Freedom in the World
In 2010, Georgia began to recover from the conflict and political tumult of previous years, which among other effects had knocked its reform ambitions off course. Local elections held in May 2010 were considered improvements over earlier polls, and the campaign took place in a generally open media environment. Georgia’s relations with Russia remained poor in 2010, with Russian troops still occupying a considerable portion of Georgia’s internationally recognized territory.
Georgia gained its independence from Russia in 1918, only to become part of the Soviet Union in 1922. In 1990, shortly before the Soviet Union’s collapse, an attempt by the region of South Ossetia to declare independence from Georgia and join Russia’s North Ossetia republic sparked a war between the separatists and Georgian forces. Although a ceasefire was signed in 1992, South Ossetia’s final political status remained unresolved.
Following a national referendum in April 1991, Georgia declared its independence from the Soviet Union. Nationalist leader and former dissident Zviad Gamsakhurdia was elected president in May. The next year, he was overthrown by opposition militias and replaced with former Georgian Communist Party head and Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze. Parliamentary elections held in 1992 resulted in more than 30 parties and blocs winning seats, with none securing a majority.
In 1993, Georgia was rocked by the violent secession of the Abkhazia region and an insurrection by Gamsakhurdia loyalists. Shevardnadze legalized the presence of some 19,000 Russian troops in Georgia in return for Russian support against Gamsakhurdia, who reportedly committed suicide after his defeat. In early 1994, Georgia and Abkhazia agreed to a ceasefire, the stationing of Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) troops under Russian command along the Abkhazian border, and the return of refugees under UN supervision.
In 1995, Shevardnadze and his Citizens’ Union of Georgia (CUG) party won presidential and parliamentary polls. The CUG won again in the 1999 parliamentary elections, and observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) concluded that, despite some irregularities, the vote was generally fair. In the 2000 presidential poll, however, Shevardnadze’s wide margin of victory led to fraud accusations that were supported by election monitors.
Shevardnadze faced growing opposition from prominent members of the CUG, including Justice Minister Mikheil Saakashvili, who criticized the president’s failure to contain widespread corruption. While Shevardnadze resigned as CUG chairman in 2001, Saakashvili left to form his own party, the National Movement.
A flawed parliamentary vote in November 2003 sparked a campaign of street protests known as the Rose Revolution. While official results put a pro-Shevardnadze coalition in the lead with 21 percent, independent domestic monitors concluded that the National Movement had actually won with nearly 27 percent. OSCE observers reported a variety of electoral violations. The postelection demonstrations forced Shevardnadze to resign, and Parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, a Saakashvili ally, was named interim president. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court cancelled the results of the parliamentary elections. Saakashvili won a snap presidential election in January 2004, running virtually unopposed and capturing 96 percent of the vote. Fresh parliamentary elections in March gave two-thirds of the seats to the National Movement and allied parties.
Georgia’s relations with Russia soured as Saakashvili quickly reestablished Tbilisi’s control over the semiautonomous southwestern region of Ajaria and pledged to reintegrate the separatist enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which were tacitly supported by the Kremlin. Russia imposed a trade and transport embargo on Georgia in 2006—in response to Georgia’s brief detention of several alleged Russian spies—and the two countries exchanged accusations of military provocation surrounding the two breakaway territories over the next two years.
Growing opposition to Saakashvili’s dominance of the domestic political scene culminated in large street protests in late 2007. Demonstrations in November drew between 50,000 and 100,000 people, prompting a violent police crackdown and the imposition of a November 7–16 state of emergency that barred opposition media from the airwaves and restricted freedom of assembly. Responding to opposition demands for elections, Saakashvili scheduled an early presidential vote for January 5, 2008, giving his opponents little time to prepare.
Saakashvili won reelection with roughly 53 percent of the vote, but his main challenger alleged fraud, and OSCE observers noted an array of irregularities. The ruling party and its allies captured 119 of the 150 seats in May parliamentary elections, with the opposition again declaring that the balloting was rigged.
Tensions with Russia mounted during the spring and summer of 2008. Armed conflict erupted in South Ossetia in early August, and an ensuing Russian invasion pressed deep into Georgian territory. A French-brokered ceasefire took hold after more than a week of fighting, and by fall Russian forces had largely withdrawn to the confines of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia recognized the territories’ independence in the wake of the conflict, but few other countries followed suit. Russia also established a substantial, long-term troop presence in both territories, despite the fact that the ceasefire deal called for a withdrawal of all forces to their positions before the fighting. A European Union (EU) report released in September 2009 assigned blame to both Russia and Georgia for the 2008 hostilities.
Georgian opposition factions continued to press their case against Saakashvili in 2009, and the confrontations between the two sides—while still intense—took place in a somewhat more stable and permissive environment than in the previous two years. Opposition leaders demanded the president’s resignation in April, and his refusal led to a series of street protests, beatings, and arrests that lasted into the summer. Some opposition members were accused of plans to foment violence during the year, and a tank battalion allegedly launched an abortive mutiny in early May.
Political and security conditions eased considerably in 2010, and the frequent protests that characterized the preceding three-year period were largely absent. Local elections held in May 2010 showed an improvement over the previous cycle, with more accurate voter lists and a more open media environment for parties and candidates.
Georgia’s relations with Moscow remained poor. Russian troops continued to occupy South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and in November Georgian authorities announced that they had broken an alleged Russian spy ring. Thirteen people were arrested, including four Russian citizens.In a sign of ongoing public anxiety about Russia, a fictional but realistic television program broadcast in March caused a mass panic by leading viewers to believe that Russian forces had invaded Georgia. The program was aired by the progovernment station Imedi, and effectively depicted the opposition as welcoming the invaders.