While the global death toll from the coronavirus pandemic continues to rise, Georgia has distinguished itself with its relatively low numbers of infections and deaths since the country registered its first coronavirus case at the end of February 2020. An explanation for Georgia’s flatter curve lies, at least partly, in the authorities’ swift response.1 Well before declaring a state of emergency, the Georgian government closed education institutions, advised all public and private sector employees to work remotely, and suspended public transportation. All shops, except grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations, post offices, and banks, were closed.2
Georgia’s crisis management efforts entailed an effective fusion of state and societal resilience: the government responded swiftly, and society showed commendable responsibility in observing coronavirus measures. Georgia’s civil society quickly adapted to the altered context of the pandemic, assuming new identities and roles during the crisis. Civil society’s response has been shaped largely by the humanitarian needs of the population and an increased demand for government accountability. While Georgia has been reasonably effective in terms of managing the pandemic at the levels of both state and society, the government’s emergency measures have sat uneasily with democratic principles. Although no harsh human rights violations or pressure on civil society has taken place, the government’s actions have weakened democratic checks and balances.
The Unparliamentary Republic of Georgia
On March 21, 2020, Georgia declared a state of emergency, which granted the president—with the agreement of the prime minister—the right to restrict constitutional civil rights. The presidential edict failed to define clearly the scope of restrictions on human rights and freedoms and instead mandated the government to decide on the breadth and purpose of its interventions.3 Criticisms of this shortcoming have apparently been outweighed by the fear and confusion emanating from the pandemic.
Despite a highly polarized political environment, the opposition voted in favor of the state of emergency—even though it had been boycotting the country’s parliament in protest against a U-turn by the ruling Georgian Dream party over electoral reforms.4 Most importantly, the public has overwhelmingly supported the policies implemented by the government, particularly at the beginning of the outbreak.5 However, the government’s strict and prolonged regulations, some of which have never been explained to the public, and the decision to extend the state of emergency by a month without detailed healthcare and economic plans have more recently ended the consensus witnessed on March 21.6
The presidential edict gave the executive the authority to restrict civil rights, but without clear guidance from the legislature, this new power left the government beyond parliamentary control in the first two months of the state of emergency. On top of that, the parliament did not use its mechanisms of parliamentary oversight in this period. The paucity of parliamentary scrutiny has been a challenge for Georgia since the country fully transitioned to a parliamentary model of governance in 2017 and has been further aggravated during the pandemic.7
Some of the restrictions introduced during the state of emergency raised public concerns about their proportionality. Fines of around $1,000 for individuals and $5,000 for legal persons for violating the state of emergency went beyond reasonable penalties, according to watchdog organizations. For example, a citizen protesting alone in front of the chancellery was fined for breaking emergency restrictions.8
In addition, the government’s response to violations has fallen short of applying to all citizens equally. The Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC), one of the most trusted institutions in Georgia, has largely refused to comply with emergency laws and restrictions.9 The church has conducted its liturgies almost as usual, and dozens of parishioners have gathered at ceremonies and received the Communion with a shared spoon, despite many pleas to halt the practice. However, the church’s defiance of the state of emergency has not prompted an effective response from the government.10 This comes as no surprise in Georgian politics, where the GOC has been courted by political parties thanks to its influence over public opinion, including in elections.
In times of crisis, people turn to their governments, and the coronavirus pandemic seems no different. In Georgia, the state’s relatively fast efforts have translated into strong public approval of the performance of medical and governmental institutions in responding to the coronavirus, especially from March to May 2020.11 The largest increase in approval was for Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia, whose rating in one poll rose from 21 percent before the pandemic to 66 percent during it, equaling the score of the GOC, which has traditionally topped the list.
This popularity surge tempted the Georgian Dream party to try to go back on a deal to which it reluctantly agreed in early March to modify the country’s electoral system.12 The deal was intended to make the electoral system more—although not completely—proportional and would likely prejudice Georgian Dream. Under increased pressure from partners like the United States and the European Union, Georgian Dream eventually voted in favor of constitutional changes to implement the electoral reform.
Georgia’s ruling party used the coronavirus crisis as a convenient pretext to adopt a controversial law after the end of the state of emergency. An amendment to the country’s public health law allowed the government to impose restrictions on travel, assembly, economic activities, and property rights until 2021 without parliamentary approval. Granting such authority to the executive with no legislative control violates the constitution and puts Georgia’s already poor democratic credentials at risk.13 Despite harsh criticism from civil society, the amendment still entered into force.14
A New Identity for Civil Society
As elsewhere in the world, the coronavirus pandemic has posed an extraordinary challenge to the functioning of civil society in Georgia. However, the altered environment has also unlocked opportunities for a largely digitized but efficient civic response. The changing context has given rise to new civil society identities, with more grassroots activism responding to citizens’ basic needs. The coronavirus context, with its widespread humanitarian requirements, has incentivized a crowdfunding culture and bottom-up movements that can galvanize citizens, the private sector, and the public sector for joint action. Civil society has managed to fill the gap between the government’s pandemic response and the needs of citizens. These novel ways of functioning have raised the hope for both increased civil society legitimacy and the emergence of new civil society identities after the pandemic.
