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Interview: Georgian Dream 'Likely' To Try To Steal Election, But Its Support Is Deeper Than Many Think

A demonstrator draped in the Georgian national and EU flags stands in front of police blocking the way to the parliament building in Tbilisi during an opposition protest against a controversial "foreign agent" law in May.
A demonstrator draped in the Georgian national and EU flags stands in front of police blocking the way to the parliament building in Tbilisi during an opposition protest against a controversial "foreign agent" law in May.

A political scientist, pundit and political operative with long experience in Georgia, Lincoln Mitchell is the author of several books including, Uncertain Democracy: U.S. Foreign Policy, and Georgia’s Rose Revolution, and The Color Revolutions. He also served as an adviser to the current ruling party, Georgian Dream (GD), when they were first running for office in 2012.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Mitchell discusses what he describes as the “deterioration” of Georgian Dream since the days when they were a broad coalition of forces who united to defeat the then-ruling United National Movement (UNM) of President Mikheil Saakashvili. He also addresses the role of Western-funded NGOs in Georgian politics and the current crisis centered around the “foreign agent” law, prospects for this fall’s parliamentary elections, and what Americans don’t understand about Georgia.

RFE/RL: You have a unique perspective on Georgian Dream, having worked with them in the early days. How have they changed over the last 12 years of being in power?

Lincoln Mitchell: The major political division in Georgia now is between Georgian Dream and former Georgian Dream. Many of the people who were the democratic forces, who were the better angels of the Georgian Dream, have been pushed out. We can name names if you want. That’s Irakli Alasania, it’s Tina Khidasheli and David Usupashvili; Tedo Japaridze -- the list goes on. So, the faces of the early Georgian Dream just aren’t there anymore. Like many regimes that are in power too long, you get rule, by the end, rule by the hangers-on. People who are hanging on to the paramount leader, which in the case of the Georgian Dream is Bidzina Ivanishvili. So, the people who are whispering in his ear are simply the people who spend the most time trying to get to his ear.

Bidzina Ivanishvili (file photo)
Bidzina Ivanishvili (file photo)

You have very few people in high office who have any kind of résumé, political power base, policy experience of their own. I might except some diplomats. And then you have people in powerful positions, for example, the current party chair, [Irakli] Garibashvili, whose primary qualification and skill set is his loyalty to Bidzina. And, you know, [Prime Minister Irakli] Kobakhidze is somewhere in the middle, because I think he is an independent thinker, although not a particularly helpful one. But that's the deterioration, as I see it.

RFE/RL: So how about the opposition -- how do you see its development in the 12 years of Georgian Dream rule?

Mitchell: There's always this narrative in Georgia that the opposition is fractured, the opposition is weak. And that's partially because the government keeps them that way. It has enough power to make sure they're fractured and weak. But in this case, there's a dynamic here we have to discuss, which is that unlike in the Rose Revolution, the post-democratic, the previous ancien régime was not shattered. So, the UNM continued. And the UNM is toxic to a large proportion of the Georgian electorate. So, any election that was the Georgian Dream versus the UNM, the Georgian Dream was going to win. Therefore, the Georgian Dream had and has an incentive to elevate the United National Movement but similarly the United National Movement, and Saakashvili personally, is much more comfortable being second to the Georgian Dream than third, to a non-UNM-led opposition force, or even second to a non-UNM led government. So, these two political forces have this codependent dysfunctional relationship where they needed each other.

RFE/RL: So, in October, we are getting ready for critical parliamentary elections. What are you going to be looking at as the key things that will determine the outcome?

Mitchell: Well, I'm looking at a few things. One is: Does a non-UNM, non-GD block emerge? Go back to the Rose Revolution -- you didn’t have just one opposition party. You had two that got past the threshold, one of them just barely. The Burjanadze-Democrats, the coalition of Nino Burjanadze and Zurab Zhvania, they were the place for people who were already wary of Saakashvili. So, does a third way emerge?

I sometimes suspect that support for Europe, or the West, or however you want to call it, in Georgia is a mile wide and inch deep."

But then I'm looking for a few other things as well. What are the signs of how widespread this fraud is going to be? There's always this thing in Georgian elections, a kind of built-in level of fraud euphemistically referred to as “administrative resources.” But how much more than that are we going to see? I don't have a sense of this but what is the rest of the world going to do when handed a bad election report? I spoke to a lot of people in Georgia about this when I was just there: What's the plan for the day after the day after the election? You can't start planning that on election day. We know the most likely outcome here, which is significant fraud, what is the plan?

RFE/RL: Why do you think that the significant fraud is likely?

Mitchell: Because while I think the Georgian Dream could win without fraud, I think it's unlikely. And I think they want a bigger majority. And I also think this government is increasingly showing that it's going to do anything, right? Governments that like beating up protesters are rarely wedded to the idea of free and fair elections. And also, the “foreign agents” law, which will go into effect soon, before the election, is, in my view, a blow against free and fair elections. I don't know how you can have free and fair elections when you've legislated harassment of independent, nongovernmental organizations, that's in fact what the "foreign agent" law does. Only incompetent governments steal an election on election day, right?

