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Georgia's struggle with authoritarianism

Zarina Burkadze

Associate Professor of Ilia State University

On April 3, 2024, the "Georgian Dream" party presented the bill on "Agents of Foreign Influence" to the Parliament of Georgia, which was adopted in three hearings in May 2024. With this anti-constitutional law, the ruling power threatened the process of Georgia's integration into the European Union. Democratization is a long process, which entails overcoming authoritarian tendencies through fair elections and creating a competitive environment where the participation and representation of political and public groups is ensured. Fairness of elections means legitimate access to the government.

Democracy researchers point out that the success and failure of democratic consolidation can be explained by two important variables - local and international factors. Since local political processes do not develop in isolation from international politics, political scientists believe that "all international politics is local."[1] The essence of this assumption lies in the fact that local elites and citizens decide the development trajectories of political regimes. These elites include political parties, economic elites, civil society and the media. Political elites include the ruling and opposition spectrum[2], which are responsible for organizing political processes. Civil society includes professional, educational, religious and other civil society organizations. However, in the context of post-Soviet democratization, civil society is perceived in its narrow sense and equated with non-governmental organizations. Together with these actors, the media plays an important role in spreading and establishing democratic norms. However, the role of these actors should not be understood only in a positive light, because empirical experience shows that if the power of the main domestic actors is limited by democratic processes, they may play a negative role in the path of democratic development. Thus, democratic consolidation is the result of interactions that are based on the decisions of the actors participating in the democratization process.

The second important variable affecting democratic processes is international influences. From this point of view, the foreign policy mechanisms developed by the United States of America and the European Union after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War are important. In Central and Eastern Europe, EU political conditionality has had a positive impact on democratic processes in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Three of the fifteen states of the post-Soviet space - Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia - managed to achieve democratic consolidation, while the remaining states were formed into hybrid and authoritarian regimes. These different results can be explained by international factors, the choices of political elites and the decision of citizens to mobilize against authoritarian tendencies. Thus, this article will discuss the relationship between these three important variables and their effects on democratic consolidation and European integration.

International factors

Russia is a negative actor in the post-Soviet space, because Russian influence and Russia's promotion of authoritarianism are an important obstacle for states in the process of democratization in the region. However, this geopolitical situation can be mitigated by prudent policies of local players.[3] Authoritarian players promote the spread of authoritarianism in two main ways - inclusive and exclusive.[4] During the promotion of authoritarianism in an inclusive form, authoritarian international institutions are formed, where the dominant state is a big state spreading authoritarianism. Similar organizations are the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Eurasian Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, where Russia is the dominant power. Similarly, the leading state in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is China. These organizations were created as a counterweight to the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to prevent the spread of democracy. And the promotion of authoritarianism in an exclusive form concerns the "actors" and their goals. Actors are usually used to spread authoritarian values. Russia supports the retention of authoritarian leaders in post-Soviet countries, and a clear example of this is President Lukashenko of Belarus.

In addition, Russia influences the domestic and foreign policies of the target countries and helps authoritarian leaders to define the authoritarian orientation of the state. With this approach, Russia encourages all non-democratic and illiberal political elites to maintain power at the expense of restricting the spread of democracy.

The spread of authoritarianism is not only politically motivated, it also has ideological origins. Essentially, this means supporting authoritarian regimes and strengthening undemocratic values ​​at the systemic and institutional level. It is believed that authoritarian regimes have a mentality[5], instead of having an ideology, however, in the case of Russia, historical factors are important, namely that it is a former empire state that has an identity crisis and is trying to achieve a political goal using ideology. Thus, identity and national interest are important factors in the formation of Russian foreign policy.

