Georgia: A Stubborn Protest Wave Shows Few Signs of Ebbing

4 MINS READJun 28, 2019 | 22:54 GMT
The Big Picture

Georgia is no stranger to unrest, but demonstrations that began over a controversial visit by a Russian lawmaker have evolved into a weeklong series of protests taking on a more anti-government tone. If the protests persist, they could eventually threaten the position of the ruling Georgian Dream party, which must walk a fine line between crackdown and concession to manage them. As the situation in Georgia unfolds, the other governments in the region grappling with their own bouts of domestic unrest, such as Russia and Kazakhstan, will keep a close eye on it.

What Happened

Demonstrations in Georgia stretched into their eighth straight day on June 28, with thousands of protesters massing in front of the parliament building in Tbilisi and another several hundred protesters marching from parliament to the home of the chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party, Bidzina Ivanishvili. The protest storm gripping Georgia's capital began with a June 20 demonstration that erupted after news emerged that Sergei Gavrilov, a Russian lawmaker, had addressed an assembly of Orthodox Christian legislators from the parliament speaker's seat. Gavrilov's address from that symbolic position was viewed as a significant breach of protocol, especially among Georgians whose mistrust of Russia over its 2008 invasion of their country remains strong. The June 20 protest ended in violence when police clashed with protesters trying to storm the parliamentary building. More than 200 injuries were reported.

After the clashes, additional protests, organized via social media, followed, taking on a broader anti-government stance and drawing support from opposition groups. In an attempt to prevent the protest movement from further expansion, the government has acceded to several of the demonstrators' demands, most significantly, promising to institute a reform under which 2020 parliamentary elections will be held under a proportional system. In addition, Parliamentary Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze has offered to resign. But Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia — who authorized the initial police response against protesters — has rebuffed demands that he step down.

Why It Matters

Georgia is no stranger to major protests. After all, the Rose Revolution in 2003 overthrew the government of Eduard Shevardnadze, ushering the pro-Western and anti-Russian government of Mikhail Saakashvili and his United National Movement into power. Despite efforts to assuage protesters' anger, the current round of demonstrations has persisted, presenting a risk to the Georgian Dream government as a whole.

The recent history of Eurasia includes a number of examples of protests sparked by a single issue growing quickly to engulf a sitting government. The 2014 Euromaidan uprising famously toppled the Russian-leaning leadership in Ukraine, and more recently, protests in Armenia led to the downfall of the government of Serzh Sargsyan. Other regional governments, well aware of those object lessons, are keeping a close eye on the unrest in Georgia. Countries contending with unhappy segments of their societies, such as Russia and Kazakhstan, are considering strategies, including a greater willingness to concede to certain aspects of protester demands, to deflate protest movements before they can gain enough momentum to pose a threat.

What to Watch for in Georgia

Protest Sustainability/Spread: Gakharia's refusal to resign coupled with the determination by organizers to continue the protests until all their demands are met raises the possibility that the demonstrations will continue. Whether the movement eventually threatens the government will depend on whether the unrest expands in size or scope and whether further clashes with police occur.

Government and Opposition Reactions: The Georgian Dream party has accused the United National Movement of taking advantage of the protests to "sow chaos and disorder" in society. It will be important to monitor any opposition efforts to pressure the sitting government as well as the leadership's willingness to further bend to protester demands.

Russia's Reaction: Russia, which is critical of the protests, has banned its citizens from taking direct flights into Georgia as of July 8. That measure is likely to damage Georgia's tourism industry (potentially costing the sector up to $150 million). Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the ban would be lifted only if Georgia "returns to a non-Russophobic state." Further Russian actions to pressure the Georgian government may follow.

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