On June 20, thousands took to the streets of Tbilisi to protest an address to the Georgian Parliament by Russian lawmaker Sergei Gavrilov, an open supporter of Moscow’s efforts to undermine Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Young people and civic activists waving European Union, NATO and American flags condemned Russia’s continuing occupation of parts of the country and its efforts to subvert our democracy. As I protested Gavrilov’s appearance along with several other opposition members of Parliament, I was stunned by what happened next.
In response, Georgian authorities took a page from the Kremlin’s playbook. Riot police dispersed the crowd with tear gas and rubber bullets. Officers were filmed aiming at protesters’ faces, shooting them at point-blank range. A teenage girl and a journalist lost eyes. More than 200 people were hospitalized and dozens more arrested.
This brutality triggered a backlash of its own. Protests have continued every day for the past three weeks, demanding the resignation of Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia, who ordered the violent crackdown. But the fundamental problem is larger than either Gavrilov or Gakharia. Though Putin has made no secret of his imperial ambitions, the greater threat to Georgia’s western future lies within: The government has been adapting the Kremlin’s tactics for domestic consumption. And Georgians have had enough.
Since 2012, the ruling Georgian Dream party has consolidated control over every state institution. Its shadowy financier — oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose fortune is equal to roughly a third of Georgia’s GDP — is replicating Putin’s system of rule. But in a country a hundred times smaller than Russia, the result looks more like state capture.
As the ruling party’s popularity declines, the authorities are leveraging their immense power to stifle dissent. Last year’s presidential election was a case study in democratic backsliding. Faced with a competitive runoff, the ruling party resorted to voter bribery, intimidation by police and criminal networks, and abuse of state resources. And just as in Putin’s Russia, the Georgian ruling party has escalated attacks on civil society, the political opposition and independent media. Instead of responding to constructive criticism, officials too often attack the messenger — deriding, for example, the anti-corruption organization Transparency International as “accomplices of fascism.”
Given ruling party officials’ background, such parallels are predictable. Ivanishvili made his billions in Russia; he was once the largest individual shareholder of Kremlin-linked energy firm Gazprom. His top enforcer, Gakharia, was a Moscow businessman before entering Georgian politics at Ivanishvili’s behest. In fact, he was granted Russian citizenship by Putin himself.
How have they managed to remain in power for seven years? Democratic deficits aside, Georgia’s slide back toward the Kremlin’s sphere of influence was gradual until June 20. But the sight of a Russian politician in the speaker of Parliament’s seat challenged an idea that Georgians hold sacred: the idea of independent Georgia, part of Europe, whole and free.
In other words, Gavrilov’s visit showed that Georgian Dream is trying to crush the actual dream of most Georgians: a democratic state, based on the rule of law, where European values prevail.
Now the temperature in the streets of Tbilisi is rising — and not thanks to summer. Radical pro-Russian religious groups, suspected to be backed by Ivanishvili, are threatening and attacking peaceful demonstrators. The government has all but abdicated its responsibility to ensure public safety: the Interior Ministry recently warned LGBTQ activists that police would not be able to defend a planned Pride parade from attacks by far-right paramilitaries. The use of violent proxies and controlled opposition movements to silence genuine pluralism is a hallmark of Putin’s “managed democracy,” and Ivanishvili is replicating it in Georgia.
There is no end in sight. Gakharia has refused to step down and has not been held accountable for the June 20 crackdown. Quite the opposite: In a style reminiscent of Soviet propaganda, the ruling party has blamed “radical elements in the opposition” for the violence and accused them of fomenting a coup. And now there are fresh signs that Ivanishvili is planning to target Rustavi 2, the most popular independent TV station in Georgia, for a hostile takeover.
If Ivanishvili succeeds in destroying democracy, it would be Putin’s victory and Georgia’s tragedy. Moreover, it would be a loss for American and European interests in the region. Time and again, the people of Georgia have chosen the West. Now the West must choose Georgia. It is time to remind Ivanishvili that the West stands with the Georgian people — and that this support will continue, with or without him.
Georgia’s international partners must send a clear message. Ivanishvili must deliver on his promise to implement a fully proportional electoral system by next year, stop harassing critics from media, civil society, and the opposition, and publicly acknowledge that he is ready to relinquish power through free and fair elections — as did former president Mikheil Saakashvili in 2013.
Georgia’s summer of discontent is an inflection point that should not be underestimated. There are two possible outcomes: another victory for Putin’s illiberalism, or a chance to prove him wrong.