In the process of spreading authoritarianism, it is important to spread the Russian factor in terms of limiting political and civil rights, which implies negative influences on election processes and the rule of law in order to limit the effective power of local political elites.[6]

An important component of promoting authoritarianism is the freezing of democratic processes, which Russia implemented in Armenia until 2018 through governments loyal to it. Russia applied more radical methods in Ukraine when it initially tried to start a civil war in Ukraine through Viktor Yanukovych, when the pro-Russian government of Ukraine refused to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union. Yanukovych chose to resign in order to stop the attacks between Berkut special forces and Maidan demonstrators, although this concession was viewed negatively by Putin. Moreover, he called Yanukovych to restore order in Kiev by force.[7] The unfavorable development of events pushed Putin to make a more expensive political decision, which was manifested first in the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and later in the full-scale intervention in Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Using these military levers, Russia tried to weaken and overthrow democratically elected governments. Russia used similar mechanisms in Georgia in 2008, when the Russian invasion and the war with Georgia weakened Mikheil Saakashvili's government politically and economically, which accelerated democratic changes in Georgia through elections against the background of Saakashvili's authoritarian rule.

Russia is not the only geopolitical player. The United States of America and the European Union play an important role in maintaining Georgia's statehood. At the same time, these two foreign actors supporting democracy are trying to help Georgia in building democratic institutions and strengthening state capacity. For this, both players have provided multi-billion financial aid to achieve political and social equality. At this stage of Georgia's democratic development, the European Union is an important actor, since Georgia received the status of a candidate for EU membership in December 2023. From this point of view, a review of the enlargement policy of the most effective tool of the EU's foreign policy is needed. In the context of the enlargement policy, the EU uses the levers of "passive and active influence". The passive influence on democratization is expressed by the fact that the prospect of EU membership itself has an impact on domestic political processes, as political and economic benefits follow it. Passive leverage does not involve deliberate actions to change the behavior of local elites. Clearing the path to membership is done through levers of active influence, which helps to consolidate changes in local politics and, above all, to strengthen political competition. When using active levers, the European Union ensures the compliance of the political, economic and public transformations of the candidate country with the institutions and legislation of the European Union. Active influence shifts the domestic political balance against illiberal states and elites, and by creating a competitive environment, the space for their influence is narrowed. Thus, the information field and the institutional framework become more democratic.[8] These power limitations are accompanied by attempts to strengthen authoritarian tendencies, which can be described as a kind of defensive instinct on the part of wary political elites. Often, in order to save themselves, they begin to bind democratic influences in order to maintain power.[9]

Thus, internal elites can manage and control processes caused by international factors. Even the most ardent democratic foreign actors need supportive domestic political elites in both the political and civil arenas to consolidate democracy.[10]

The choice of political elites

Since political elites determine the rules of the game in democratic or authoritarian political regimes, international actors, primarily, establish connections with them. At the same time, political elites determine with which foreign political actor to establish and deepen social or economic relations. The foundations of Georgia's Euro-Atlantic integration were laid during the time of President Eduard Shevardnadze. The purpose of this decision was to weaken Russian influence and preserve Georgia's statehood. In addition, integration into the European Union is associated with economic and political prosperity among Georgian citizens. A significant majority of the population of Georgia believes that Georgia has a historical affiliation with the European Union, which was noted by all the governmental forces in Georgia until now. The words of the former Prime Minister and Speaker of the Parliament of Georgia,  Zurab Zhvania, also indicate the importance of this historical affiliation, when in 1999, he uttered the following words from the rostrum of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe - "I am a Georgian, and therefore, I am European." Unlike the European Union, NATO integration is considered as a mechanism for consolidating territorial integrity and defense against Russian aggression. However, Euro-Atlantic integration is significantly hindered by Russia and Russian influences in Georgia and Europe.

Before the Russia-Ukraine war of 2022, the difference of opinion between the foreign policymakers of the United States of America and the European Union on the topic of NATO expansion was an obstacle. European policy under German Chancellor Angela Merkel tried to contain Russia through its economic integration, thus only delaying Russian aggression, not preventing it. Russia's economic strengthening through involvement in international financial institutions increased the possibility of financing the war. In addition, the increasing energy dependence of the European Union on Russia, the suspension of NATO expansion by the decision of the 2008 Bucharest NATO Summit, and the resetting of Russian-American relations have intensified Russia's power ambitions. Such political decisions were used for propaganda purposes by the promoters of Russian influence.