RFE/RL: I also wanted to follow up on the issue of the third way. This always has been the puzzle the Georgian opposition has had to try to solve. You have UNM, which as you said is toxic to many voters, but they remain the most popular single opposition party. And so if you want to build a successful anti-GD coalition, you need them. But you also need to convince the people who consider them toxic to be okay with them being in a coalition somehow. To me, this Georgian Charter [the agreement under which President Salome Zurabishvili would choose a government in the event of an opposition victory] seems like it might have threaded that needle of having opposition unity without the possibility of UNM dominating it. Is that how you see it?

Mitchell: That's the idea, but we don't know. Look, if they [UNM] go out and get the votes and finish a strong second, they're going to dominate the government. That's what happens.

RFE/RL: But under the Georgian charter, Zurabishvili chooses the government, and she’s no UNM fan.

Mitchell: Right, but there's a political reality here, right? Which is, you're going to make a prime minister, foreign minister, defense minister all from these fringe parties? The UNM is not going to go for that. But there is another scenario which is that the UNM finishes third or neck-and-neck for second, in which case you could plausibly not have a lot of representatives in there.

RFE/RL: I think a lot of people in Georgia are, like you, expecting large-scale fraud. Or even if they don't believe there will be large-scale fraud, they believe that there will be allegations of large-scale fraud. And so I think people see the conditions for some kind of post-election civil strife as being quite strong. You wrote the book on color revolutions, and it seems like the conditions in 2024 are ripe for another one. And I’m curious what you think.

Mitchell: You know, the fantasy here is that you have that color revolution again, right? But even then, let's recognize this would just be going back to the beginning of the cycle. It's just regime collapse. It doesn't mean democracy. It's an opportunity. It keeps the ball in the air.

There's another scenario here which we have to talk about, because I believe this is of critical importance. The election happens. There is either widespread fraud or the perception of fraud; there are big demonstrations in Tbilisi and other cities in Georgia and they’re relatively peaceful. Now, 10 days out from the American election, who benefits from instability in Georgia? [Former U.S. President Donald] Trump. And who benefits from getting Trump back in the White House? Putin and Ivanishvili. So, Putin is incentivized to create instability in Georgia after the election. That could be, there are provocateurs that will be happy to go in. Cyberwarfare stuff. That's the scenario that scares me. Then that tips the American election, which I believe will be close. And so the events on the street have a global impact. That’s my fear.

But getting back to Georgia. I remember that by the time of the Rose Revolution, the UCG [Union of Citizens of Georgia, the majority party in parliament at the time] was in freefall. And by 2012, the UNM was in freefall. I remember hearing from their pollsters, their American pollsters, that they’d go to towns and get no one who said they were voting for UNM. Georgian Dream has a base of popular support that is stronger than either of those regimes did at the time they were ousted, and that makes a color revolution tough.

RFE/RL: So, every conversation about Georgia now includes this big question, basically, what is going on? We have a lot of unprecedented events recently that are raising questions about the fundamental course of the country: the “foreign agent” law, the anti “gay propaganda” law, the beating of protesters, this escalation of rhetorical conflict with the West. What’s your take? What do you think is behind all this?

Mitchell: One, that's who they are. There are people out there, including in our country, that don't think a man should be allowed to marry the man he loves or a woman the woman she loves, right? They believe that people who are trans are somehow on some deep profound level immoral and it's okay to beat them up or harass them. There are people in every country who [believe that] and who have political power so that may be simply what they believe, which would be unfortunate, but we can’t pretend it’s not possible.

Then, because on some level they see that politics is often about backing the right horse. And they look around and they say, “Well, the Beijing-Moscow axis is stronger than the Washington-Brussels axis.” I don’t know that I’m entirely objective on this, but I don’t agree with that. So, I think it’s a tactical mistake, but I could see how Bidzina, who is a homo sovieticus, might see it that way. And that trickles down to the public.

RFE/RL: As this crisis has been going on, there's been a lot of attention paid to the role of Western-funded NGOs and media that wield a lot of influence in Georgia today. And I wonder to what extent you think this heavy foreign funding of civil society has been a factor in how the crisis has unfolded?

Mitchell: Well we should note a couple of things. One is that Georgia’s civil society has been a strength of Georgian democracy for decades. I always believe civil society is strongest when it's constituency-based: We have 10,000 members and they're sending in dues. But that's kind of an American model, it's very difficult in a country that's so poor.

But it is extraordinary, and it has always been funded by the West. On my last trip I had meetings and meals with people in Tbilisi who've been working in civil society for 20 years -- Georgians. Their salaries for 20 years have been paid by the United States, the European Union, the British, the Dutch, whatever it is. I don't begrudge anything to those people. But that's the reality. Now, in a country like Georgia, which since independence has been governed by one-party systems, this being the most recent, civil society is what keeps the government accountable, so it is massively important. But the result is that, and it should be, a resentment is engendered, particularly with this government that believes that civil society is out to get them and there is reason why they believe that.

It doesn't mean that you pass the “foreign agents” law, but if you want to understand their mindset I think you have to begin to understand that. And let's be very honest here, it is a strange structure for a democracy.

