- The Georgian Dream?Outcomes from the Summer of Protest, 2018
The summer of 2018 was unsettling for politics in the South Caucasus. In Armenia, street protests led by Nikol Pashinyan ousted the ruling party's leader, Serzh Sargsyan. Nearly simultaneously, Georgia was rocked by two sets of protests. The first was the White Noise movement, which gained notoriety for its May 13, 2018, protests in front of the Georgian Parliament in Tbilisi. The second was a series of demonstrations led by Zaza Saralidze, a blue-collar worker and self-described "ordinary man" whose son was one of two teenage boys killed during a brawl in Tbilisi in December 2017. These two movements led to the resignation of Georgia's prime minister, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, in June 2018. While the downfalls of the heads of government of Georgia and Armenia during the summer of 2018 seem similar on the outside, different forces were at play within each country. Armenia's Velvet Revolution—as Sargsyan's ouster has come to be known—follows the pattern of prior color revolutions in the post-communist space, with anti-government demonstrations resulting in leadership change. In Georgia, the protests of summer 2018 reflect the consolidation of democracy—or, perhaps, the ongoing process of democratization—in the state. This article focuses on the Georgian protests during summer 2018 in the lead-up to the country's presidential election in October, reflecting on democratization as a political process in the South Caucasus state.
The Origins of Georgia's Protests
The White Noise movement initially organized in June 2017 when thousands of youths began protesting in the cities of Tbilisi and Batumi [End Page 249] following the arrests of a pair of local rappers for possession of the drug ecstasy.1 The protestors' key demand was a governmental review and revision of narcotics laws. Leading the May 2018 protests were members of the nascent political party New Political Center—Girchi (trans. pine cone), a liberal opposition movement that split off from the United National Movement (UNM). Girchi previously garnered attention for establishing its own religion—complete with an inflatable church—in order to exempt young men from service in the Georgian military.2
Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili's initial response in June 2017 indicated some conciliation on the drug issue, albeit in a circumlocutory way: "First of all, I must emphasize that scrupulous protection of human rights is one of our greatest achievements and insure against any possibility of tarnishing this achievement. It is true that our controlled substances legislation is overly harsh, and its liberalization is in order."3 The rappers also received public support from Bidzina Ivanishvili's son Bera, himself a rapper; the elder Ivanishvili is the main patron of the ruling Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia coalition (hereafter GD) and previously served as the country's prime minister.
However, the government made little progress on drug policy in the months that followed. Public pressure on reforming the country's narcotics code again came to the fore in March 2018, when the Interior Ministry raided two Tbilisi nightclubs, Bassiani and Café Gallery, claiming that the clubs' owners knew of illegal drug activity taking place there.4 Throughout May 2018, protests regarding the nightclub raids brought together thousands of demonstrators and allies within the country's non-governmental sector, who accused GD of delaying reforms to the country's Soviet-era narcotics laws.5 Following the demonstrations and a lawsuit by the leaders [End Page 250] of Girchi, the Constitutional Court of Georgia banned sanctions on the personal use of marijuana, effectively legalizing the recreational use of the drug.6 Thus, it was the Constitutional Court—rather than the government, parliament, or GD—that took charge of Georgia's much-needed narcotics reform. This development exposed GD's inability or unwillingness to participate actively in social reform programs.
The battle over Georgia's narcotics code demonstrates broad dissonance between Georgian youth, particularly in Tbilisi, and the governing party. It is debatable whether GD stalled reforms to the country's narcotics laws to preserve its political base—socially conservative adult populations in more rural areas.7 The pace of Georgia's...