The same can be said about the opinions developed around the protracted processes of American aid in the context of the Russian-Ukrainian war, that it is as if the democratic international community is leaving Ukraine alone in the face of Russia. In reality, all political decisions in consolidated democracies are the result of deliberation and procedural democracy, which entails giving full consideration to critical opinions and determining internal electoral risks, which may take some time.

In the Georgian reality, the rationale of the political parties is different, because both the government and the opposition parties equate the party interest with the state interest. Thus, political parties fight for power more than for political change. In addition, the absence of intra-party democracy is problematic, which is manifested in the personalization of the party government and the presence of vague procedures for the recruitment and nomination of party members. Political parties in general, and opposition parties in particular, find it difficult to coordinate with the public, since the regional party base is not permanent and developed in such a way that it becomes focused on attracting the average voter. Thus, political parties will not gather all types of voters, which is called "catch-all-parties" in Western party politics.[11] Moreover, in the Georgian reality, "centristism" is frowned upon, while in Western politics, "centrist voter" determines the results of elections and is the pillar of democracy.

An important component behind party morphology is party leaders and their choices. There are usually three types of leaders in the post-Soviet space. Rulers coming from party, intelligence services and economic elites. The latter are also called oligarchs. These differences are important in terms of the development of the trajectory of the political regime because their rational calculations differe. For example, Eduard Shevardnadze was a party politician who used to run real politics, while Heydar Aliyev and Vladimir Putin were managers promoted from the intelligence services, which influenced the formation of the respective political regimes. Shevardnadze established a hybrid regime, while Aliyev and Putin consolidated authoritarian regimes. As for the oligarchic origins of party politics, a clear example of this is Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine and his Party of Regions, which was formed by merging the Soviet nomenclature and new oligarchs. The Party of Regions decentralized power, while making decisions through a coalition mechanism, which ensured cooperation between internal elites and made control of administrative resources effective.[12]

To some extent, this situation is similar to Georgia, especially since 2016, but with one difference, power is not decentralized in the Georgian reality. The government that came to Georgia in 2012 represented a coalition of political parties headed by Bidzina Ivanishvili, who has significant financial resources. The years 2014-2015 can be considered the most healthy period in the political history of Georgia from a democratic point of view, because the voices of all political forces are heard, and most importantly, after the first peaceful transfer of power, the parliamentary opposition is represented by the former government team. However, this apparently positive political dynamic, which was manifested in the sharing of power, has been weakening since 2016, when Bidzina Ivanishvili left politics and started influencing political processes and the decisions of elected authorities through informal means, thus making Georgian democracy defective. The concept of defective democracy implies the participation of unconstitutional and unelected actors in political processes.[13] Oligarchic origins in party politics contribute to the formation of unstable hybrid regimes, which Ukraine was an example of in 2010-2014. Thus, the vision of political leaders and parties is decisive for the foreign policy course of the state. The developments surrounding the law on "agents of foreign influence" in Georgia are a proof of this. Political elites take the authoritarian path when they are afraid of democratic changes due to the limitation of political power, which is accompanied by external pressure caused by geopolitical changes.

However, in addition to political elites, civil society and the media are important domestic actors that can determine democratic processes. These two important players legitimize the ideas of democracy, rule of law and constitutionalism in society. They promote political pluralism and competition. The media can present the civil sector as a legitimate public actor and create a democratic agenda, if it does not only favor certain political parties and groups and is not characterized by political parallelism. Media and civil society can both build and protect democratic institutions by disciplining the state. They also influence the results of elections in favor of certain political groups, through the formation of public opinion. It is precisely because of these normative features that they often become targets of attack by political actors. In the political history of Georgia, civil society and the media have played an important role in achieving democratic changes, and in particular, they have contributed to the competitiveness of the electoral environment.[14]

