The Georgian Dream Party, The United States, and the Dangers of Politics Without Politics

Author’s note: This article was originally researched and written in early March 2021 in response to what were then rapidly developing events.  In the time since, the political situation has evolved in both Georgia and the United States: Georgia has deescalated from political crisis in the wake of an internationally brokered agreement between the government and opposition, and in the US, President Biden has been in office long enough to enact more policies and initiatives, leading to Republican responses.  Nevertheless, the fundamental arguments advanced in this article concerning the dangers of politics de-emphasizing policy remain valid and indeed have aged very well in the intervening months.  As always, evolving events will continue to outpace scholarship.

A billionaire enters politics and leads his new party to electoral victory, thanks to a historically-unpopular opponent and overwhelming support from disgruntled conservatives.  Once in government, though, the leader fails to deliver on many campaign promises, packs government institutions with unqualified loyalists, threatens political opponents with violence, and, when voters move to reject him, aggressively undermines democracy itself.  This is not referring to Donald Trump and the Republican Party.  Instead, these events occurred in the country of Georgia.  The trajectory of the Georgian Dream party, in power since 2012, provides a look at what the Republican Party could become and offers a cautionary tale of the danger to democracy posed by politics uncoupled from policy.

The Georgian Dream party (GD) was founded in April 2012 by Georgia’s richest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili.  In elections held in October 2012, the GD’s coalition won a resounding victory over the ruling United National Movement (UNM), which was founded by Mikheil Saakashvili and had dominated Georgian politics since the 2003 Rose Revolution.  The GD won thanks to Ivanishvili’s record as a philanthropist and promises to help¹ those alienated by Saakashvili’s liberalizing economic reforms and, more importantly, thanks to voters’ concerns over the UNM’s growing disregard for human rights.²  After the election, Ivanishvili then aimed to set up an “ideology-free,” technocratic government, portraying himself as more of a CEO than a politician.³

Except policy success did not then follow.  The biggest issue in Georgian politics concerns the country’s long-term ideological and cultural orientation: while opinion polls consistently show that large majorities of Georgians want to eventually join NATO and the European Union, exactly how and how fast to pursue strategic and economic alignment with Europe is more contentious.⁴  Through 2012, the UNM government favored rapid economic and institutional reforms, even at the cost of major societal disruption.  The GD has been less pro-Europe than other major Georgian political parties, but even it has paid lip service to eventually joining European institutions.⁵  However, action has lagged, and Georgia has neither meaningfully moved towards Europe nor set off on a different course — it has simply stagnated.  

Furthermore, the GD has not implemented a notable governing agenda in other areas, such as halting Russia’s ongoing “creeping occupation” of Georgian territory,⁶ improving relations with the Russian-backed separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia,7  or growing the economy.  (Georgia’s per-capita GDP has been flat since 2013).⁸ At the same time, the GD has packed government institutions with party loyalists, resulting in “clannish rule in the judiciary system, rampant nepotism in the civil service … and clear signs of state capture.”⁹   

Despite having little policy record or political ideology to tout, the GD has shown limited interest in expanding its political coalition or winning over new segments of Georgian society.  Instead, the GD has tried to justify its ongoing governance by continuing to demonize its old opponent, the UNM, and the UNM’s founder Mikheil Saakashvili in particular.¹⁰  For example, Irakli Garibashvili, Georgia’s current prime minister and a GD member, recently referred to the UNM as “a refuge of criminals and terrorists.” ¹¹

However, in 2021, the GD’s portrayal of the UNM is a straw man at best.  Nika Melia, the current leader of the UNM opposed the UNM back in 2012, even attending anti-UNM street protests over the party’s human-rights record. ¹² Saakashvili has not led the party for years, is now a Ukrainian citizen and active in Ukrainian politics, ¹3 and has disavowed a return to Georgian politics; one analyst pegged the UNM’s realistic chances of regaining power outside a much broader coalition as “virtually zero.” ¹4   Yet without a meaningful policy record or agenda, the GD’s only means of appealing to voters is to ratchet up anti-opposition rhetoric, further de-emphasizing the place of policy in Georgian politics and creating a self-perpetuating cycle of toxic electioneering.  

