16 June 2016

The Republicans: In or out?

Author: Régis Genté / Source:
The Republicans celebrate their 38th birthday. Photo: www.republicans.ge
In Tbilisi’s impassioned political climate, the Republicans are seen by some as traitors of liberal values they claim to espouse. Others see them as a principled and responsible guardians of Georgia’s pro-western choice. The reality is more complex, and tells a story of a small party learning to govern in Georgia’s slowly transforming multi-party democracy.

Large, catch-all parties have dominated Georgia’s political life. Since the country regained its political independence 25 years ago, the Round Table-Free Georgia, Citizens Union of Georgia and the United National Movement (UNM) have governed the country. These multi-striped alliances were propelled into power on the coattails of a charismatic leader. They have swelled after massive electoral victories, morphing into the governing structure.

But once the tide of popular support has waned, they have shrunk just as quickly and dramatically as they had once swelled. Apart from UNM, which showed the resilience of its core ideological platform and created a close-knit party, they have vanished from the political scene within a decade from their meteoric rise.

Among these groups, the Republican Party of Georgia stands out as an odd creature. Established in 1978, it traces its lineage to anti-Soviet dissidents, some of whom still remain in the leadership roles. In Georgia’s turbulent and violent 1990s they were considered "a club of smart people” – perhaps interesting to listen to, but not ready to govern. Too committed to its liberal principles to do real politics.
They were always close to the center stage, but never playing the main roles. Ten Republican MPs between sat in the parliament between 1990 and 1995. After the 2003 Rose Revolution has brought the UNM to power, the Republicans formed one part of the ruling coalition for few months, before falling out with President Saakashvili.

The party’s role has been growing since it threw its lot with the Georgian Dream (GD) coalition. Gathered around eccentric billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili in 2012, GD has wrestled power from UNM in open elections, marking the first peaceful transition of power for Georgia.

This controversial political marriage has equipped the Republicans with much needed governing experience as well as the high political profile. Its leaders occupy crucial positions: David Usupashvili is the speaker of the Parliament; Tinatin Khidasheli is the Minister of Defense and has created for herself a very high international profile; Paata Zakareishvili leads the State Ministry for Reconciliation.

But the experience has been challenging. On 31 March, the Republicans announced that they will run alone in the upcoming Parliamentary elections set for 8 October, 2016.

The decision did not come as a surprise. Ivanishvili told me in April 2013 that the Georgian Dream coalition was to crumble through "natural division”, with some of its members moving into GD’s opposition.Then, the oligarch based his predictions (or, better said, his wishes) on UNM, the party if his arch-enemy, former President Mikheil Saakashvili, disappearing from the political scene. That did not happen. But GD coalition has indeed collapsed. Its other former members, such as the protectionist Industrialist Party will also run separately from GD.

Ivanishvili’s designs aside, the Republicans have been debating the party’s role in the ruling coalition for almost two years, says party Chairwoman, Khatuna Samnidze. "During the June 2014 local elections, Georgian Dream has backed some so-called ‘independent candidates’, against the Republicans… Many of our candidates have suffered from that. Basically, our agreements were violated. We asked the Georgian Dream to analyze those elections together, but they have never responded”, Samnidze says.

The disagreements with GD leadership over controversial legislation – such as the surveillance law – have triggered internal debate among the Republicans. "Ivliane Khaindrava, Tamar Kordzaia, my brother Davit and I - we were for taking back our independence, while David Usupashvili and Tinatin Khidasheli were advocating for staying in the coalition”, recalls Levan Berdzenishvili, now a Republican MP, one of the founders of the party 38 years ago, who has served three years in prison in 1984 for that.

Cohabitation with GD and Ivanishvili was a precarious game. "David Usupashvili was offered to become the Georgian Dream chairman several times… he was also offered to become Prime Minister in 2014. [Has he taken the job] the Republicans could have been swallowed up by Ivanishvili, in my opinion”, says Berdzinishvili.

Club no more?