In the post-Soviet space, Russia used the most ruthless methods of harassing civil society and the media when in 2012 it adopted a law on registration as a "foreign agent", according to which all civil society and media organizations were obliged to register as a "foreign agent" with the Ministry of Justice of the Russian Federation, organizations failing to fulfill this obligation  were suspended from their right to operate. According to a new law adopted in 2016, foreign owners were limited in their ownership of Russian media outlets, and their maximum share was set at 20 percent.[15] Under the conditions of growing authoritarian tendencies in Russia, international organizations stopped their work, and criticism of the government in public space was practically forbidden, leading to the political regime's closure. The spread of this law in neighboring states is one example of the diffusion of authoritarian values.

In 2023-2024, in the wake of the activation of the issue of Georgia's accession to the European Union, Russia's influence strengthened, and the Georgian authorities decided to replicate a similar law, which in its essence contradicts Article 78 of the Georgian Constitution on integration into European and Euro-Atlantic structures[16], intensifies confrontation in the society and re-establishes Soviet eavesdropping methods, which essentially contradicts democratic principles. On the way to European integration, Georgia has to fight against authoritarian tendencies, which creates a dangerous environment considering the international political situation and the Russia-Ukraine war. Namely, Putin's authoritarian regime is shaken, because the unprovoked intervention in Ukraine caused economic damage to Russia and isolated it from global politics. The International Criminal Court has announced a search for war crimes committed against Ukraine, bearing features of genocide,  for the heads of state cut off for political reasons[17]. Against this backdrop, Russia has become largely dependent on China, and only Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Afghan Taliban remain its overt allies.

Russia is known for not fulfilling its terms with its partners, an example of which is Armenia. With the alliance with Turkey and with Russia's inaction, Azerbaijan was able to consolidate the territories belonging to Azerbaijan according to international law and complete an important stage of state-building. On April 29, 2024, the speeches of the Georgian authorities left the impression that they want to repeat Aliyev's path, and that is why they began to focus on sovereignty, traditions and identity, against the background of which European integration is reflected in a longer-term perspective and indicated that statehood must be strengthened first,  and will subsequently ease the democratic processes by itself. However, in this formula, the role of Russia is ambiguous and dangerous, the goal of which was never to make Georgia united and democratic. Moreover, at the backdrop of the ongoing war with Ukraine, it is Russia’s ultimate goal to prevent the implementation of the Trans-Caspian international traffic road in order to obtain some leverage with both the European Union and China, because this middle corridor forms and strengthens economic ties between these two international political subjects, bypassing Russia.

At this stage, Russia is avoiding direct confrontation with Azerbaijan, although on the one hand it is trying to weaken Pashinyan's government through pro-Russian forces in Armenia, and on the other hand, to re-escalate the conflict with Azerbaijan, which is currently prevented by Aliyev's and Pashinyan's reasonable policy. Azerbaijan can also become an alternative source of energy supply for the European Union, which will help strengthen the European Union in the South Caucasus region. Considering these geopolitical factors, the political elites of Georgia should be careful, because the harmful law may become the subject of civil conflict before the elections, because it serves to cut off an important segment of the political and civil societies, which, among others, will have painful consequences from the economic point of view, because jobs will be lost due to the closure of various organizations.

Against the background of strengthening authoritarian tendencies, it will be difficult to attract Western investments. Such a development is in Russia's interest, as it will achieve its strategic goal at a lower cost. Russia aims for political isolation of Georgia, which is achieved by severing ties with Western strategic partners, which can be achieved with the mentioned law if it is not suspended. Violation of the sovereignty and democracy will also be easy, even for a a weakened Russia, if Georgia is left friendless and alone.