The results for Georgia have been worrying.  The most recent election, held in late 2020, saw the GD claim victory amidst an opposition boycott and widespread allegations of vote rigging; 15 the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe reported that the GD pressured voters and blurred the line between the party and the state.16  The government has responded to peaceful protests with violence, and in February 2021, an opposition leader, Nika Melia, was arrested on charges condemned internationally as politically motivated. 17 The country remains in political crisis.  Georgian political observers agree that if the GD’s government falls, the party is unlikely to win future elections, especially if Ivanishvili himself is sanctioned by Western governments.18

If all of this sounds familiar to observers of US politics, it should.  Though Americans may find the comparison distasteful and even embarrassing, many of the same factors — degradation of government institutions, increasing political violence, and, most importantly, political identity based on opposing the opposition rather than policy — have occurred in the Republican Party under Donald Trump.  Many authors have noted the shift in the Republican Party since 2016 away from advocating specific policies (for example, fiscal responsibility, limited government, and free market economics) and towards simply being the party that beats the Democrats.19 Pro-Trump podcaster Dan Bongino best encapsulated this realignment when he said, “My life is all about owning the libs now.” 20 As president, Trump failed to deliver on his most significant policy promises, most notably building a border wall with Mexico, replacing Obamacare, and reducing the US’s trade deficit with China. During Trump’s unsuccessful reelection campaign, he focused more on falsely painting Democrats as radical socialists than on his policy goals. 21 Since the election, too, Republican leaders have provided little policy vision. ²²

At the same time, just as the Georgian Dream has compensated for its decreasing popular support with anti-democratic electoral interference, the Republican Party appears increasingly content to concede a national popular majority to the Democrats, with a group of Republican congressmen noting that “Republican presidential candidates have won the national popular vote only once in the last 32 years” and admitting that a Republican popular vote win in 2024 was unlikely. 23   Instead, national and state-level Republican leaders appear set to rely on measures designed to lower voter turnout and even overturn elections outright in order to win power in the future.24 Finally, like the Georgian Dream, Trump led the Republican Party in attempting to subvert a free and fair election.25 And, as has happened in Georgia, Trump’s supporters have targeted political opponents with violence,26 exemplified by the Capitol riots of January 6, 2021.  The biggest difference between the two parties’ behavior is thus far, the GD has succeeded in making its electoral manipulation stick in ways that Trump and the Republicans have not.

Of course, comparing the Georgian Dream to the Republican Party can only go so far: the United States is not Georgia.  Unlike Georgia, America has strong democratic institutions, and Russia’s disruptive role in Georgian politics has no real parallel in the United States.  Nevertheless, as unpleasant as Americans may find it to have their country being compared to a former Soviet republic, the similarities between the two parties’ behavior are too great to be wished away.  The Georgian Dream provides a glimpse of one possible future for the Republican Party: a political identity unmoored from policy and having an all-consuming obsession with the opposition, to the point of manipulating elections to favor a shrinking electoral base.  Access to power will be maintained only through democratic backsliding and overt political violence, and if power is lost, it will not be regained except through more of the same.  As the Republican Party renegotiates its identity after Trump’s presidency, it is worth keeping an eye on Georgia: where the Georgian Dream has led, neither the Republican Party nor America should want to follow.  

Michael Keen is an author and analyst whose work focuses on the intersection of media, politics, and violence.  In 2019-2020, he was a Robert T. Jones Fellow in the Department of Middle East, Caucasus, and Central Asian Security Studies at the University of St. Andrews.

Endnotes

[1] Thomas de Waal, “A Crucial Election in Georgia,” Carnegie Europe, September 11, 2012, https://carnegieeurope.eu/2012/09/11/crucial-election-in-georgia-pub-49281

[2] Jim Nichol, “Georgia’s October 2012 Legislative Election: Outcome and Implications,” Congressional Research Service, October 15, 2012, https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R42777.pdf

[3] David Aprasidze and David S. Siroky, “Technocratic Populism in Hybrid Regimes: Georgia on My Mind and in My Pocket,” Politics and Governance 8, no. 4 (2020): 581.

[4] Tinatin Tsertsvadze, “The Road to Georgia’s EU Integration,” Italian Institute for International Political Studies, August 7, 2018, https://www.ispionline.it/en/pubblicazione/road-georgias-eu-integration-21059/.

[5] “New Constitution Enters into Force,” Civil, December 17, 2018, https:/www.civil.ge/archives/271293

[6] Shakila Khan, “Russia’s New Strategy in Georgia: Creeping Occupation,” London School of Economics, February 5, 2019, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/humanrights/2019/02/05/russias-new-strategy-in-georgia-creeping-occupation/.

[7] “Abkhazia: Sukhum Continues to Call for Dialogue with Tbilisi,” Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, September 24, 2020, https://unpo.org/article/22074.

[8]  “GDP Per Capita (Current US$)-Georgia,” The World Bank, accessed via https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.CD?locations=GE.

[9] Teona Zurabashvili, “Understanding Georgia’s Current Political Situation,” New Europe, February 26, 2021, https://www.neweurope.eu/article/understanding-georgias-current-political-situation/.

[10] “In Georgia, the New President’s Big Runoff Win Masks Rising Polarization,” World Politics Review, December 5, 2018, https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/trend-lines/26914/in-georgia-the-new-president-s-big-runoff-win-masks-rising-polarization.

[11] “Gharibashvili Focuses on ‘Terrorist Opposition’ in Combative Confirmation Speech,” OC Media, February 22, 2021, https://oc-media.org/gharibashvili-focuses-on-terrorist-opposition-in-combative-confirmation-speech/.