The Republicans have matured and are ready to stand alone, thinks Malkhaz Saldadze, a political scientist who became adviser to the party’s chairmanship few months ago. "It is not ‘a club’ any more. Certainly, it has low popular support, but that is not the only criteria to define what a political party is. The Republican Party is extremely well structured, it was never a one-man show, it has a clear ideology which it kept since its beginnings, and it is always trying to promote its pro-Western and liberal values.” He says as a part of the GD coalition, the party showed it can take responsibilities and handle disagreements.

Still, the party’s decision to keep the government posts, despite leaving the GD coalition has surprised many as inconsistent.

Their opponents say the Republicans were muscled out of GD and are clinging to their posts. "Their public support is so low in the opinion surveys that they must fear to not have a single MP in the next Parliament. They just try to survive now”, asserts Elene Khoshtaria, who runs for MP on UNM ticket in Tbilisi’s Vake district.

Wrong, replies Samnidze: "The Republicans proved in the past 3 years that the party can take its responsibilities for the country. It was indeed a risky choice to stay in the Government after the 31 March decision to run alone in the elections, it is difficult to explain it to the Georgian people, but we think that we have to show that we respect our commitments and make sure that the pro-Western agenda is fulfilled till the end.”

Far from being committed to its ideals, retort the opponents, the Republicans trampled them when voting on crucial legislation: on the surveillance law, during discussions over the proposed Constitutional obstacle to same-sex marriage, and the passing of the highly controversial bill on reforming the Constitutional court.

"This is where I see that the Republicans have sold their soul to the devil,” says Chiora Taktakashvili, an UNM MP. "In most of the cases, for those key issues, when they voted against the Georgian Dream [proposals], it was in a situation where their six votes in the Parliament were not required for passing the law that Ivanishvili’s party wanted passed…they were never an obstacle to adoption of the laws leading towards weakening our democracy that the Georgian Dream has pushed for during [the past] 3 years.”

Opponents say, Ivanishvili used the Republicans and their liberal credentials to create a façade of respectability in the West. "On the contrary,” argues Saldadze, "with their three ministers and the Parliament Speaker, the Republicans worked to guarantee, that a real pro-Western agenda was pursued.” He adds, "Imagine, what the Georgian politics would have been if some of the weirder members of the Georgian Dream has chaired the Parliament instead of Usupashvili?”

Soft spoken and professional, trained as a lawyer at the Duke University, Usupashvili has been the most visible face of the Republicans. He was elected to party leadership in 2005, when the Republicans were still smarting from the breakup with Saakashvili’s movement over Adjara elections. Arrival of Usupashvili – and his energetic wife, human rights lawyer Tinatin Khidasheli – has given the Republicans a new lease of life. Importantly, having founded and ran one of Georgia’s most influential NGOs – the Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA) - in 1990s, the two have brought with them their foreign contacts and credibility, especially with the US counterparts.

Usupashvili’s speakership, just as his party’s stint in government, has been subject to vicissitudes of being a junior player in much larger – and often ideologically alien – coalition. His office obliging, Usupashvili tried to balance the differing strands in GD, at times to the detriment of his political prestige.

Parliament’s Speaker was the highest ranking politician who took the principled and courageous position to criticize the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Ilia II, for his inflammatory words ahead of the violent anti-LGBT demonstration on 17 May 2013. Yet, when the groups of Georgian Dream affiliated individuals threw rotten eggs and tomatoes at the house of the Constitutional Court chair and picketed the houses of the Court judges following the September 2015 verdict leading to the release of the former Tbilisi Mayor, UNMs Gigi Ugulava, Speaker Usupashvili declared: "I do not think that demonstrations in front of judges’ homes are a serious problem. I want to ask the judges to respect the right of individuals to speak their mind freely”.

Enter the kingmaker?

"The Republicans are still an elite party, [they are] not talking about job creation but about values. If they have MPs in the next parliament, it will just be a handful”, observes Koba Turmanidze, Caucasus Research Resources Center (CRRC) an independent think-tank and pollster. The October elections are divisive. The two key parties GD and UNM - are jockeying for power, but their support rate remains in low 20s by the most optimistic counts.Smaller parties thus hope to play a kingmaker. Resilient party structure, track record in government, several recognizable politicians and foreign connections might give them the edge to continue playing a disproportionately high role compared to their size.

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