Opinion | COVID-19 is Gharibashvili’s True Political Crisis

Credit: Mindia Gabadze, Publika.ge, 18 Feb. 2021

It has been a long week for Irakli Gharibashvili and Georgian Dream.

Actually, no. It has been a long week for *Georgia.*

In fact, there have been so many headlines, rumors, and opinion pieces this past week and a half that it’s almost difficult to tell which “crisis” has the most significant short-term and long-term implications for the government, the people, the state of the union, and the South Caucasus at large.

Among them are (1) the surprise resignation of Giorgi Gakharia and its announcement via Twitter; (2) the release of new economic numbers that show a significant downturn in Jan. 2021; (3) the ordered arrest of United National Movement (UNM) Chairman Nika Melia; (4) mass demonstrations in Kutaisi in opposition to the Namakhvani HPP; (5) opposition protests in Tbilisi; and more. Not counting calls for snap elections.

With complete radio silence from Washington, DC.

This, of course, comes while Charles Michel, President of the European Council (EC), visits Tbilisi for a meeting with Salome Zourabichvili. He plans to mediate informal talks between Georgian Dream and the opposition — something that both factions have indicated a willingness to participate in.

(Whether those talks will yield anything useful is a prediction for another day.)

The main issue occupying the news cycle has been the Tbilisi City Court’s decision to order Nika Melia, Chairman of the UNM, to pre-trial detention for his alleged role in organizing “mass violence” during the 20–21 June 2019 protests in Tbilisi.

Giorgi Gakharia resigned in opposition to carrying out the arrest order, paving the way for Irakli Gharibashvili to do so. He did. (Surprised?) Thus prompting a widespread international reaction from partners in the European Union (EU) and in the United States.

However, the U.S. response has been largely relegated to the congressional Country of Georgia Caucus (not to be confused with *Caucasus*) without much of substance from the Department of State — or, the White House.

I argue that — although Nika Melia’s detention could have irreversible consequences on the political stability of Georgia, the perceived legitimacy of Georgian Dream abroad, Georgia’s ability to conduct foreign and domestic affairs, and future faith in elections and democratic institutions — there is another, overlooked crisis this week that could directly lead to much more death, destruction, damage to the economy, and civil unrest: COVID-19.

Well, COVID-19 itself isn’t the crisis that Gharibashvili has to directly respond to. Gakharia already did that. And at that, COVID-19 has been an issue for Georgia since March 2020.

The newest crisis is COVAX, the vaccine rollout, achieving herd immunity, and the economic recovery that needs to take place thereafter.

First, we need to stay grounded in the reality of COVID-19 transmission in Georgia and the threats it poses if Gharibashvili decides to loosen restrictions in order to score political points. As of Dec. 2020, Georgia still had one of the highest COVID-19 infection and death rates of anywhere in the world.

In his nomination address, Gharibashvili declared that COVID-19 — and, the unemployment caused by the pandemic — are the biggest priorities on his agenda.

There have been reports in the past month, largely drawing from recent interviews with Minister of Health Ekaterine Tikaradze, indicating that Georgia might sue the World Health Organization (WHO) and its COVAX program because Georgia has allegedly failed to meet certain requirements to receive the Pfizer vaccine in March 2021.

There is also widespread public skepticism over Georgia’s participation in the WHO, COVAX, and the safety of vaccines — an issue that has grown increasingly worrisome the longer that Georgia’s vaccine rollout has been prolonged. Nearly 40% of Georgians don’t want *any* COVID-19 vaccine.

This will become a major public relations, communications, and messaging issue for Gharibashvili to manage next month. And, if not dealt with carefully, could irreparably damage his reputation.

There have also been rumors since mid-January that Amiran Gamkrelidze, Director of the National Center for Disease Control and Public Health (NCDC), might resign. This hasn’t been confirmed yet. This would also be politically disastrous, as 64% of the Georgian public has faith in the NCDC’s managing of COVID-19 compared to only 46% who trust the Office of the Prime Minister (IRI p. 5).