[12] Melia talks about his past on Georgian TV; “ნიკა მელია 7 ნოემბრის შესახებ,” uploaded by Koba Subeliani, May 31, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8zD3lHsBhHY.

[13] Ivanna Valiushko, “Mikheil Saakashvili’s Political Comeback in Ukraine,” International Centre for Defence and Security, August 27, 2020, https://icds.ee/en/mikheil-saakashvilis-political-comeback-in-ukraine/.

[14] Thomas de Waal, “In Georgia, a New Crisis that No One Needs,” Carnegie Europe, February 25, 2021, https://carnegieeurope.eu/strategiceurope/83935.

[15] Nona Mikhelidze, “What Role for Europe as Georgia Heads Toward Political Turmoil?” Carnegie Europe, November 24, 2020, https://carnegieeurope.eu/strategiceurope/83300.

[16] “Fundamental Freedoms Respected in Competitive Georgian Elections, but Allegations of Pressure and Blurring of Line Between Party and State Reduced Confidence, International Observers Say,” Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, November 1, 2020, https://www.oscepa.org/news-a-media/press-releases/2020/fundamental-freedoms-respected-in-competitive-georgian-elections-but-allegations-of-pressure-and-blurring-of-line-between-party-and-state-reduced-confidence-international-observers-say.

[17] Andrew E. Kramer, “Arrest of Opposition Leader in Georgia Raises Fear of Growing Instability,” The New York Times, February 24, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/24/world/europe/georgia-opposition-leader-arrest.html.

[18] Amy MacKinnon, “Arrest of Georgia’s Opposition Leader Prompts Call for Sanctions,” Foreign Policy, February 23, 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/02/23/nika-melia-arrest-georgia-sanctions-protests/.

[19] See, for example, Chris Hayes, “The Republican Party Is Radicalizing Against Democracy,” The Atlantic, February 8, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/02/republican-party-radicalizing-against-democracy/617959/; Perry Bacon Jr., “What Unites Republicans May Be Changing.  Same with Democrats.”  FiveThirtyEight, December 17, 2019, https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/what-unites-republicans-may-be-changing-same-with-democrats/; David Smith, “Regardless of US Presidential Election Outcome, Trumpism Lives On,” The Guardian, November 4, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/nov/04/trumpism-us-presidential-election.

[20] Thomas Fabbri, “US Election 2020: The People Behind the Political Memes You Share,” BBC, November 2, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/election-us-2020-54748453.

[21] Amy Sherman, “Trump’s False Claim that Biden Is a Socialist,” Politifact, October 15, 2020, https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2020/oct/15/donald-trump/trumps-false-claim-biden-socialist/; Joan E. Greve and Lauren Gambino, “Trump Campaign Focuses Fire on Biden as Pandemic Undermines Strategy,” The Guardian, May 15, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/may/15/trump-2020-campaign-strategy-attack-biden; Christina Wilkie, “Trump Targets Adversaries in His Final Pitch, While Biden Focuses on Covid-19,” CNBC News, November 2, 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/11/02/election-2020-trump-and-biden-make-their-final-pitches.html.

[22] Shane Goldmacher and Elaina Pott, “CPAC Takeaways: Trump Dominates, and DeSantis and Noem Stand Out,” The New York Times, February 28, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/28/us/politics/cpac-trump-kristi-noem.html.

[23] “Joint Statement Concerning January 6 Attempt to Overturn the Results of the Election,” Congressman Thomas Massie et al., January 3, 2021, https://massie.house.gov/news/email/show.aspx?ID=Z5MPA3CVK5FYZQ3KBYQIDSAWB4.

[24] Nathaniel Rakich, “All the Ways Georgia Could Make It Harder to Vote,” FiveThirtyEight, February 25, 2021, https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/all-the-ways-georgia-could-make-it-harder-to-vote/; “Proposed Law Would Allow Arizona Legislature to Overturn Presidential Election Results,” Tucson.com, January 30, 2021, https://tucson.com/news/state-and-regional/proposed-law-would-allow-arizona-legislature-to-overturn-presidential-election-results/article_c2a70681-59c0-512f-ba86-2bf23128f9ee.html

[25] Matthew Rosenberg and Jim Rutenberg, “Key Takeaways from Trump’s Effort to Overturn the Election,” The New York Times, February 1, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/01/us/politics/trump-election-results.html.

[26] Candace Rondeaux, “The GOP Is Now the Party of Political Violence,” World Politics Review, February 12, 2021, https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/29422/the-gop-is-now-the-party-of-political-violence; Mike Levine, “‘No Blame?’ ABC News Finds 54 Cases Invoking ‘Trump’ in Connection with Violence, Threats, Alleged Assaults,” ABC News, May 30, 2020, https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/blame-abc-news-finds-17-cases-invoking-trump/story?id=58912889.