The past few years in Georgian politics have been fraught with power struggles on both a national and geopolitical level. The country has once again squared up against its giant northern antagonist, Russia, while simultaneously seeking an ever-closer relationship with the EU and NATO. Popular anger has often boiled over into demonstrations, and Georgians, while generally supporting the anti-Russian, pro-European line, are still polarised with regard to social issues, and in many cases remain far from European in their attitudes.
Margvelashvili to Zurabishvili
The president between 2013 and 2018, Giorgi Margvelashvili, may have originally been the candidate of the ruling Georgian Dream Party, but he quickly split with it, apparently wanting to play more the role of mediator in the country's messy politics, rather than using the presidency to consolidate power for his own party. This enraged his Georgian Dream backers, who had placed the little-known former education minister in power, and Margvelashvili became the first Georgian president not to run for a second term. In the presidential elections of 2018, Salome Zurabishvili, a French-born former diplomat, triumphed in the second-round run-off to become Georgia's first female president, though the presidency she inherited was notably pared down by a new constitution that placed more and more power in the hands of the prime minister and parliament. While Zurabishvili ran as an independent, she was strongly supported by the ruling Georgian Dream Party, who have retained a large majority in parliament since 2012.
Unrest in Tbilisi
Georgia's economic relations with Russia appeared to have been warming slightly in recent years, although diplomatic relations between the countries remained broken. That all changed in summer 2019, when a Russian politician addressed an inter-parliamentary conference of Orthodox lawmakers at Georgia's parliament from the Speaker's chair, a poorly thought-through decision by any measure. This angered the local population, a large majority of whom consider Russia to be an occupying power ('Russia is occupant' is the linguistically compromised slogan you'll see all over the country), and there was a spontaneous demonstration in Tbilisi on 20 June 2019, which ended with the attempted storming of parliament, and hundreds of people in hospital. The Speaker of parliament resigned, but demonstrations in Tbilisi continued throughout the summer of 2019, simultaneously venting popular anger against both Russia and the Georgian government, which is widely perceived to be less anti-Russian than it should be. Russia immediately sought to punish Georgia's tourist industry by cancelling all flights from Russian airports to Georgia and advising its citizens, who make up a large proportion of Georgia's annual tourist arrivals, against all travel to the country, for fear of 'Russophobia'. Ironically, the Russian embargo of Georgia introduced in 2006 forced Georgia's economy to diversify and it's now unlikely to be too badly affected by renewed sanctions.
Western, but how Western?
The Georgian Dream government did, however, continue former President Mikheil Saakashvili's pursuit of closer ties with the West, entering into a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) with the EU in 2016 and working towards increased political and economic integration. As part of this, Georgia is obliged to enact a raft of reforms to bring it into line with European norms in areas including human rights and democracy. The prospect of too much Western liberal influence on Georgian culture, however, alarms the country's many social traditionalists, especially the Georgian Orthodox Church, which has enjoyed a massive revival since the end of the Soviet era and is the most powerful social force in the country. Some 40% to 45% of Georgians now attend religious services at least monthly, and the church is a highly conservative body. Indeed, its clergy were involved in violently breaking up a Tbilisi rally marking the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia in 2013, and all subsequent attempts to hold a pride march in Tbilisi since then have been unsuccessful, with the government adamant that they're unable to guarantee the safety of marchers. One demonstration was approved in 2019, but the political unrest in the country at the time led to its eventual cancellation. Despite Georgia remaining deeply conservative and homophobic for the most part, Tbilisi's thriving techno scene has provided an important focal point for progressives of all types and has arguably done much to change local attitudes to alternative lifestyles. This was best illustrated in 2018 when a number of heavy-handed raids on Tbilisi nightclubs led to a series of notorious protests by Tbilisi youth under the banner 'We dance together. We fight together', spearheaded by techno super-club Bassiani and its various DJs in Georgia and around the world. Cannabis was legalised in Georgia the same year, but otherwise drug laws in the country remain draconian.
Georgia finds itself at a strange crossroads today, between its authoritarian past and democratic present, between its Orthodox and progressive values, between the EU and Russia, both of whom see this small country as an important regional influencer. EU flags may fly from outside every government building in Georgia today, but the country still has a long journey ahead before it can genuinely realise its European dream.
In terms of tourism, Georgia has undergone a significant transformation over the past decade from a niche backpacker and hiker secret to a major traveller destination. In 2019 Batumi was named Europe's leading emerging tourist destination at the World Travel Awards, while an incredible eight million tourists visited Georgia in 2018, more than double its population. Guesthouses continue to go from strength to strength, while Western-style hostels are mushrooming all over the country. The Adjara Group, which now has half a dozen properties in the country, is a homegrown hotel group that has pioneered boutique hotels in Georgia and has contributed enormously to the country's reputation. The future for Georgia's tourism, at least, looks bright.