These reports have led to a mobilization of the opposition and a significant movement in polling attitudes from UNM’s base. It is quite possible that some of the demonstrations, unrest, and parliamentary antics this past month have been reflective of these trends and indirectly influenced by COVID-19.

Georgia has prolonged the rollout of its vaccination program *twice,* delaying distribution to early-to-mid March instead of January 2021. The latter deadline of which has been eclipsed by over a month now.

I believe that if Georgia fails to meet the milestones set out in Giorgi Gakharia’s vaccination plan, which was released on 21 Jan. 2021, the political consequences for Georgian Dream would be catastrophic — reversing any and all progress made by Gakharia to boost the public opinion of Georgian Dream since Nov. 2019.

And, a potential third wave of COVID-19 infections in Georgia is quickly approaching as the weather begins to lighten up.

The responsibility to manage this crisis now lies with Irakli Gharibashvili and Ekaterine Tikaradze.

Why exactly is COVID-19 and Georgia’s vaccination plan more politically consequential than the arrest of Nika Melia?

Because it is the single-most important public health issue with the Georgian public. By far. We have the data to prove that.

And, the economic consequences of prolonged COVID-19 shutdowns in Georgia — such as unemployment, inflation, and poverty — together constitute the majority share of what the Georgian public considers to be “the biggest issues” facing the country at the moment (NDI p. 15).

If we were to examine public attitudes on corruption, political parties, parliamentary gridlock, justice, or the court system — all of which are at the forefront of the current GD-UNM crisis — the priority is in the single-digits. Only 2% of the Georgian public considered these issues as significant for the trajectory of Georgia in 2021 (NDI p. 15).

Recent polling data also suggests that the government’s approval rating, the approval of the Prime Minister, the approval of Georgian Dream, and public opinion on the trajectory of Georgia are inseparable from the public perception of the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis.

There is a direct time-dependent correlation in the data between COVID-19 infections and deaths, attitudes on the priority of public health and economic issues, voting patterns, the approval rating of the Prime Minister and Georgian Dream, and public perceptions on the trajectory of Georgia.

According to more polls, COVID-19 — and, its economic implications — was also the single-biggest deciding factor in undecided voters going into the 2020 parliamentary elections.

This is not the first time that Irakli Gharibashvili has had to deal with a political, economic, public health, or national security crisis. This is not his first foray into parliamentary politics or Cabinet-level decision-making.

Because he has been the Prime Minister before, from 2013–2015.

The difference between his past experience in dealing with crises is that he didn’t have to delegate, mitigate, and recover from them all at once. Single decisions didn’t directly affect the 2013–2015 Iraq and Afghanistan troop surges from Georgia, Georgia’s response to the 2014–2015 flu season (one of the deadliest globally in recent years), or Georgia’s rising unemployment rate in 2015 all at once.

COVID-19 and its repercussions are fluid, dynamic, unpredictable, and affect nearly all areas of administration and public policy.

The handling of COVID-19 directly affects — and, is reflective of — a state’s economic capabilities, political stability, public health infrastructure, public opinion and unrest, and more. It also affects a state’s ability to conduct foreign relations, policymaking, and enact national security decisions.

Gharibashvili is currently riding a positive wave of public opinion for Georgian Dream that is carried over from Gakharia’s COVID-19 response. Of course, the political crisis with Nika Melia will invariably affect this — but, it’s too early to make any data-driven judgements on how much of an impact it will have. We might have to wait until mid-2021 for those results.

Nearly 60% of the Georgian population, regardless of party affiliation, viewed Georgian Dream’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 as “good.” This directly led to a double-digit increase in approval for Gakharia and Georgian Dream between Nov. 2019 and Dec. 2020 — which some analysts have attributed their 2020 election victory to (NDI p. 33).

In the same breath, it led to both a stagnation and brief dip in approval for UNM.

The bigger issue that pertains to COVID-19 — and, what’s on the minds of most Georgians — is how Gharibashvili will manage the economic recovery once herd immunity is achieved following a successful vaccine rollout.

Let’s assume that Gharibashvili’s new government is able to secure enough vaccine directly from manufacturers via COVAX to achieve the goal of 50–60% fully vaccinated by 2022. This will be a major accomplishment if achieved, and, by my estimates, improbable, but let’s pretend like it already happened for a second.

