Postcard from Tblisi: Visiting our liberal colleagues in Georgia

International Office_with textLast month I travelled with the Liberal Democrat International Office to visit our liberal colleagues, the Republican Party of Georgia (RPG), in Tbilisi – nestled between Russia and Turkey. The occasion was the Republican Party’s bi-annual Party Congress, and the Liberal Democrats had been invited to send a speaker for their discussions on the economy.

Politics in Georgia is a difficult to sum up in a few words. It is East meets West both politically and geographically; a country with a strong European identity but with Soviet overhangs. The Patriarch can condemn homosexuality and hold an open-air mass for the EU in the same week.

The RPG are a junior party in the Georgian Dream coalition government, with relatively few seats but a good chunk of influence. The rest of Georgian Dream leans a bit more populist and at times socially conservative. Fellow liberals the Free Democrats fell out of the coalition in 2014 in a bitter and personal dispute that ended in dubious corruption charges, while former governing party the UNM remain tainted by their corruption and abuses of power during their final term. And in the wings perhaps lies the spectre of pro-Russian political elements – often feared, but rarely seen.

The party congress was quite the event with around 1000 attendees – not bad for a party with a total membership of perhaps 8000. The use of a camera crane to catch swooping shots of the crowds singing the national anthem certainly got my attention. But to get attention was a bit harder, as questions and comments were taken merely by the virtue of sitting at the front. The congress did start with someone attempting to suspend the standing orders (proving that certain aspects of liberalism are truly global).

I was struck by the honesty with which the party chair addressed the issue of coalition – admitting to a dilution of the party’s image and the failure to distinguish from other, less liberal parties; solutions are obviously harder to find, but there’s a clear contrast to our internal messaging while in coalition.

The Republicans face a dilemma well known by many smaller parties in coalition. To remain in the coalition is to further weaken your independent identity; to leave is to risk rejection by the electorate. Much hinges on their internal power within the coalition – as a well organised and competent party in an environment of rather amateurish politicians they can make the argument for positions beyond their meagre polling results. Electoral success for the continued coalition seems the most likely outcome, even as support for Georgian Dream drops – although don’t rule out a return to government for the Free Democrats either.

Our International Office is working with the RPG to support their development of an election strategy for 2016, along with other international partners including the Dutch party VVD. With threats to liberalism looming large all across the world, it is heartening to see liberal parties working together.

* Robbie Simpson is a PhD student based in Glasgow and was the Liberal Democrat candidate in Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill in May 2015

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3 Comments

  • Christian de Vartavan 16th Jan '16 - 9:29am

    Interesting article but liberalism has a long way to go in the Caucasus because of the local mentality. Your remark about the Patriarch is a pertinent one in this respect.

  • Robbie – that’s a really interesting and encouraging report.

    I do wonder sometimes about Liberal International. In Denmark there are two supposedly liberal parties. I have some doubts about the credentials of the Venstre Party whose leader Lars Lokke Rasmussen is the present PM. A BBC News report yesterday reads:
    “Plans to seize the assets of asylum seekers are among controversial new measures on immigration being debated by MPs in Denmark.
    The proposals have been condemned by the UN refugee agency and human rights groups. They say they go against international rules on refugees.
    Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen has called the plan the “most misunderstood bill in Denmark’s history”.
    The bill is expected to be voted on later in the month.
    The government on Tuesday secured a parliamentary majority to alter the proposed legislation to allow the Danish authorities to seize migrants’ cash and other individual items worth more than 10,000 kroner (£1,000; €1,340, $1,450).
    Wedding rings and other items of sentimental value will not be included.
    The move has been likened by some commentators to the treatment of Jews by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust.”
    This prompts me to ask if there is a procedure for suspension or expulsion of LI Group members.

  • @ John Kelly

    I agree with you about Venstre’s despicable policies on refugees! It seems the antipathy of liberalism and something we should protest in the strongest terms.

    For your information though, the Liberal Democrat International Office (through which Robbie participated in the RPG Congress detailed above) is not the same as Liberal International. The International Office is based in LibDem HQ and manages the Party’s relationship with the ALDE party, other sister parties and also delivers democracy development projects through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy.

    Full disclosure, I work in the International Office and manage the project Robbie took part in! We get a lot of people thinking we are the same as LI so I thought I’d take the opportunity to differentiate! 🙂

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