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Georgian opposition must form a viable alternative to the ruling party

A little over 20 years ago, a political earthquake shook Georgia which sent shockwaves around the world.

Armed only with a single red rose, a group of peaceful protestors led by a charismatic young politician named Mikheil Saakashvili stormed the Georgian parliament, bringing about a nonviolent transfer of power that ousted Moscow’s cronies from office.

Free and fair elections followed. Saakashvili was elected president and went on to lead Georgia during a period of swift and uncompromising modernisation. He had a dream that one day Georgia would takes its place alongside nations like Germany and France in the European Union.

Those tumultuous events in Georgia triggered a domino effect of ‘colour revolutions’ across the Caucasus. From the Orange Revolution in Ukraine to the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan, the breakdown of post-Soviet rule in the region was as swift as it was awesome. But just five years after the Rose Revolution, the pendulum would swing back in Moscow’s favour.

I was Minister of Defence in the summer of 2008, when the Kremlin’s tanks roared across the border, seizing a fifth of Georgian territory in just a matter of days, and taking Washington by surprise.

Rather than risk direct conflict with the Russians, President George Bush picked the softer option of using US military planes (rather than civilian ones) to transport humanitarian aid, thereby putting the Kremlin on notice that all options remained open.

In certain respects, the US strategy was effective. The Saakashvili government in Tbilisi survived the Russian invasion - but only just. And in the years that followed, the Kremlin’s influence only became more pronounced.

In the aftermath of the war, a mysterious Georgian-born billionaire named Bidzina Ivanishvili surfaced in Tbilisi.

Ivanishvili had spent much of his life building his fortune in Moscow, and he would become a vocal critic of the Saakashvili government.

In 2012, Ivanishvili’s newly formed Georgian Dream party swept to power, despite nagging suspicions that he was a Moscow plant.

The following year, Ivanishvili stepped down as Prime Minister, but continued to pull the strings from a futuristic castle perched on a hill above Tbilisi. He was rarely seen in public, but his influence was everywhere.

Fast forward to today and nobody is under any illusions as to his intentions. After more than a decade of Georgian Dream rule, The Ivanishvili mask has finally slipped, and the world can finally see him for the Kremlin stooge he really is.

In April, Georgian Dream announced they were re-introducing a Russian-inspired ‘foreign agents bill’ before parliament. Ostensibly intended to clamp down on “foreign influence” in the country, it would require organisations receiving more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as ‘foreign agents’. The bill was first introduced by the party last year but was soon revoked following widespread protests opposing it. The decision to resuscitate it took many by surprise.

The United States has made no bones about saying the legislation is a “Kremlin-inspired” crackdown on free speech, and in that regard, they are unquestionably right. Vladmir Putin has used identical legislation to silence his critics in Russia, which is why the Georgia bill has proved so incendiary. Beginning in April, it sparked protests which ballooned in size to more than 200,000, making headlines around the world.

The authorities’ response was typically robust. Politicians who joined the marches were either attacked on the streets, or in some cases ambushed at their homes. As the crisis mounted, Ivanishvili himself made a rare public appearance in which he claimed a mysterious Global War Party was trying to provoke revolution in Georgia.

His rambling speech seemed to echo previous statements made by Vladimir Putin and Sergey Lavrov, and only succeeded in galvanising greater opposition to the bill. But if the protesters thought they could force another government U-turn, they were surely mistaken. This time not even a presidential veto could stop the bill which was finally passed on May 28th.

But if the protesters thought they could force another government U-turn, they were surely mistaken. Quote

The international community has been justifiably appalled. The European Union – which granted Georgia candidacy status last year despite serious misgivings - strongly condemned the measures, calling for sanctions to be imposed on those behind it including Bidzina Ivanishvili.

The EU parliament resolution stressed that the bill would “impose debilitating restrictions on civil society and independent media and thereby undermine the possibility of their operating freely”.

More worrying still, Brussels warned the law was “incompatible with EU values and democratic principles and runs against Georgia’s ambitions for EU membership”. In other words, Georgia’s EU dream is fast crumbling.

Poll after poll has shown that an overwhelming majority of Georgians are desperate to be welcomed into the EU fold. And yet their government has deployed every tool in their arsenal to sabotage these ambitions and move the country closer to Russia.

With Georgia’s EU dream now looking doomed, momentum is now building to oust the ruling government and rescind its Russian-inspired laws.

Elections are due in October, but regime change will require that opposition leaders put old differences aside and coalesce to form a viable alternative to the ruling party.

Moreover, they must recognise that meaningful change is impossible unless fresh faces are included on the ticket. The events of recent weeks have stirred a political awakening among Georgia’s young who understand the significance the urgency of the situation. They must be central to the formation of any new government.

Time is running out to salvage something from the crisis of recent months. Georgia has a choice to make. On the one hand there is a future in Europe with all the opportunity and economic benefits that brings. On the other, there is isolation and autocracy, and an ever-growing exodus of disillusioned young Georgians from their homeland.

I know which future I’d rather have.

David Kezerashvili Georgia

David Kezerashvili is Georgia’s former Minister of Defence. 

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