Georgian politics is nothing if not interesting. On March 21, protesters crowded Tbilisi’s Freedom Square demanding the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) coalition government’s resignation. Organized by the opposition United National Movement (UNM), which held power between 2004 and 2012, turnout ranged from estimates of 15,000 to 50,000. Either way, it was an impressive show of force for the UNM, which has largely subsisted at the margins of Georgian political life after a string of electoral defeats in 2012, 2013, and 2014.

The protests largely coincided with new polls from the International Republican Institute, which showed a large decline in support for GD; the most recent numbers give GD 36 percent—a steep drop from its mid-2014 election share of just over 50 percent. This sense of public discontent gives UNM activists hope that their interregnum from power will end sooner rather than later. But if the polls are to be believed, the UNM also has some way to go before it becomes electorally competitive again.

In some ways, the 21 March protest represents a return to the UNM’s roots—it catapulted to power through peaceful mass protests in the 2003 Rose Revolution. But it also underscores the difficulties the UNM has had coping with life as an opposition party. If anything, UNM support has shrunk over time; its 51 seats in parliament—mostly based on the 2012 election, during which it was a dominant incumbent—almost certainly flatters its actual support. In the 2013 presidential election and 2014 local elections, the UNM was held to only about 20 percent of the nationwide vote, and recent polls only give it 14 percent (albeit with still many undecided voters). It’s perhaps telling that UNM protesters called for the government’s resignation rather than for elections they would be unlikely to win.

But despite GD’s flagging fortunes, the UNM has not been able to rebuild its brand or expand its support much beyond its traditional base. The UNM can play a constructive role but it remains hobbled by memory of its excesses during its eight years in power. While much of the UNM leadership categorically denies responsibility for abuses committed under its tenure (to the extent they admit abuses happened at all), there are party members who realize it’s current path is a dead end. According to several UNM operatives, party moderates likely would have split off by now—led by respected parliamentary minority leader Davit Bakradze—if it were not for GD’s persistent prosecution of UNM ex-officials. Ironically, the ruling party’s dogged campaign to punish the ancien régime may be the very thing keeping them together.

Prosecuting ex-officials responsible for abuses is not necessarily a bad thing, but the way GD has seemingly pursued those prosecutions, such as legal wrangling over ex-Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava’s pre-trial detention, sow doubt at home and abroad over its priorities. The charges arrayed against former officials may be credible enough, but polls show that restorative justice offers meager returns on policy or public opinion. Instead, Georgians prefer their leadership redirect the vigor and creativity being put into prosecutions towards reforms and governance. One senior GD official, shrugging with resignation, agreed that the prosecutions were a strategic distraction -- yet, this increasingly evident view has yet to sway GD’s governing strategy.

Of course, politics is rarely an exercise in the perfect provision of policies and interests. Accordingly, the UNM-GD war of attrition is hardly a showdown over competing policy choices. The personal animosity between GD founder Bidzina Ivanishvili and UNM ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili—two men without any official standing but at the helms of their respective parties—clearly plays an outsized role, ensuring a baseline of combat between the major political camps.

The two political groups’ no-holds-barred partisan wars may be emotionally satisfying for the principals, but it is also creating the political space for the return of conservative, Moscow-leaning parties and organizations to thrive. The IRI polls show anti-Western parties gaining ground, including ex-Speaker Nino Burjanadze’s Democratic Movement, the insurgent Alliance of Patriots, and Shalva Natelashvili’s Labor Party. At 16 percent, this likely understates the popularity of anti-West sentiment, given the presence of Western-skeptical parties within GD like the Industrialists and the National Forum as well as large numbers of undecided voters, of which a number broke for Burjanadze or the Alliance in elections last year.

On some big picture issues—like Western integration and managing Russian militarism—GD and the UNM have more in common than not, and certainly more than they do with the Eurasianist factions that appear on the ascendant. A GD-UNM detente seems logical, but it will depend on each party’s gray cardinal to accede—or for their official leadership to seize the initiative themselves.

Michael Cecire is a Black Sea regional analyst and co-editor of “Georgian Foreign Policy: The Quest for Sustainable Security.”

  • Michael Cecire