A tough test for Georgian democracy

Voters in Georgia will cast votes this October with outsized geopolitical implications and the resilience of regional democracy at stake.

Presidents Zourabichvili and von der Leyen shaking hands
President of Georgia Salome Zourabichvili (left) meets European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at the European Union Council headquarters on May 30, 2023, in Brussels, Belgium. © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • Georgian election to decide parliament, presidency, geopolitical orientation
  • Electorate widely favors EU accession, but Moscow taking notice
  • Results will determine spheres of influence reverberating East to West

In October this year, the South Caucasus country of Georgia, with a population of only 3.7 million, is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections that will also determine the presidency and the geostrategic orientation of the former Soviet republic. The outcomes are currently too close to call, yet have implications far beyond the country itself. Despite its modest size geographically, Georgia is very important geopolitically.

When voters go to the polls this fall, they will elect a government with three key geostrategic choices to make.

Key issues in Georgia’s election

The first big question concerns whether Georgia will remain on the fence in refusing to condemn the Russian aggression against Ukraine, or if it will come down solidly among those who support the Ukrainian defenders. Another concerns whether Tbilisi will move closer toward joining the European Union by acting on EU calls to fight corruption by “de-oligarchizing,” or reining in the scope for power brokers to discretely control the country. The third concerns the role of Georgia in the changing geopolitical landscape that is emerging in the South Caucasus.

Having long sought to mediate between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh, the decisive Azeri victory in the recent war there places Georgia at a crossroads: Will it team up with defeated Armenia and present a common bid for EU membership, or reconsider cooperation with Russia?

The geopolitical implications of that question are laid bare by a fourth strategic choice facing Georgians: whether the country will take issue with the current Russian ambition to construct a naval base in occupied Abkhazia. Given the crucial importance to the Kremlin of finding a new home for its Black Sea Fleet – after Ukraine has made Crimea untenable – this will be a tough challenge indeed.

Read more on the Black Sea and Georgia

What makes the outcomes of these strategic choices hard to foresee is that Georgia is a deeply divided country. While the population is overwhelmingly pro-Western and harbors strong sympathies for Ukraine and its fight for self-determination, the current government is playing it both ways, being outwardly in favor of both the EU and NATO while discreetly remaining on good terms with Russia.

The two leading figures to watch in the run-up to the October elections are the incumbent President Salome Zourabichvili, who was born in France to a family of Georgian political refugees and retains excellent connections in Europe, and the former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire businessman who made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s and has been out of the limelight for the last decade. The two were drifting apart even before the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine and have since become antagonistic figureheads for the two sides in Georgian politics.

Georgia’s recent history

The current divisions stand in stark contrast to the early 2000s when pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili enjoyed strong popular support for his ambition to bring Georgia into both the EU and NATO. To Russian President Vladimir Putin, these were unacceptable developments. Russia’s August 2008 invasion of Georgia was the Kremlin’s way of telling NATO and Europe to back off. Although outside mediation prevented full occupation, the country was dismembered and Russia extended diplomatic recognition to Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.


Facts & figures

Contested environs

By the time of the parliamentary elections in 2012, Mr. Saakashvili and his party had become deeply mired in corruption scandals that alienated voters. The winner instead was Georgian Dream, a party founded by Mr. Ivanishvili who went on to become prime minister.

When Mr. Saakashvili was forced to leave the presidency in 2013, having served his maximum two terms, the Georgian Dream coalition government nominated Giorgi Margvelashvili for the presidency. Mr. Ivanishvili resigned from the prime minister’s office and the following decade would see him running the country from behind the scenes. Although the opposition has accused Mr. Ivanishvili of leaning toward Russia and of favoring a Kremlin-style mode of governance, he and Georgian Dream claim to be in favor of joining the EU and NATO.

Georgian Dream continued its subtle attempts to steer the country away from Europe while claiming to be pro-European when President Margvelashvili’s term was up. In 2018, members nominated Ms. Zourabichvili as its candidate, believing she would toe the party line. That belief would prove wrong.

It has been during her tenure as president that relations in parliament between the Georgian Dream-led coalition government and the opposition soured. The first signs of real confrontation arrived in the winter of 2020-2021, when the opposition accused the government of having rigged the November 2020 parliamentary elections. Although the crisis would later be resolved via high-level mediation from the EU, it signaled that the gloves were coming off.

The subsequent Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine brought a new set of developments that energized the opposition and set the stage for the coming vote that will reverberate East to West.

Points of contention in Georgian politics

The first controversial issue was that the Georgian Dream-led government not only refused to condemn the Russian aggression, but it also made clear that it would not impose sanctions nor provide weapons or even non-military assistance to Ukraine. This angered a large section of the population that is resentful toward Russia and harbors strong sympathies for Ukraine.

The second was a massive influx of Russian men seeking sanctuary in Georgia as they sought to avoid conscription and being sent to the meatgrinder in Ukraine. By the end of 2022, about 110,000 Russians had moved to Georgia. The new arrivals brought with them considerable financial resources, with an estimated $2 billion transferred to Georgian banks during the year. This capital influx helped explain why the Georgian economy grew by about 10 percent in 2022. The downside was that it also led to a boom in rents and real estate prices, angering many Georgians.

The third contentious issue was that after the successful Ukrainian attacks on Russian naval installations on Crimea, Mr. Putin ordered the construction of a new naval base in Abkhazia, conjuring up the threat of Moscow increasing its military presence on Georgian territory.

A powerful confrontation occurred in March 2023, when the government took a page out of the Moscow playbook, seeking to introduce a bill that would penalize “foreign agents.” Viewing this as a Kremlin-style ambition to crack down on dissent, the opposition took to the streets in major protests, causing the government to backpedal and retract the bill.

