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Georgia at crossroads: influence of constructive parties is growing

The Saturday parliamentary elections in Georgia have revealed an aggravating antagonism inside the country. Even though Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) Party received 27.12% of votes, yielding only to the ruling Georgian Dream Party, the increase in activity of the conditional political forces advocating reconciliation with Russia should not go unnoticed. The anti-Western Alliance of Patriots of Georgia has overcome the 5% threshold to the parliament becoming the third parliamentary party.

Yet, the Alliance of Patriots is not the only political force in present-day Georgia to dispute the value of European integration. Nino Burjanadze’s Democratic Movement – United Georgia election bloc did not clear the threshold. Earlier, the Centrist Party was stripped of its registration for lack of officially registered representatives.

That decision of the Central Election Commission followed a scandalous story. In particular, the party’s campaign ads on the local television promising to return the Russian military bases to Georgia, integrate into the Eurasian Union and start paying “Russian” pensions in the amount of 400 lari angered the pro-Western society.

Along with the parliamentary elections in Georgia, elections to the Supreme Council of the Autonomous Republic of Adjara were held. Nino Burjanadze’s bloc received 6.8% of votes, the Alliance of Patriots of Georgia received 5.78% of votes, the Georgian Dream received 44.9% and UNM – 29.63%.

Nevertheless, both the conditionally pro-Russian and the pro-Western parties were not happy with the election results. Nino Burjanadze said she would dispute the result announced by CEC, according to which her party received 3.53% of votes at the parliamentary elections. Saakashvili’s UNM Party said they would participate in the second round of elections in the single-mandate constituencies despite “election rigging and pressure.” David Bakradze, UNM Secretary General told media “UNM is practically the only pro-Western force in the country.”

The politician exaggerates, of course. Although the incumbent authorities in Georgia have reduced the degree of aggressiveness towards Russia taking certain steps to normalize the relations between the countries, they cannot be blamed for “pro-Russian” policy, as they do focus on European integration and joining NATO.

It is hard to say precisely how many percent of Georgians are pro-Russian at present, since there are different data. For instance, last year, ex-prime minister Sergi Kapandze said in an interview to Ukrainian media that “half of the Georgian population does not consider Russia as aggressor” and one-third of the population would like to see Georgia in the Eurasian Economic Union rather than European Union.

According to the public opinion surveys conducted by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers (CRRC) at the request of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), more and more citizens of Georgia lean to Russia with every year. For instance, in 2013, 11% of the responded came out for joining the Eurasian Union, in 2014 - 20%, and in 2015 – more than 30%.

At the municipal elections in Georgia in 2014, “anti-western” parties received about 20% of votes versus 13% at the previous elections.

In the given case, along with the growing anti-western sentiments, the political freedom has increased in the country too. People are no longer afraid of expressing their views. It is no secret that under Saakashvili, people were often persecuted over espionage allegations in favor of Russia.

After Saakashvili left the post of the president, democratic institutions have been gradually restored. For instance, despite the demands of the radical pro-western forces to ban Russian language broadcasting on television, the authorities refused to do it saying it would infringe the freedom of speech in the country.

Besides, many are disappointed at EU’s policy towards Georgia: after so many years of Tbilisi’s policy towards European integration, the country is not an EU member. The visa requirements of European countries for the Georgian citizens have been partially lifted quite recently: prior to the parliamentary elections in Georgia, the EU Council approved the visa free travel to EU for 90 days in any 180-day period. This provision is yet to be considered by the European Parliament. They promise to do it by December. Will they approve it eventually?

It is quite probable that the strengthened positions of Eurosсeptics made Brussels step up efforts to lift visa requirements for the citizens of Georgia and do it in early October to improve the positions of pro-Western forces in Georgia. Yet, the visa free travel to Europe may be temporary, since EU is drafting a document to freeze visa free regime with the country “misusing” the easing of the visa requirements.

The population of Georgia is not optimistic about European integration, as they see the example of Ukraine that plunged into chaos on the wave of pro-American coup, Greece that hardly managed to avoid default, and the Baltic States where population flee from poverty to Western Europe.

Besides, there are some cultural and historical factors influencing the Georgian-Russian relations. The influence of the Georgian Orthodox Church on the Georgian people and the political life is high too. The Church has strengthened its positions even more after a Concordat (agreement) was signed between the Georgian State and the Georgian Orthodox Church in 2002.

The Church actively opposes European values in the country and supports good-neighbored relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, which, in turn, exerts efforts to preserve and develop these relations. For instance, the Russian Church has recognized the Georgian Church’s canonical jurisdiction over the territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

In addition, the history of the Georgian-Russian nations has no such black pages as the history of nationalist units operating in Ukraine during the World War II. The ethnic Georgians did not persecute the local Russian population as it happened in Central Asia in 90s. Even the five-day war unleashed by the Saakashvili’s government in 2008 did not affect seriously the attitude of Georgians towards Russians. Many Russians now visit Georgian resorts with pleasure as they feel no aggressive attitude by the local population. There are all preconditions for full normalization of the Russian-Georgian relations. The Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia ruling party seeks to develop a balanced policy taking very careful steps towards reconciliation with Moscow, amid its pro-Western policy. Only for these efforts, the opposition representing UNM claims the president “sold out to Russia” and plays on Moscow’s rules.

What angered Saakashvili’s supporters most is Tbilisi’s stance on Ukraine. Earlier Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said Georgia would not support Kiev in the conflict with Russia and called the persons who try to interfere into the Georgian-Russian relations as “enemies of the country.”

Another matter that the incumbent authorities in Georgia may fail to balance between the West and East, especially now when the appetites of neighbor Turkey for Georgia are growing. Ankara is keen to take Georgia under its influence.

If Tbilisi continues its policy of the Georgian-Russian normalization, though conditional, this tendency coupled with the intensified anti-Western forces cannot but trouble U.S. and EU amid the increased confrontation between Moscow and Washington. Consequently, the West may resort to more radical steps to influence the domestic political situation in Georgia and “correct” the country’s foreign policy.

Nadezhda Alekseyeva for EADaily

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