Georgia: From COVID-19 to a Critical Test of Democracy


Sep 23, 2020

Members of parliament attend the first session of the newly elected parliament in Kutaisi, Georgia, November 18, 2016, photo by David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters

Members of parliament attend the first session of the newly elected parliament in Kutaisi, Georgia, November 18, 2016

Photo by David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters

By Kenneth Yalowitz, John Tefft, William Courtney

This commentary originally appeared on The National Interest on September 22, 2020.

Georgia has successfully dealt with the coronavirus outbreak but now must meet the task of conducting free, fair, and transparent parliamentary elections on October 31 and dealing with the economic impacts of the pandemic. Each of us has served as U.S. Ambassador to Georgia and can attest that the country has come a long way in democratic and economic reforms since independence in 1991. We were encouraged by the compromise electoral reform law adopted earlier in the year, but the whole election process could be reformed to better reflect the will of the Georgian people.

There is serious concern over Russian interference in the upcoming election. U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Kelly Degnan has twice warned that “Georgians should expect that Russia is going to interfere” based on “a long pattern of interference through disinformation campaigns and other efforts.”

Many of Georgia's friends abroad have been uneasy about the country's recent reform trajectory. This is illustrated by a recent House Appropriations Committee proposal to block 15 percent of U.S. aid unless Tbilisi “strengthens democratic institutions,” does more to fight corruption, and protects foreign businesses operating in Georgia. This proposal may not survive the legislative process, but it is a signal that the upcoming election and Georgia's dealings with foreign investors will be carefully monitored.

The run-up to the 2018 presidential election was “marked by violence and intimidation” and threats against foreign nongovernmental organizations. In June 2019, rubber bullets and tear gas were used “without warning against thousands of nonviolent protestors” outside the Parliament.

A December 2019 National Democratic Institute (NDI) poll found that 53 percent of Georgians thought the country was going in the wrong direction and only 19 percent in the right direction. The same poll showed that 59 percent of respondents did not believe Georgia was a democracy, a jump from 46 percent one year before.…

The remainder of this commentary is available at

Kenneth Yalowitz is a global fellow at the Wilson Center, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, and former U.S. Ambassador to Belarus and Georgia. John Tefft is an adjunct senior fellow at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and a former U.S. Ambassador to Lithuania, Georgia, Ukraine, and Russia. William Courtney is an adjunct senior fellow at RAND and a former U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan, Georgia, and a U.S.-Soviet commission to implement the Threshold Test Ban Treaty.

More About This Commentary

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.