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A Deceptive Dream? Georgian Government Hopes Early Coronavirus Success Results In Ballot Box Success

A Georgian policeman stands guard at a checkpoint in Tbilisi on April 1.
A Georgian policeman stands guard at a checkpoint in Tbilisi on April 1.

TBILISI -- The Georgian government is hoping some of the credit it has garnered in early efforts fighting the coronavirus pandemic that is ravaging the world can help it later this year during parliamentary elections.

Praise was given for the ruling Georgian Dream's early order to lock down the country, where there have been a meager 496 infections and six deaths connected to COVID-19 as of April 27.

The plaudits from some quarters for its coronavirus efforts have boosted the image of the battered party ahead of elections that must be held by October.

At the heart of the low coronavirus figures seems to have been some early action by authorities, including the government largely allowing Amiran Gakrelidze and his National Center for Disease Control and Public Health to lead the charge against the pandemic.

Some critics, however, point to the low number of tests carried out by the government -- just 11,500 as of late April -- as a reason for the comparatively small number of infections discovered in the country.

But the battle against the coronavirus has thus far been seen by many to be something of a political gift to the Georgian Dream, whose public standing took several heavy hits in the past two years that were manifested in massive street protests in summer 2018 that were repeated again last year after an ill-advised invitation to a Russian Duma member in June.

That decision led to thousands of people pouring into the streets and ensuing chaos when riot police violently dispersed protesters for the first time in Georgian Dream’s seven-year reign, resulting in several serious injuries to protesters.

Against this backdrop of unpopularity, the unprecedented national emergency necessitated by the coronavirus has proven a balm for the government.

“It seems like both young people and the opposition have declared some kind of moratorium on criticism [of the authorities],” said Iago Kachkachashvili, head of the Institute of Social Studies and Analysis, a Tbilisi-based think tank. “Some media is still critical but right now...this is seen as illegitimate by most people.”

Early Intervention

The country has been on high alert and quickly accepted special lockdown measures since shortly after the first confirmed coronavirus case was detected on February 26.

That case of a 50-year-old man who had returned from Iran -- an early hotspot of the pandemic -- was also viewed positively by most observers.

Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia
Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia

“Neither Iran nor Azerbaijan detected the patient as [having COVID-19],” said Paul Stronski, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment's Russia and Eurasia Program.

"I would say [that] Georgia has been a genuine world leader," said Alexander Scrivener, a fellow at the Eurasia Democratic Security Network. He compared the country favorably to the Netherlands, which registered its first case one day after Georgia.

Although with a much larger population -- there are just 3.7 million Georgians compared to 17.4 million Dutch -- the Netherlands has more than 4,500 deaths and 38,245 infections due to the coronavirus.

Georgia's seemingly successful containment of COVID-19 boosted the image of the government in the eyes of many people.

Thousands Hold Anti-Government Protest In Tbilisi
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WATCH: Thousands Hold Anti-Government Protest In Tbilisi (September 2019)

Scrivener said for Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia, who has frequently been accused of authoritarian tendencies, the crisis “turned this weakness into a strength.”

“Rightly or wrongly, concerns about civil liberties tend to take a back seat when facing the biggest global crisis since World War II, and Gakharia’s ‘tough image’ could be an asset in this context,” Scrivener said.

But will the goodwill transfer over to the ballot box? Analysts are unsure.

Some see the six-month gap to when the elections are likely to be held as more than enough time for the current enthusiasm for Georgian Dream to dissipate or disappear altogether.

“If the election were one month from now, I think Georgian Dream would win a vast majority [of the 150 seats in parliament],” Kachkachashvili said. But by October, “dissatisfaction among the voters...will likely emerge.”

“All bets are off” as the vote draws nearer, agreed Stronski. “It seems people have put polarization aside [during the crisis],” but added that this won’t "last forever."

Kachkachashvili raised another important point: the unenviable task Georgian Dream will have of trying to rebuild an economy shattered by months of a fairly strict lockdown that even banned the general driving of private vehicles.

"The state does not have the resources or money to cope with the [economic] disaster that will happen," he said. “Poverty, unemployment, [and] destroyed savings” is what the government has to look forward to.

And before those problems hit in full, the government will have to weather another potential difficult situation.

The most contentious topic related to the lockdown were the April 19 Easter ceremonies in a country where the Orthodox Church is one of the most powerful institutions.

Although health officials pleaded for Easter services to not be held in churches, Orthodox officials insisted on holding Mass so people could attend.

While the government did impose last-minute measures to limit the number of attendees -- including a five-day ban on car travel -- some churches, such as Kutaisi’s Bagrati Cathedral, still drew massive crowds of worshippers.

It is too early to say how much damage the gatherings may have done on efforts to contain the coronavirus, but an Easter-driven explosion of new infections in the coming weeks could erase much of the gains for the Georgian Dream -- not to mention the efforts of the Georgian people.

For younger Georgians, whose generation has comprised the lion’s share of the last two years of protests, the Georgian Dream’s response to the pandemic threat has grudgingly won some praise.

Researcher Ana Bragvadze, 29, said the government’s early reaction to the pandemic was “excellent.”

Many were critical of the decision to allow Easter church services to take place in Georgia.
Many were critical of the decision to allow Easter church services to take place in Georgia.

Like many others, however, she criticized the handling of the Easter ceremonies and acquiescence to Orthodox Church officials.

“They keep failing to enforce the law equally,” Bragvadze said. “They are too reluctant to make the church obey the law like the rest of the population.”

Nini Mtchedlishvili, a 26-year old executive assistant at the Good Governance Institute, largely agreed.

“The curfew and the professionality of the Georgian medical personnel reflected on the general situation quite well,” she said. “But the state’s approach to the church’s absolutely disrespectful behavior to the law has left me disappointed once again.”

What Happens Next?

Even if the results of the Easter mass do not prove deadly, Georgia still finds itself pursuing a flattened curve.

An April 20 blog post by statistician Hrant Mikaelian showed that while its neighbors, Armenia and Azerbaijan, have nearly halted their growth in new coronavirus cases, Georgia’s number of infected continued to climb in the days following Easter before plateauing.

The current spread of the pandemic is also what many experts say is the first stage in what could be a drawn-out public health emergency.

Other countries that initially fared well with small numbers of infections, such as Singapore and Japan, also saw an upswing in recent weeks.

“Even if [Georgia’s government] does well in the first round of the crisis, as it seems to be, who knows about what happens later on,” Stronski said.

With that in mind, while the initial returns for Georgian Dream in the coronavirus battle seem promising, the government and ruling party have a long way to go to the election and to finish the battle against the pandemic.

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