Georgia, never particularly politically stable, has once more been thrown into turmoil. Coup allegations, media restrictions, and a surge of bitter partisan infighting—all under the shadow of a persistent Russian threat—have created a sense of foreboding. The conventional wisdom blames the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) coalition for creating a political crisis to destroy the opposition United National Movement. That view seems to be affirmed by Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili’s recent statement that the UNM has “no right to remain in politics," and by the state’s ongoing dismantling of the pro-UNM Rustavi 2 television station. But GD’s machinations are only a narrow subset of a much broader problem afflicting Georgia ahead of parliamentary elections in 2016. And here, a massive increase in Russian influence operations is key.
The GD, which came to power in 2012 in a shock landslide victory over an increasingly authoritarian incumbent, UNM, is weakening. A recent poll by the National Democratic Institute revealed that the coalition’s approval rating had fallen to new lows; of likely voters, only 14 percent said that they would vote for GD. Meanwhile, the UNM, which took power after the peaceful 2003 Rose revolution and build a Western-oriented but relatively illiberal state, is still toxic.
At the same time, pro-Russia elements in Georgian politics and society, such as onetime Speaker Nino Burjanadze and populist upstarts in the Alliance of Patriots, are gaining ground. Helping them is extended economic malaise and increasing public despair about the broken promises of Euro–Atlantic integration. Georgia has met or exceeded almost every benchmark for NATO membership, but continues to be stonewalled in Europe over fears of Russia’s reaction.
In all this, Moscow senses an opportunity to boost its local allies at the expense of GD and the UNM. And GD and the UNM, both largely pro-West but ruinously at odds, are taking the bait.
In October, Vladislav Surkov, a personal adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, visited the Moscow-backed Georgian separatist region of South Ossetia in international firestorm. The prospect of Russia devouring yet another piece of territory was appealing to few.
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