Civil society activities during the pandemic have mostly targeted vulnerable groups in society, the elderly, children with limited access to sustained education, single mothers, and women who experienced violence in the lockdown. The civic initiative Help Elders, a Facebook platform, gathered about $30,000 to provide food, medicine, and other necessities and supported up to 1,000 seniors who were left without care.15
The founders of the social enterprise Knowledge Café played a crucial role in mobilizing resources and providing for the needs of elderly people across Georgia. In addition to the humanitarian scope of its activities, Knowledge Café launched various initiatives to help seniors cope with the stress caused by the pandemic.16 Some inspiring examples of community solidarity initiatives, such as Give Internet together with the Knowledge Café raised funds to provide internet access and laptops to underprivileged high school students in rural areas.17 The Knowledge Café additionally initiated personal educational mentoring programs to support digital studying processes for students.
In the digitized coronavirus era, various platforms have been established to provide accurate information about the pandemic and necessary preventive measures. These platforms have played a crucial role in spreading relevant information and making it available in the languages of ethnic minorities that have been severely affected by the outbreak.18 Several well-established nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) supported government-led coronavirus awareness-raising campaigns by producing eye-catching information posters and videos. Another civic initiative provided support for animals that had been abandoned without food or shelter.19
Significantly, the civic response has led to new initiatives that appear to be strongly rooted and set to endure. It has also given rise to a crowdfunding culture, which will remain relevant after the crisis abates. The challenges of the pandemic have also promoted community solidarity, which is likewise set to remain highly pertinent after the pandemic.
Contentious Coronavirus Activism
At a more political level than efforts to address social and humanitarian needs, civil society in Georgia has also played the crucial role of holding the government accountable and reining it back from undemocratic actions. Swiftly adapting to the coronavirus context, the civic movement Shame held an online demonstration, which attracted over 150,000 views, to protest against Georgian Dream’s backtracking on constitutional amendments and call for a fairer and more proportional electoral system.20
This new type of protest provides an important example of digital activism in Georgia and an innovative solution for voicing citizens’ concerns over the government’s performance during the pandemic—and afterward if the government continues to restrict the right of assembly. Shame offered another example of social and political responsibility by holding a physically distanced protest in front of the Georgian parliament to mark the first anniversary of the June 2019 anti-government protests.21
In the same vein as the emergent civic activism, traditional NGOs actively monitored the proportionality of the government’s coronavirus measures. These organizations also played important roles in observing Georgia’s political processes and urging the country’s foreign partners to persuade the government to commit to an independent judicial system and release jailed opposition party representatives.22
Transparency International Georgia exercised an effective function in overseeing public spending and making recommendations to prevent corruption during the pandemic.23 The Institute for Development of Freedom of Information, an NGO, explored alternative, online ways of monitoring the government’s procurement activities, including by offering training for journalists and activists on the use of open-source data to oversee government activities.24
The watchdog Factcheck.ge, run by the independent think tank Georgia’s Reforms Associates, and the Myth Detector platform, managed by the Media Development Foundation, an NGO, increased awareness of coronavirus-related disinformation, which has had prejudicial effects on public health.25 For example, some people were hospitalized after burning their esophagus as a result of being told that drinking hot water would protect them from catching the virus. Since September 2020, these two organizations have partnered with Facebook as third-party fact-checkers to tackle the dissemination of fake news on the social media platform. This initiative was especially important in the run-up to the 2020 election, because the electoral campaign was largely held online amid the coronavirus restrictions.26
Civic activism in Georgia during the pandemic has demonstrated commendable flexibility in adapting to a changing environment. Both traditional watchdog organizations and new civic activists have been influential in holding the government to account and providing effective lessons of digital oversight in an emergency.
The ability of civil society to adapt to the pandemic environment and the roles activists have played during the crisis have shown the importance of a vibrant civic sector in terms of both addressing the needs of society and providing effective oversight of government actions, especially in an unconsolidated democracy like Georgia. The pandemic has proved that decades-long Western assistance to Georgia’s resilience-building efforts has produced results, particularly for civil society. Besides, civic groups have managed to bridge the gap between the government’s response to the pandemic and the needs of society. New initiatives to bring civic actors closer to citizens and the important roles civil society have played during the crisis raise hopes for increased civil society legitimacy after the pandemic.
For its part, the Georgian government deserves credit for its early and fast response to the pandemic, but questions remain about its undemocratic leanings. Although there have been no harsh violations of human rights or pressure on civil society, Georgia’s response to the pandemic has been accompanied by some worrying signs. The coronavirus crisis has exposed a lack of democratic checks and balances—something that was a challenge even before the pandemic. The ruling party used the coronavirus as a pretext to adopt controversial amendments to the law on public health that allow the government to restrict fundamental rights and freedoms without the need for a state of emergency and, therefore, without the consent of the parliament. Conversely, examples of civil society’s oversight of the government’s management of the pandemic showed the importance of activism in shoring up democratic processes and accountability.
