This blog is devoted to the memory of our dear friend, colleague, founding editor of the Presidential Power blog and great scholar, Robert Elgie. I am very sad about his passing and will always be very grateful for his help and support.
Protests have been ongoing in Georgia’s capital Tbilisi over the past few weeks. On June 19, 2019 the 26th General Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Assembly of the Orthodox Church (I.A.O) opened in Tbilisi. The I.A.O. is an inter-parliamentary body formed under the initiative of the Greek Parliament in 1993.
Protests were sparked by the arrival of the Russian I.A.O. delegation to the plenary hall of the Georgian Parliament, and the decision to let a Russian lawmaker, Sergei Gavrilov, temporarily sit in the chair of of the speaker. This act was considered very insulting by Georgian opposition members and the public at large, as the Russian Federation has occupied 20% of the territory of Georgia and Georgia does not have diplomatic relations with Russia. It should be noted that most of the public and the opposition initially objected to hosting the I.A.O. Assembly and demanded to not allow Russian MPs to enter Georgia, including Sergei Gavrilov. Gavrilov had visited occupied territory, participated in armed conflict against Georgia and voted in 2008 in the Russian parliament to recognise regions of Georgia as independent states.
The opposition MPs protested the appearance of the Russian MP in the Parliament of Georgia. MPs from the “United National Movement” (UNM) and “European Georgia” gave the government half an hour for all Russian MPs to withdraw, saying that “if the government did not withdraw these people from the parliament building, they would start mobilizing and bringing people to the Parliament Hall”.
The government was forced to suspend the assembly and remove the Russian MPs from the Parliament building. Bidzina Ivanishvili, the chairman of the ruling party, said he fully shared the concern of citizens with regard to the presence of a representative of an occupying state in the Parliament of Georgia. But he said that it was a protocol error, whose political significance, unfortunately, the organizers did not take into consideration. Ivanishvili noted that he had already talked to the Chairman of the Parliament, expressed his concerns and that his recommendation was to immediately terminate this session. 
Ivanishvili’s statement was not enough to calm the protest and citizens started gathering at the parliament building. A group of activists and political parties announced a large-scale demonstration on Rustaveli Avenue, and in the evening several thousand people gathered outside the parliament. In parallel, the government started to mobilize law enforcement and special forces units. As the number of people at the rally grew, civil activists and members of political parties addressed the public. One of the leaders of the UNM, Nika Melia addressed the government and gave a one hour delay to replace the Speaker of Parliament Irakli Kobakhidze, Chairman of the State Security Service Vakhtang Gomelauri, and Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia. Otherwise, Melia said that the citizens would enter the parliament.
The authorities did not consider these demands and deployed special forces units at the entrance of the parliament in front of the protesters. A one-hour confrontation ensued between demonstrators and law enforcement services. The situation could not be solved by Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia, who came to the parliament to negotiate with the opposition leaders. Finally, riot police started to disrupt the rally. The government used tear gas and rubber bullets against the protesters to no avail. Finally, with the use of water cannons, the protest was disbanded. However, riot police pursued rally participants after the end of the protest, chasing them on various streets and using force. Ultimately, several hundred people were injured as a result of the violent dispersal, including policemen, journalists and peaceful protesters. Three rally participants lost their eyesight after being hit by rubber bullets.
Though the Georgian authorities succeeded in violently dispersing the rally, the citizen protest was not over. On the second day after the demonstration, protesters raised three demands. They demanded the resignation of the Interior Minister, the adoption of proportional representation for the next parliamentary elections, and the immediate release of the detainees. 
Though concerned about the high tensions, the government struggled to place political responsibility. Ultimately, at a session of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, Irakli Kobakhidze resigned from the Speaker of Parliament position. His resignation was not enough to calm the protesters, however, who maintained their other political demands, including the adoption of proportional representation for the 2020 parliamentary elections. On June 24, 2019, a few days after the rally was dissolved, the Georgian Dream coalition acquiesced and said that the 2020 parliamentary elections will be conducted through a proportional system under a zero electoral threshold. 
This unexpected change to the electoral system was considered a victory for the protesters, but many remained suspicious of the annulment of the election threshold. Election observer organizations also commented on the abolition of the threshold which currently, in accordance with the constitution of Georgia, is set at 3% for the 2020 elections. On the one hand, the abolition of the election threshold is useful for the ruling party and on the other hand it could pave the way for different nationalist, pro-Russian or fascist groups. The opposition fears that the ruling party, which has the most financial resources, will facilitate the creation and purchase of various satellite parties, and has been vocal about its concerns. 
It should be noted that the adoption of a proportional electoral system could have a significant impact on politics in Georgia. In fact, since 1995, Georgia has been a single-party administration, with one party securing an absolute majority in parliament. This situation is partially the result of the current mixed electoral system, where 77 MPs are elected by a proportional electoral system and the remaining 73 MPs are elected in single member districts. MPs members of the majority consistently support the ruling party and always take pro-government positions. During the constitutional reform of 2017-2018, the ruling Georgian Dream coalition postponed the introduction of a system of proportional representation to 2024 despite demands from the opposition, NGOs and international organizations. The ruling party said its implementation would require a constitutional amendment process.
In order to change the constitution of Georgia, and thus the country’s electoral system enshrined therein, it is necessary to publish the bill, have public discussions during a one-month period, followed by discussions in Parliament. The bill must achieve the support of ¾ of the Members of Parliament; in the absence of such support, the initiative should be considered by the next elected legislature.
It is too early to say what the prospect are to achieve this significant change that requires broad
consensus and agreement. In the past, the
government has always been able to win time
and get its way. To ensure that this initiative
is implemented, it is necessary for the
opposition and civil society to remain united and maintain pressure on the government.