Aslan Bzhania will be rewarded with more pro-Russian (and anti-Georgian) legislators. Our prediction is that Russia will continue increasing its malign influence in Georgia through various means, leading to more economic, political, and security dependence on Moscow.

10. Whether the COVID-19 crisis will be better managed

Georgian response to the Covid-19 crisis is far from effective. Almost 970 thousand people (from the population of 3.6 million) have been diagnosed with Covid-19 and daily numbers have skyrocketed to 5 thousand. As new variants emerge and flood the world, Georgia has one of the lowest vaccination rates (fully vaccinated - 1.174 mln persons, one vaccine - 2.565 mln persons). This effectively leaves almost 2/3 of the population without full immunity and almost 1 million without any vaccine. Georgia's economy has suffered tremendously because of lockdowns and politically motivated, but economically nonsensical social support programs. If the number of infected and diseased rises, new lockdowns and restrictions are to be expected. Our prediction is that the new waves of Corona, including Omicron, will hit Georgia hard in 2022 and a low number of vaccinations will not increase dramatically unless the Government conducts a strong pro-vaccination PR campaign - something that it has so far failed to do.