These processes have a special impact on the pre-election period, because despite the weakness of the opposition parties, the electoral chances of the Georgian Dream to come back to power with a majority decrease significantly. In the political history of Georgia, there were political parties that did not agree on certain internal political issues, although they were constantly in agreement with regard to the foreign policy course. Until now, all political parties believed that anti-Westernism and pro-Russianness have a high electoral cost. The October 2024 parliamentary elections will be a good opportunity to test this assumption. The civil mobilization and the ongoing protests in the pre-election period in Georgia in April and May 2024 in response to the "Agents of Foreign Influence" bill and the number of citizens who attended these demonstrations indicate that the ruling team may not pass this test and Russian influences may inadvertently lay the foundation for the first coalition government in Georgia. The best way out of the current crisis situation is elections and a peaceful change of political power, which will strengthen Georgian democracy and make it possible to start negotiations with the European Union in 2024. Thus, the citizens of Georgia and their political choices will have a decisive role.

The choice of citizens

Analysis of public opinion surveys shows that Georgian citizens demand liberal democracy.[18] Besides, they believe that Georgia historically belongs to the European Union. The vicinity of the Georgian-European identities is compatible with the political project of Georgia's full membership in the EU. In this transitional political moment, if common sense is missing from political elites, citizens can resort to vertical accountability mechanisms, show high electoral turnout and vote strategically. Strategical voting involves promoting the importance of small parties. Georgian election legislation prohibits bloc unions, although in this context, it will not create problems, if small parties  form their own identity, get in close communication with their voters in the regions and the capital during the election campaign, and resort to coalition formation only in the post-election period.

The only obstacle to this peaceful development will be the government's non-recognition of the election results, that subsequently increases the probability of mass mobilization. On the other hand, citizen mobilizations show that the government often uses disproportionate force against peaceful demonstrators, which creates the impression that the government does not listen to the voice of its own people.

Next to citizens of Georgia, it is important for public servants, too, especially those working in law enforcement agencies, to show a high sense of responsibility in front of the state,   separate state and party interests, act in compliance with the law and for the benefit of Georgia's democratic, therefore, European future.

Here, the support of the European Union and the United States of America to the democratic opposition and the population of Georgia is important, which is the opposite of suspension of visa liberalization and candidate status for Georgia, because these mechanisms punish the population of Georgia, weaken the competitiveness of the West and increase Russian influence.

In this difficult situation, the goal of the citizens of Georgia should be to go to the elections in peace and to Europe in peace, which can be achieved with national consent and by supporting various opposition parties in the elections. It is time for Georgia to make the use of proportional system and parliamentarism to support democratic consolidation.

Along with the mentioned, what’s importan is the choice of the President of Georgia, announced on May 26, 2024, in the speech pronounced at the ceremony celebrating Independence Day of Georgia. [19] President Salome Zurabishvili presented the "Georgian Charter" and expressed readiness to lead the unity of the opposition forces in order to improve coordination between international actors, citizens and opposition forces to ensure a competitive electoral environment, to support democracy and Georgia's membership in the European Union.


Cause of the current political crisis in Georgia is the international factor - Russia's authoritarian and aggressive policy, which became particularly painful in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine war. However, the roots of the strengthening of authoritarian tendencies should also be sought in the decisions of political elites, who constantly try to maintain power by abusing the existing geopolitical situation. The ruling elites of the transitional democratic regime are resorting to political exclusion of an important segment of the society, which is tantamount to supporting violence and contributing to the emergence of conflicts. However, in such a situation, political elites may become vulnerable to international democratic pressures if the proximity of social and organizational ties to the West is properly used by opposition elites and citizens to reverse democratic backsliding.

In addition, the economic factors that give Georgia an important transit function in the context of the Russia-Ukraine war should be taken into account. Namely, the need to develop the Trans-Caspian international transit corridor is in the interest of both China and the European Union, as this way Central Asia, the Caucasus, Turkey and Eastern Europe are being economically connected. This, in turn, means the establishment of railway infrastructure for cargo transportation in the Caspian and Black Sea regions. Among the countries involved in this trade route will be China, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, Ukraine and Poland. China is funding this economic project to meet EU trade demands. Accordingly, China wants to replace Russia and weaken American economic influence in the European Union. This configuration of interests of international players is not favorable for Russia and it is trying to create an unstable situation in Georgia by promoting mutual confrontation, so that it can maintain its foreign positions in relation to the European Union and China.  

