Does the Georgian Election Signal a New paradigm?

Author: us-russia
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Does the Georgian Election Signal a New paradigm?
Published 8-10-2012, 08:46

Georgia’s bitterly contested parliamentary election on 1 October has resulted in the defeat of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement. Apart from heralding the end of Saakashvili’s almost decade-long rule, the elections pave the way for Georgia’s first-ever peaceful regime change. Recently adopted constitutional amendments mean that, as of next year, supreme executive power will rest with the prime minister, who will be elected by the parliament. It is likely that Saakashvili will be sidelined and that his rival, Bidzina Ivanishvili – the leader of the Georgian Dream bloc, which won the 1 October ballot – will step into his shoes.

The elections have highlighted just how deeply divided Georgian society remains –not least owing to Georgia’s troubled relations with Russia. Saakashvili, for his part, had insisted that modernizing reforms were synonymous with virtually total independence from what he depicted as neo-imperialist and autocratic Russia. This blinkered vision pushed Georgia toward a disastrous clash with Russia in August 2008, when, to qualify his country for NATO membership, Saakashvili attempted to restore its territorial integrity by force in the face of pro-Russian separatism. As a result, his regime lost much credibility in the West, drove Georgia’s candidacy for NATO membership into the sands and pushed relations with its northern neighbor into a diplomatic cul-de-sac. 

All these developments have turned the tiny republic of Georgia into a symbol of the West’s, and especially the US’s, mismanaged relations with Moscow. Instead of accepting that Georgia’s democracy (and its economy) cannot truly prosper as long as the country remains a thorn in Russia’s flesh and instead of thus counselling realism, the West implicitly egged Saakashvili on by feeding his regime with illusions about NATO and EU membership. Moreover, the West promoted the notion that Russia’s influence in the region is inherently illegitimate – a blatantly distorted view of historical relations between Russia and the former Soviet republics as well as of Russia’s geopolitical and economic weight.

It cannot be ruled out that the West, preoccupied with its own economic problems, will now concede that Georgia, above all, needs reconciliation with Russia in the interest of regional stability, not yet another bout of destructive anti-Russian spasms. Indeed, Ivanishvili has promised to pursue such a course, without abandoning the country’s broadly pro-Western orientation. For its part, Moscow has assisted the anti-Saakashvili opposition by keeping out of the fray. 

• What are the prospects of Georgia serving as a model of democracy in the region by accomplishing a peaceful transfer of power despite its deep internal divisions?

• Can Georgia under a new leadership become a catalyst for improved US-Russia relations?

• Or is the "clash of civilizations” between Russia and the West, as symbolized by Georgia, irreconcilable?

A topic for the Discussion Panel is provided by Vlad Sobell, Expert Discussion Panel Editor (New York University, Prague)  

Experts Panel Contributions

Edward Lozansky,
President, American University in Moscow

At this point it is naturally too early to predict what is going to happen in Georgia. A call for patience is in order. However, the results of the October 1 elections are definitely a welcome development. The next important step will be Saakashvili's final departure from the office of president. This will be good for Georgia, Russia and, strange as it may sound, for the United States and Europe.

The West may finally clean up a bit its own image which proved to be too cynical as a result of its support for a war criminal who unleashed, on the night of the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing, an all-out, bloody assault on a sleeping city of Tskhinvali with the loss of hundreds of innocent lives, including those of Russian peacekeepers who were stationed in South Ossetia under a UN mandate.

We keep hearing that under Saakashvili there were some positive changes in Georgia's economy but when one recalls the enormous amounts of funds US invested in the "Rose Revolution”, the outcome may not appear so spectacular. Considering the billions of American US taxpayers’ money flowing into Georgia, it looks like the majority of its citizen became US welfare recipients.

Now, what are the geopolitical gains for this huge undertaking? Can the ruining of US - Russia relations be considered a good return on such an investment? For some folks, whose primary objective is the return of the Cold War, and for Washington lobbyists generously paid by Saakashvili, the answer is definitely "Yes”. But for the US as a whole the answer is a resounding "No”.

The slide into the present wretched state of affairs started under George Bush Jr. who threw America's entire power and influence into spreading democracy worldwide in a naive belief that the peoples of the world would come out in jubilant crowds to welcome those ideas – and incidentally promote US geopolitical and economic interests.

