New Prime Minister sworn in and a month of commemorations6 min read

Autumn in Georgia has kicked off with a good deal of political turmoil, reaching a brief peak of civic response on September 20th, just three months after the summer protests. Dissatisfaction with the political and socio-economic situation has reached a new high. Additionally, Georgians recalled the 26th anniversary of the 1993 massacre and downfall of Sukhumi. 

Chairman of Georgian Dream Bidzina Ivanishvili (left) and former Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia (right) during his nomination as new PM. Source: OC Media

– On September 2nd, now former Georgian Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze, of the governing party Georgian Dream (GD), resigned after less than two years in office, saying he had fulfilled his mission as PM. The next day, Bidzina Ivanishvili, Chairman of GD and Georgia’s richest man, announced Giorgi Gakharia’s nomination (also GD) as new PM. Gakharia and his cabinet were sworn into office in parliament on September 8th as both main opposition parties and a few hundred citizens protested outside.

Gakhari’s appointment is a slap in the faces of thousands of Georgians who protested this summer in front of the Georgian Parliament after the Night of Gavrilov, where they had demanded Gakharia’s resignation from his position as Interior Minister (Lossi 36 reported). Although Gakharia has taken responsibility for the police force that injured at least 240 people during the protests, he has refused to resign unless a commission could prove the police reaction unjustified. Gakharia’s appointment as Prime Minister and the introduction of a new cabinet might best be regarded in the context of upcoming elections in fall 2020 and interpreted as Ivanishvili’s attempt to train  suitable candidates. GD is currently going through a major crisis, with polls indicating support at just 19%.  

Partly in response to Gakharia’s appointment, thousands of people gathered in front of the Georgian Parliament on September 20th under the mottos “Together against One” and “Shame”. Three months after the events of June 20th, they protested the government’s “indifferent attitude towards public opinion [and] Gakharia’s becoming […] Prime Minister”. Protestors especially demonstrated against Ivanishvili’s concentration of power and the country’s decreasing socio-economic conditions. They also accused the government of collaborating with Russia due to GD’s self-proclaimed normalization policy with their northern neighbour, and the fact that many among the GD leadership have close academic and professional ties to Russia. 

– Since September 9th, two crossing points between South Ossetia and the Tbilisi administered territory (TAT) – Mosabruni and Sinaguri – remain temporarily closed. This decision of the South Ossetian de-facto authorities came after Georgian officials set up police check-points in nearby Perevi, which is located in the TAT, within the undisputed boundaries of Georgia. Afterwards, the Russian-backed authorities in South Ossetia installed ‘border’ signs and flags inside TAT. The closure of this route has led to additional hardship for the local population. On September 12th, the European Union Monitoring Mission (EUMM) released a statement calling on all sides to use existing political mechanisms in order to decrease tensions. Between the 20th and 22nd of September, more crossing points around Perevi were temporarily closed because of the so-called ‘Independence Day’ of the Republic of South Ossetia, which is internationally recognised only by a handful of states.

Answers to the question: In which direction is Georgia going? Source: NDI

– A new survey released by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and Caucasus Resource Research Centers (CRRC) on the 18th of September documents that Georgians don’t agree with the political course the current government is following and are dissatisfied with the country’s economy. 49% of the participants (2,131 respondents in Georgia, excluding Abkhazia and South Ossetia) stated that Georgia is going in the wrong direction. In December 2018, this figure was only 38%. The top-five most pressing issues are jobs (48%), rising prices/inflation (34%), poverty (33%), territorial integrity (29%) and pensions (22%). According to the National Statistics Office of Georgia, the current average monthly salary is 1179 GEL (393 EUR). 63% of respondents also indicated that they feel negative about Georgia’s economy, whereas 21% mentioned that they are out of work and actively looking for a job. 84% hold the government responsible for Georgia’s economic problems.

– For the first time since the 2008 war, the Russian and Georgian foreign ministers met. During the talk, which took place on September 26th on the side of this year’s United Nations General Assembly opening, Sergei Lavrov (Russia) and Davit Zalkaliani (Georgia) exchanged views on the situations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Whereas Lavrov stated the two ministers were discussing “current issues on the bilateral agenda”, Zalkaliani mentioned the issue of de-occupation. In light of Putin’s recent announcement to actively contribute to re-equipping the Abkhazian army, there is no real cause for optimism. While the meeting was praised by international institutions such as the EU, the OECD, and the UN, Lavrov underlined that Russia does not want to see Georgia as a NATO member. It can be expected that the most significant outcome of the meeting will be the re-establishment of Russian flights to Georgia, which the Russian government has blocked since the June protests. 

 – It has been 26 years since the September 27th massacre of Sukhumi, and the downfall of the city. A conflict between Georgian and Abkhaz forces lasting 13 months and 13 days had escalated in violation of an Abkhaz-Georgian ceasefire, wherein Abkhaz separatist forces, together with Russian, North-Caucasian and Cossack militants, attacked Sukhumi. They killed dozens of (mostly ethnic Georgian) members of the Abkhaz government. Hundreds of women and men were raped, tortured and murdered; between 13000 and 20000 ethnic Georgians fled, and 250000 Georgians became internally displaced. Approximately 3000 Abkhazh people were killed. To this day, 2000 people remain missing. On September 30th, 1993, Georgian forces lost the conflict, and consequently full control over Abkhazia. While the day is commemorated as a national wound in the Georgian collective psyche, in Abkhazia, it is officially remembered as the Day of Liberation. 

Commemoration and advocacy banner portraying Vitali Safarov. Source: Civic Solidarity

September 30th marks the first anniversary of the murder of Jewish-Georgian human rights defender Vitali Safarov. A commemoration event took place on Duma Street in Tbilisi, where Safarov had last been seen alive. Safarov, who was born in Georgia and had Jewish and Yazidi roots, was a well-known and appreciated human rights defender working for the Center for Participation and Development; he gave trainings and youth camps on tolerance, anti-racism and anti-xenophobia. During a night out from the 29th to the 30th of September 2018, he was first beaten and then stabbed by two Neo-Nazis named Giorgi Sokhadze and Avtandil Kandelakishvili in a bar in Tbilisi. Despite the belief of many that the deed clearly qualifies as a hate crime, the two defendants were found guilty only of ‘group murder’. The ethnic dimension, and consequently, the specific circumstances of hate-motivated crime, were not investigated. In a climate of rising right-wing extremism in Georgia, Safarov’s friends and relatives fight for an appeal, as they want his murderers found guilty of a hate crime.

Main sources: Agenda.ge (EN), Carnegie Endowment (EN), Civil.ge (EN), Friedrich-Ebert Foundation in the South Caucasus (EN/GER), Georgian Journal (EN), Georgia Today (EN), Human Rights House Tbilisi (EN), Interpressnews (EN), OC Media (EN), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (EN)

Veronika Pfeilschifter is a CEERES Master student and just started her third semester at Ilia State University, Georgia. She is mainly interested in human rights violations, especially in Eurasia, Civic Studies and Russian foreign policy. Currently, she is conducting a research project on transitional justice for her thesis.