Date: 4 May 2020
The USA supports Georgians
Shortly before the SARS-CoV-2 epidemic spread throughout the world, Georgia managed to settle the dispute between its government and the opposition and civil society, lasting several months. The political deadlock has tangibly threatened the stability of the country and has been overcome with the clear commitment of American diplomacy. However, it is possible that in the face of the approaching crisis, Georgians may need the help of the United States even more than before.
From November to March, Georgian politics was facing a deep crisis, including street protests and a boycott of parliamentary meetings. The conflict was caused by the issue of the electoral system, more precisely: an unfulfilled promise made by the power camp to change the way the votes were counted. Last summer, the ruling party agreed to shift from a mixed system (about half of the parliament members chosen in majority districts) to fully proportional representation, but a few months later the authorities withdrew from their declarations, rejecting their own draft amendment to the constitution. This resulted in the mentioned deadlock and the threat of progressive destabilisation of the country – shortly before the parliamentary elections planned for autumn 2020.
The crisis has been handled largely thanks to Georgia’s foreign partners, and above all: the European Union and the United States. The EU and US diplomacies have been actively involved in mediation between the two sides, effectively urging the opposition and the government to start negotiations. The talks have lasted since December last year and resulted (despite the temporary break in mediation caused by the opposition) in a formalised agreement on March 8, which provides for the maintenance of a mixed system, but with a significant reduction in the number of single-mandate districts (from 73 to only 30). Currently, a proper proposal to amend the Constitution is being processed by parliament and a committee specially established for this purpose.
Although everything seems to indicate that the issue of the electoral system modification will be finally resolved (the changes still have to be voted on in parliament), it does not mean that the situation in Georgia is stable today. The Georgians remain dissatisfied with the economic conditions in the country and now are additionally facing an impending crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Moreover, the prospect of possible hostile actions taken by the Russian Federation, including potential attempts to disrupt the autumn parliamentary elections, is a source of concern as usual. In all these areas, the wide-ranging support from the United States should prove to be important.
What can Americans do?
On the one hand, Georgians will now need financial and development support. The Americans have a long tradition of this type of activity in Georgia (it is enough to mention the numerous plaques throughout the country informing about investments made from USAID funds), and now, USD 1.1 million has already been earmarked for the Georgian health care system to fight the pandemic. All this, however, will not be enough in view of what may happen to Georgia in the coming months.
The suspension of tourist traffic, the lockdown and the weakest lari to dollar exchange rate in Georgia’s history are hitting the Georgian economy very hard and could effectively destabilise the country on the eve of the parliamentary elections. It is worth noting that over 80% of Georgians declare having no savings at all and tourism is a key industry for the whole country.
On the other hand, American support for Georgia in the field of cyber-security seems equally important. It is not a secret that Georgians are threatened with possible cyber aggression from the Russian Federation. As the international investigation (also conducted by the Americans) indicates, the Russian services were supposed to coordinate the largest hacker attack in Georgia’s history in the autumn of 2019, when several thousand websites (including the presidential administration’s website) and TV stations were infected. Nowadays, it is impossible to resist the impression that the Georgian parliamentary elections are another goal of Russians. Any greater interference in this area (e.g. manipulation of electoral commission data) will give reason to contest the results of the vote, thus additionally exacerbating the already difficult political situation in Georgia.
The “Georgia Support Act 2019” adopted by the House of Representatives last year may become the basis for the USA’s action on the issue of Georgia’s cyber-security. This document explicitly stipulates that the Americans should engage in increasing the resistance of Georgian IT systems to interference from the Russian Federation. If the Senate also accepts the content of the law, then it may be treated as a starting point for strengthening cyber cooperation on the Washington-Tbilisi line.
Mateusz Kubiak – a graduate of Eastern Studies and International Relations at the University of Warsaw. Caucasus geopolitics expert.
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