1 Vlagyiszlav Makszimov, “Georgia’s Furious Fight Against COVID-19,” Euractiv, March 24, 2020, https://www.euractiv.com/section/eastern-europe/news/georgias-furious-fight-against-COVID-19/.
2 Teona Absandze, “Chronology and Preventive Measures Against the Spread of the Coronavirus in Georgia,” FactCheck Georgia, April 4, 2020, https://bit.ly/2ZuNgaz.
3 Giorgi Chitidze, “Georgia’s Coronation of an Orwellian Doublethink,” Verfassungsblog, May 11, 2020, https://verfassungsblog.de/georgias-coronation-of-an-orwellian-doublethink/.
4 “United National Movement Opposition Boycotts Parliament Despite Making Election Deal,” Agenda.ge, March 11, 2020, https://agenda.ge/en/news/2020/748.
5 “Covid-19 Monitor 2020, Wave 1,” Caucasus Research Resource Center, May 2020, https://caucasusbarometer.org/en/cv2020w1/CVPRFPM/.
6 “Georgian Parliament Authorizes to Extend State of Emergency,” Civil Georgia, April 22, 2020, https://civil.ge/archives/348024.
7 “Parliamentary Control in Georgia,” Transparency International Georgia, April 13, 2020, https://transparency.ge/sites/default/files/parliament-2019-en-web.pdf.
8 “Managing the Challenges of COVID-19 Government Actions Evaluation Report,” Transparency International Georgia, July 14, 2020, https://www.transparency.ge/en/post/managing-challenges-COVID-19-government-actions-evaluation-report.
9 “Knowledge of and Attitudes Toward the EU in Georgia, 2019,” Caucasus Research Resource Center, 2019, https://caucasusbarometer.org/en/eu2019ge/RELGION-by-TRURELI/.
10 “Relations Between the Government and the Patriarchate Might Imperil Human Health,” FactCheck Georgia, April 17, 2020, https://bit.ly/3eEb3ZV.
11 “Covid-19 Monitor 2020,” Caucasus Research Resource Center.
12 “Political Dialogue Facilitators Release Joint Statement Over March 8 Agreement,” Civil Georgia, May 11, 2020, https://civil.ge/archives/351332.
13 “GYLA Makes an Appeal on the Amendments to the Law of Georgia on Public Health to the Constitutional Court,” Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, May 22, 2020, https://gyla.ge/en/post/saia-sazogadoebrivi-jandacvis-shesakheb-kanonshi-shetanil-cvlilebebs-sakonstitucio-sasamartloshi-asachivrebs.
14 “GYLA Criticizes the New Law on Public Health,” Civil Georgia, May 15, 2020, https://civil.ge/ka/archives/348645.
15 Author interview with Mariam Tsertsvadze, co-founder of the Help Elders initiative, by email, July 17, 2020.
16 Author interview with the co-founder of the social enterprise Knowledge Café, by email, July 17, 2020.
17 “Pandemic Civic Response Bulletin: Republic of Georgia,” Prague Civil Society Center, retrieved July 15, 2020, https://praguecivilsociety.org/pandemic-civic-response-bulletin-republic-of-georgia/.
18 The NGO Salam produced posters in the Azeri language with information about the coronavirus. Salam, official Facebook page, retrieved July 15, 2020, https://www.facebook.com/SalamGeorgia/.
19 Author interview with Mariam Tsertsvadze, participant in the initiative For Animals Left Alone, by email, July 17, 2020.
20 “Thousands Stage Anti-Government Protest in Tbilisi,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, September 20, 2019, https://www.rferl.org/a/thousands-stage-anti-government-protest-in-tbilisi/30175687.html.
21 “Protesters Mark ‘Gavrilov’s Night’ Anniversary in Tbilisi,” OC Media, June 20, 2020, https://oc-media.org/protesters-mark-gavrilovs-night-anniversary-in-tbilisi/.
22 “President Zurabishvili Pardons Gigi Ugulava, Irakli Okruashvili,” Civil Georgia, May 15, 2020, https://civil.ge/archives/352010.
23 “Preventing Corruption During the Pandemic: Challenges and Recommendations,” Transparency International Georgia, May 20, 2020, https://transparency.ge/en/post/preventing-corruption-during-pandemic-challenges-and-recommendations.
24 Author interview with a representative of the Institute for Development of Freedom of Information, August 28, 2020.
25 “COVID-19,” FactCheck Georgia, retrieved September 20, 2020, https://factcheck.ge/en/covid-19.
26 “Facebook Expands Fact-Checking Program to Georgia,” Civil Georgia, September 17, 2020, https://civil.ge/archives/368246.