There was, of course, the question of what to do about Russia. It could either be integrated in the Euro-Atlantic alliance as many of us advocated or kicked into the position of a weak regional power incapable of influencing world processes. Here, Bush and his advisors committed a grave error, opting for the latter scenario. The color revolutions project was launched with a view to weakening Russia's position in post-Soviet space – naturally, to the drumbeat of slogans about spreading freedom and democracy. In one of his annual State of the Union addresses Bush declared, with much fanfare, that he had been proved right, citing as examples the victories of color revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, with similar upheavals in other former Soviet republics just round the corner.

The results of such policies are only too well known. The heroes of these revolutions ignominiously went down and out one after another. There are no new ones on the horizon unless one has the cheek to declare that it is the Arab Spring leaders who are such new faces of this crusade, now supported by such "beacons” of democracy as Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Isn't it time the West and its unquestionable leader the United States reconsider their failed Russia policy? Unfortunately, so far statements coming from both Romney and Obama camps offer no new, encouraging ideas. Romney's rhetoric especially augurs nothing good - only who knows, even he may come to better understand the realities of the world he lives in if he manages to settle in the Oval Office.

As for Georgians, we can only wish them all the best. The good sign is that Saakashvili's hysterical accusations of Ivanishvili being a Russian stooge did not succeed. It shows that the majority of Georgians understand that, as Vlad Sobell points out, their country cannot "truly prosper as long as [it] remains a thorn in Russia's flesh."

Finally, may I throw in a wild idea – a possible reconciliation between Russia, Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia? The way I see it, a confederation of these four independent states could be formed, with the possibility of other neighboring countries willing to join. I would leave it at that, but would welcome any discussion of such an idea. 

Patrick Armstrong
Patrick Armstrong Analysis,
Ottawa, Canada

The possibility of the end of Georgia’s post-Soviet nightmare of wars, coups and poverty may be distantly glimpsed with Georgian Dream’s victory. But many questions remain to be resolved before Georgia can get out of the hole. The last of the three famous post-USSR "Coloured Revolutions” has come to its end: like the others, it has ended in disappointment.

The big question is the interaction between the new Parliament and Saakashvili during the remainder of his term. Saakashvili is prone to accuse any opponent of being a stooge of Moscow and has done so with Ivanishvili. Ivanishvili, while he has repeatedly said that he wants a Western orientation, including NATO membership, for Georgia has also repeatedly said that better relations with Moscow are essential. How will Saakashvili behave when the first steps are made? 

The constitutional situation is another point of concern. Saakashvili is still President, the President is still more powerful than the Prime Minister: indeed the former appoints the latter. (And whom will Saakashvili appoint?) But, when Saakashvili leaves office in a year, the power relationship will reverse. These year-old constitutional changes, which some saw as an effort by Saakashvili to remain in power will, instead, send Ivanishvili or his nominee into power and Saakashvili into retirement. But, at the moment, it’s dual power and history shows few happy endings to that situation. Saakashvili is unlikely to be a good loser and there are already fears of what he could do to make things hard for Ivanishvili.

Will the new Parliament ask the big unasked question? And that is the disparity between the claimed high economic growth rate and the staggeringly high unemployment rate: 69% in a recent US/Swedish survey consider themselves unemployed. (See page 13). How can both of these be true? I can think of only two ways high growth can be consistent with spectacular unemployment rates: either that the growth is a façade of luxury hotels and other fripperies for visitors or that corruption and cronyism have kept the money locked in a tiny group of connected people. A potentially explosive question.

Another potentially explosive question relates to allegations that Saakashvili has extended support to jihadists fighting in the North Caucasus. Will we hear anything of this?

Is Ivanishvili’s coalition anything more than an ephemeral anti-Saakashvili grouping? Can the coalition hold against likely attempts by Saakashvili to detach members?

The Abkhazia and South Ossetia problems will continue. Ivanishvili’s spokesman reiterates that Tbilisi expects them back and, more convincingly than Saakashvili ever could, insists it will be done through negotiations. That is not going to happen in any future that he or Ivanishvili will see. Conceivably, after years of effort, reconstruction, prosperity, peaceful relations and a serious investigation into Tbilisi’s crimes against these areas (starting in the 1990s, if not in the 1920s) something might be possible. But Abkhazians and Ossetians will take a very long time and a high degree of proof before they will trust Tbilisi. They are not serfs to be passively transferred from one owner to another. 

In short, this is a good start, but there is a long way to go before Georgia becomes a peaceful and prosperous land.