RFE/RL: To turn to the U.S. My sense has always been, in my years of following Georgia, that Washington has always been OK with whoever is in power in Georgia, believing that there's no significant difference, for their interests, between the major forces. I don't know that that's the case anymore. What is your sense? Have they turned against Georgian Dream? And if so, what was it that turned them? What was the last straw?

Mitchell: You asked me what's the last straw. And I might turn that question on its head, because I think what's important here is the first straw. The Georgian Dream victory in 2012 was never recognized for what it was in Washington. And that engendered resentment among the Georgian Dream and led to this foundation where it's very easy to push Washington against the Georgian Dream. The UNM narrative about Georgia remained dominant in Washington. Not to say there was love for the UNM anymore, or Saakashvili personally, but the narrative itself remained dominant for many years. So that rather than see the events of 2012 as a democratic breakthrough, rather than see the UNM as a semi-authoritarian regime, rather than people seeing people like Saakashvili and [former Prime Minister] Vano Merabishvili as the criminals they were, the United States saw them as democrats and this was somehow a coup, although it was an election that wasn't even free and fair the Georgian Dream won anyway.

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in 2015
Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in 2015

So it's the first straw. They started out with a lot less goodwill than Saakashvili, who was the darling of the West. And then Bidzina was this quirky billionaire with the James Bond house and the media was always going on about how weird his house was, and almost inappropriately, pointing out how his children were albino. Like, who the hell cares? I don't think that's fair game to go after someone's children like that, but that was the media, right? So, he has a zebra! I have a dog. It doesn't matter, he’s richer than me, I prefer dogs to zebras. And it was all that; it was constant. And so it was axiomatic, if you are arresting these people [from the former government], it’s because you are rolling back democracy as opposed to, they were enemies of democracy or criminals. So, it’s the first straw, and to get from there to here isn’t that difficult.

RFE/RL: I think it’s true about this UNM narrative, even if it’s not a love for the UNM itself, this narrative has been powerful and persistent in Washington. Why do you think that is? Why has this narrative lasted so long?

Mitchell: I think it's for two reasons. One, Georgia is not China, it's not Russia, it’s not a primary foreign policy issue for most members of Congress and most people in the executive branch unless they’re focused on Georgia for their portfolio. Therefore, what people in Washington want is 30 seconds on Georgia. And the UNM is very good at giving that 30-second message. They have very good English-speaking interlocutors and they have good media savvy. And it is appalling to me that people in Washington are still impressed when someone from halfway around the world speaks English. Right? Don't these people know that everybody speaks English? Not everybody, but it's pretty widespread. So there's a certain kind of willful naivete. Saakashvili and the UNM are very good at pushing the right buttons, and the Georgian Dream never even tried. So, I think the Georgian Dream, with a better strategic communications approach, is in a much different place right now, but they thought that wasn't important.

RFE/RL: You have been a liaison between Georgia and the U.S. for a long time. What are the biggest misunderstandings about Georgia in the U.S.?

Mitchell: The single biggest misunderstanding seems to be that they don't understand the extent of the animus toward the UNM and Saakashvili personally. They don't understand how broadly disliked they are. They don't understand what that regime was really like.

Lincoln MItchell (file photo)
Lincoln MItchell (file photo)

The second thing is this number that is always cited, 80 or 85 percent or something of the Georgian people support a Western orientation toward Europe and the United States. I think that is a very, very misleading data point. I think if people were serious about finding Georgia’s views on Europe they would do focus groups, not polls, and the reason is that when you ask Georgians that question, it's a hard question to answer, what does orientation mean? And secondly, it's like asking them a quiz, right? And they know the right answer.

Also, most Americans naturally interact with Georgians who speak English, who live in the capital, who are involved in Western-facing institutions. So, they have no sense that the Georgian Dream's kind of right-wing populism, there’s a real audience for it. So, I sometimes suspect that support for Europe, or the West, or however you want to call it, in Georgia is a mile wide and inch deep. If your approach to understanding Georgia is that there's overwhelming deep support for Europe and this government is just playing games and pro-Russia you're kind of missing something. I'm not saying this government isn't playing games, and it very well could be pro-Russia, but you're missing a point and you're going to get to the wrong solutions.

And the third thing that we always get wrong about Georgia is, we have to understand political development in Georgia in terms of cycles. Democratic breakthrough, democratic advance, democratic rollback, authoritarian consolidation, regime weakening, regime collapse, lather, rinse, repeat, right? And by not doing that, we keep holding out hope for these kinds of deus ex machina, right? “The right coalition is going to get us there.” “The Rose Revolution will change everything.” Some people, “the Georgian Dream will change everything.”

The third misconception, I always tell people when they're going to Georgia for the first time, I say, don't tell Georgians that their English is good, that the food is delicious, or that the country is beautiful. Now, the food is delicious, the country is beautiful, and many Georgians speak proper English. But by telling them that, you enter into it; it's like wearing a big sign on your forehead that says, “spin me.” And what I mean by that is that, look, China has great food, and it's a dictatorship. There are parts of Russia that are beautiful, it's an authoritarian regime, right? It doesn't mean anything. These things aren't connected.

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