Georgia Announces Electoral Reform Amid Protests

Georgia’s ruling party, Georgian Dream,  announced on 24 June changes to the electoral system, making parliamentary elections fully proportional.  Currently, only 77 of the Georgian parliament’s 150 seats are awarded proportionally and the rest by single-seat constituencies.  The changes were announced in order to appease protesters who started demonstrating outside parliament on 20 June when a Russian MP, Sergei Gavrilov, took the parliamentary chair, speaking in Russian at an Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy (IAO). Although the protests started as demonstrations against Gavrilov’s presence, they evolved into a wider manifestation of dissatisfaction with the government. 

Many have praised the electoral changes and their wider significance for Georgian politics.  Georgian Institute of Public Affairs professor Tornike Sharashenidze called the reform a ‘huge achievement for Georgian democracy’ which would result in a ‘much more pluralistic and fair’ electoral system.  Bidzina Ivanishvili, the leader of Georgian Dream and former Prime Minister, recognised that the current mixed system ‘can no longer meet the challenges facing the country’ even though it serves his party’s interests. 

The protests that led to the changes have not been as well received however.  Georgian Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze dismissed the demonstrations as unrest ‘provoked by opposition forces’.  Russia has reacted more strongly to what Putin described as ‘Russophobic hysteria’, introducing a ban on all flights to and from Georgia starting on 8th July.  More stringent checks on Georgian wine have also been announced. 

Georgia’s move to make its elections fully proportional is a major victory for the protesters and for Georgian democracy generally.  The new system challenges the power of Georgian Dream and strengthens the opposition, making the government more accountable to the electorate. 

Georgia’s prospects of becoming a member of NATO and/or the EU could also be improved by the reforms.  Russia’s reaction indicates that it does not welcome its neighbour’s increased alignment with the West.  It is not inconceivable that Russia might decide to retaliate by putting more pressure on Georgia or other former Soviet states, for example through further trade sanctions on top of the restrictions on wine.

Russia currently receives 70% of Georgia’s exports, so restrictions on Georgian wine, one of the country’s main exports, could seriously harm the former Soviet republic’s economy.  Similarly, Russia banned Georgian wine imports in 2006 as tensions over South Ossetia and Abkhazia were mounting between Georgia and Russia which turned to war in 2008. The war lasted five days, but Russia installed permanent military bases in the breakaway republics of South Ossetia, and Abkhazia, and many consider this to be a military occupation. 

One of the main criticisms of Georgian Dream is that it is too friendly towards Russia and that it fails to stand up to Russian interference.  Party leader Ivanishvili, the richest man in Georgia, made his billions in Russia and former president Mikheil Saakashvili went as far as to accuse Ivanishvili of being a Russian stooge. 

If Ivanishvili’s business ties to Russia influence party policy, Georgian Dream’s loss of dominance would also equate to a reduction in Moscow’s influence on Georgian politics.  This, coupled with Georgia’s interest in joining NATO and the EU, could play a role in aggravating tensions between Russia and the West. That said, Russia’s potential backlash does not negate the progress that this reform represents.  The reform is not a panacea for Georgian politics as the continuation of protests and the calls for ministerial elections attest to, but it is an important step forward.