The present analysis shows that political and economic factors are interconnected and the authoritarian tendencies caused by these circumstances can be overcome by the parliamentary elections of 2024. The citizens of Georgia and the Georgian opposition, under the leadership of President Zurabishvili, should peacefully, legitimately and through elections trace the path to Europe and democracy. The ruling party of Georgia has a constitutional obligation to recognize the results of the elections, whatever they may be for them, and to protect the Euro-Atlantic foreign policy course recognized by the Georgian constitution, which is one of the important conditions for democratic consolidation. When the government opposes the national interest and the will of the citizens, elections become the only way to overcome the political crisis, because, as former Czech President Vaclav Havel said, elections represent "the power of the weak".

Footnote and Bibliography

[1] Gleditsch Kristian Skrede. “All International Politics Is Local, The Diffusion of Conflict, Integration, and Democratization.” University of Michigan Press, 2002.

[2] Linz and Stepan, “Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation, Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe.” The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

[3] Kopstein, Jeffrey, S and Reilly, David, A. “Geographic Diffusion and the Transformation of the Post-Communist World.” World Politics 53(1), 2000, 1-37.

[4] Burnell, Peter. “Is there a new autocracy promotion?,” Fride Working Paper 96, 2010,  1–6.

[5] Linz and Stepan, “Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation, Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe.” The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

[6] Tolstrup, Jakob. “Studying a Negative External Actor: Russia’s Management of Stability and Instability in the ‘Near Abroad.’” Democratization 16:5, 2009, 922-944.

[7] Service, Robert. “Kremlin Winter: Russia and the Second Coming of Vladimir Putin.” Picador, 2019.

[8] Vachudova Milada Anna. “Europe Undivided Democracy, Leverage, and Integration After Communism.” Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, 65-72, 107.

[9] Tolstrup, Jakob. “When Can External Actors Influence Democratization? Leverage, Linkages, and Gatekeeper Elites.” Democratization 20(4), 2013, 716–742.

[10] Schimmelfennig, Frank and Scholtz, Hanno. “EU Democracy Promotion in the European Neighborhood Political Conditionality, Economic Development and Transnational Exchange.” European Union Politics 9 (2), 2008, 187–215.

[11] Katz, Richard. “Political Parties” in Caramani, Daniele, “Comparative Politics”, Oxford University Press, 2008, 293-316. Katz, Richard. “A Theory of Parties and Electoral Systems.” The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007.

[12]Kudelia, S and Kuzio T. “Nothing personal: explaining the rise and decline of political machines in Ukraine.” Post-Soviet Affairs 31 (3), 250-278.

[13] Merkel, Wolfgang, “Embedded and Defective Democracies.” Democratization 11(5), 2004, 33–58.

[14] Burkadze Zarina. “Great Power Competition and the Path to Democracy. The Case of Georgia, 1991-2020.” Rochester University Press, 2022. Bunce, Valerie, Wolchik, Sharon. “Defeating Authoritarian Leaders in Postcommunist Countries,” Cambridge University Press, 2011.

[15] Service, Robert. “Kremlin Winter: Russia and the Second Coming of Vladimir Putin.” Picador, 2019.

[16] Article 78. Integration in European and Euro-Atlantic structures - the constitutional bodies shall take all measures within their powers to ensure the full integration of Georgia in the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Available at: https://matsne.gov.ge/ka/document/view/30346?publication=36#!

[17] The arrest warrant of the International Criminal Court is available on the following link: https://www.icc-cpi.int/news/situation-ukraine-icc-judges-issue-arrest-warrants-against-vladimir-vladimirovich-putin-and

[18] Burkadze, Zarina, Ketchakmadze Ivane. “How Euro-Atlantic Integration Shapes Popular Attitudes Towards Democracy?” MAPOR Conference Paper, 2023.

[19] President’s action plan – accessible at: https://www.radiotavisupleba.ge/a/32964417.html

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