(This will probably require negotiations with Russia to secure doses of Sputnik V, which doesn’t seem likely. Abkhazia and South Ossetia have already asked, though.)

This brings Gakharia’s phased re-opening plan into closer examination, with potential economic re-openings taking place in April, July, and September. This includes the unconditional re-opening of borders to tourists, a return to work, a re-opening of government institutions in Tbilisi, etc.

Push these dates back by two months — to coincide with the two months lost in securing vaccines from Pfizer and AstraZeneca (planned for mid-Feb. 2021) — and we see a gradual re-opening by the end of 2021. By comparison, this is a significantly longer timeline than that of Georgia’s neighbors — Armenia (Sputnik V), Russia (Sputnik V), Azerbaijan (which already began vaccinations three weeks ago), and Turkey (which has already administered 9 mil. doses).

By comparison, Georgia has not even begun its mass vaccination rollout which was planned to start over a month ago.

Georgia hasn’t even secured preliminary agreements, that the public knows of, to meet their initial vaccination projections. This could prolong the beginning of a comprehensive economic recovery until 2022.

This comes as reports yesterday indicate that Georgia’s economy shrunk by 6.1% in 2020.

In order for Gharibashvili to begin a gradual re-opening of Georgia and a return to normal, he will have to figure out a way to manage an expedited vaccine rollout with gradual economic concessions made in order to prevent unrest from boiling over — particularly in rural regions where unemployment rates are double (or, triple in some cases) than in urban and suburban centers.

The regions most disproportionately affected by both COVID-19 and the recent economic downturn — Svaneti, Samstkhe-Javakheti, and Kakheti — will also be some of the most difficult to get vaccines to.

Given these factors, it is *not an entirely unreasonable prediction* that Russia may prioritize Sputnik V vaccinations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia over their own North Caucasus — thus fueling potential geopolitical tensions that might lead to unrest. There are no confirmed plans for this to happen, but it is possible. Keep in mind that many Georgians still prioritize Russian involvement in the South Caucasus as one of the biggest issues — and, fears — facing their country.

This is an incredibly complicated problem for Gharibashvili to manage and may define his legacy as Prime Minister.

In all, I believe that Gharibashvili’s coordination with the NCDC, the Ministry of Health, and Parliament in order to implement an effective COVID-19 vaccination strategy is actually the most politically volatile issue he will face as Prime Minister. More so than the arrest of Nika Melia, which could potentially blow over (or, be bottled up and suppressed) within the next few weeks as mediations begin. I’m not saying it won’t erupt. It could. Again, that is just a possible prediction and not grounded in any confirmed reports.

Maybe COVID-19 is not the most intense or immediately newsworthy story, but I think it hangs as a fog over many of the other issues Georgia faces right now.

Gharibashvili’s adherence to Gakharia’s vaccination plan, his ability to secure vaccines doses through COVAX, his managing of a potential “third wave” and subsequent infections/deaths, and actions taken to re-open and stimulate an economic recovery will directly influence his legitimacy more than any other single issue, based on comprehensive polling data from a variety of NGOs — namely the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI).

It will also directly impact public opinions of Georgian Dream, Bidzina Ivanishvili, Salome Zourabichvili, Kakha Kaladze, and others. All of which have overwhelmingly negative approval ratings (as of Dec. 2020) with regards to COVID-19.

The only Cabinet-level entities which are perceived positively are the Office of the Prime Minister, the Ministry of Health, and the NCDC. All of which now report to Irakli Gharibashvili, as of last Thursday.

Gharibashvili’s public perception, potential political accomplishments, and legacy will depend on his success — or, failure — in continuing with the plans of Giorgi Gakharia and defeating the COVID-19 pandemic in Georgia.

Alexander Leslie is a foreign policy analyst, freelance journalist, and has an M.A. in Eurasian, Russian, & East European Studies from Georgetown University. His interests include U.S.-Georgia relations, energy politics, and studies in counterterrorism policy.

Contact: aejleslie@gmail.com

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