Action and reaction

At this juncture it became evident that in sharp contrast to Mr. Ivanishvili, whose background is linked with Russia, President Zourabichvili’s connections with European leaders was a force to be reckoned with. She had served in the French diplomatic service and was Ambassador of France to Georgia in 2003-2004. Having acquired dual citizenship, in 2016 she was elected to the Georgian parliament and in 2018 she was elected president for a six-year term.

Clearly wary of how she might mobilize her European contacts, the government sought to prevent her from foreign travel, especially to Ukraine. She responded not only by making a series of visits to meet European leaders, but she also began wielding her presidential veto against government legislation.

Bidzina Ivanishvili, billionaire and Georgia’s former prime minister, speaks during an interview at his summer house in Ureki, Georgia, on Aug. 22, 2013. © Getty Images

The crisis then came to a head in September 2023, when Georgian Dream introduced impeachment proceedings. On October 16, the constitutional court ruled that President Zourabichvili had violated the constitution and authorized parliament to vote on her impeachment. Yet in a vote two days later, Georgian Dream failed to secure the 100 votes needed to convict, gaining only 86 in favor, with one against and 57 abstentions.

A clear sign that matters are now further heating up came at the end of 2023, when Mr. Ivanishvili announced that he was in regular contact with the country’s leadership and that he would take an active role in the 2024 election campaign as honorary chair of Georgian Dream. His stated reason for coming back into the open was Georgia’s “complicated” geopolitical situation – in other words, a realization that the government might be in trouble.

This announcement came in lockstep with the December 14 EU decision to finally grant Georgia its long-coveted status as candidate for membership. Given that surveys show around 90 percent of the population being in favor of EU accession, this was clearly significant enough that Georgian Dream needed to go into crisis management mode.

On January 26, the prospect of closer relations with Armenia was also given a boost, as Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan paid a visit to Tbilisi. Following the signing of a memorandum on a “strategic partnership” that could pave the way for the countries to jointly pursue EU membership, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili noted that “Historically, we are very strong allies, not only neighbors, but friends.” Then Mr. Garibashvili suddenly and unexpectedly resigned on January 29, citing the need to “give others [in Georgian Dream] a chance.”



The coming months will be decisive in determining the outcome of the October elections, and consequently what role Georgia will play in the geopolitics of the South Caucasus. It is too early for predictions, but an indication of which way the winds are blowing can be found looking at the Russians who arrived in 2022. Facing growing hostility from the Georgian population, many of them are now busy packing and leaving. According to official statistics, more than 30,000 Russians left Georgia in 2023, most of them during the latter half of the year.

Possible: Russian civilian departures mark Westward turn

Although the accelerating trend of Russian men leaving Georgia will have negative short-term financial implications, it will also undermine Russian support for the Georgian Dream coalition government and energize the opposition in a belief that change is possible. If this trend continues until October, it will be possible to envision a scenario where the opposition scores a decisive victory and in which a government may be formed that can embark in earnest on a constructive relationship with the EU. If President Zourabichvili is reelected, she will play an important role in convincing Brussels that serious change is underway.

The latter may also be helpful in cementing the “strategic partnership” with Armenia. If the two do embark on a common road toward closer association with Europe, it will bring a decisive shift in the geopolitical realities of the South Caucasus. Russian influence has already been badly damaged with its peacekeepers being routed out of Nagorno-Karabakh and tentatively losing its advantages in the Black Sea. Getting a cold shoulder from two other countries in the region would be a major setback.

If Ukraine, finally, moves to deploy its new underwater drones in a campaign to target Russian naval installations not only on Crimea and in Novorossiysk but also to interdict the construction of the new base in Abkhazia, it will bring an effective end to the Russian naval presence in the Black Sea, rolling back history to the days of Catherine the Great.

Possible: Regional destabilization and reasserted Kremlin influence

Given that the stakes could hardly be higher, it is important to keep in mind that Russia-aligned actors will become more active. It is appropriate to consider an alternative scenario where Georgian Dream succeeds in winning sufficient votes to form a new government, albeit in a coalition.

Such a government would not only remain beholden to Mr. Ivanishvili, to his alleged Russian networks and to an increasingly “Russian” style of governance. Given that the EU has made it clear that accession for Georgia is conditional upon defanging the oligarchs, a win for Georgian Dream would derail Georgia from its path towards Europe, and in consequence undermine its partnership with Armenia.

The Georgian Dream-led government has already proven adroit in using Russian-style techniques to influence domestic politics, and it may count on ample support from the Kremlin in coming months.

A particular weakness for the opposition is that when Ms. Zourabichvili was elected in 2018, she was the last president of Georgia to be popularly elected. In the upcoming election, the president will be chosen by a 300-member Electoral College that is to be approved by the Central Election Commission. This will offer Georgian Dream ample opportunity to choose its preferred candidate.

Wild cards: Outcome of Ukraine war, Western cohesion

Which of the two scenarios will materialize hinges on developments in the war in Ukraine. If Russia succeeds in making offensive gains, it will boost the standing of Georgian Dream and demoralize the Georgian opposition. If, in contrast, Ukraine scores successes in its strategy of taking the war to Russia, aiming crippling blows at its energy infrastructure, then the opposite will be true. Georgian Dream will be undermined, and the opposition may score a victory.

A particular weakness for the opposition is that the lack of Western cohesion and determination in supporting Ukraine makes it highly unlikely that a constructive policy may be formulated to support a combined Georgian-Armenian bid to join the EU.

What may still secure a geopolitical transformation of the region, however, is that popular sentiments in Georgia are turning strongly against Russia and in favor of Europe. Despite its authoritarian turn, Georgia is still a democracy where the voice of the people counts.

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