Anatoly Karlin,
Da Russophile

Two dominant themes prevailed in media coverage of the 2012 Georgian elections.

(1) The people were hoodwinked, as Georgian Dream are a corrupt band of Russian stooges - as argued by neocon Jennifer Rubin and Yulia "Pinochet" Latynina (see juicy quote from her translated below):

"It is possible that Georgia will get one more chance. In that one short moment, when a confused people will look on with astonishment as the band of thieves returning to power brings back its lawlessness - but at a point of time when the army and police are not yet wholly purged of respectable people, who care for the fate of their country - in that moment, Georgia will get another window of opportunity. Like the one, for instance, that Pinochet got on September 11, 1973. But maybe, this chance will never come.”

(2) The elections were a genuine victory for Georgian democracy, with Saakashvili's very defeat vindicating his historical status as a democrat and reformer. Two headlines from democratic journalist Konstantin von Eggert summarize this viewpoint: "Georgians are no longer a mass, but a people"; "Saakashvili accomplished the authoritarian modernization that Russian liberals only dreamed of."

"The Kremlin is in confusion: A state, which they practically denounced as a fascist dictatorship just three years ago, has become a democracy... And the oft-ridiculed and cursed Georgian President, known for his chewing of ties, became practically the most successful reformer in the post-Soviet space, barring the Baltics.”

I think both viewpoints are substantially wrong, but to see why we have to consider this history in more detail.

In his first elections in 2004, Saakashvili won 96% of the votes. It was fairer than it looks, but only because of a complete absence of credible candidates at the time. In his second election, in 2008, not only did turnout correlate positively with the Saakashvili vote, but its graph had what is called a "long tail", becoming suspicious after the 80% mark and registering quite a few stations with 100% turnout. This is remarkably similar to the pattern of falsifications in Russian elections under Putin (though needless to say, Georgia doesn't attract a fraction of the same attention).

In these elections, multiple factors came together to produce radically different outcomes. The opposition came together, held together by Ivanishvili's money - who also claims to have spent $1.7 billion, or more than 10% of Georgia's GDP, on stuff like paying officials' salaries and buying new police cars. That's like Prokhorov spending $150 billion in Russia, or Romney $1.5 trillion on the US election - while money isn't far from everything in politics, sums as huge as these certainly help. 

Then there were the conveniently timed prison torture videos, broadcast by two suddenly opposition TV channels. These were Maestro, which in 2012 had been investigated for giving out free antennas, allegedly as part of vote-buying by Ivanishvili; and TV-9, a recent creation of Ivanishvili himself. Until recently, these channels appear to have been fairly minor; the big two were Rustavi 2, which is firmly pro-government, and Imedi. Though it was once the traditional opposition channel, Imedi - ever since its owner Badri Patarkatsishvili fell out with Saakashvili - had been tamed by police raids in 2007, to the extent that it orchestrated coverage of a hoax Russian invasion of Georgia to bolster support for Saakashvili. 

All these factors - the background of Ivanishvili's populist spending and opposition consolidation, plus his buying of a TV presence and the good timing of the videos - contributed to a drastic, sudden, and unforeseeable reversal in the United National Movement's until recently far superior poll ratings. Furthermore, this election was far cleaner than previous ones (which of course favored the opposition): This time were only a couple of stations with close-to-100% turnout, and in any case, greater turnout now coincided with more votes for Georgian Dream, not Saakashvili or his party (as in 2007 and 2008). I suspect this is because, cognizant of the shift against Saakashvili, the "administrative resource" that had previously served him and the UNM became demoralized and fearful of prosecution in a future administration headed by Ivanishvili; as such, it now refused to give him his customary +3%-5% addon. 

These developments were unexpected. It was Saakashvili's very confidence in a United National Movement victory that presumably motivated him to shift formal powers from the Presidency to the Prime Minister, with a view to taking the latter position (or inserting an ally there) once his two terms were up. Ironically, it was this drive for greater political consolidation that ended up undoing Saakashvili; from 2013, it looks like Ivanishvili and allies will get all real power.

In this context the dominant theories can be dismissed or modified. The theory that these elections were a "Russian coup" or somesuch is laughable on its face; only Saakashvili and his supporters seriously believe it, or pretend to. But the theory it's a democratic triumph is also problematic given the critical role played by Ivanishvili's money, not to mention Saakashvili's own indifference to the concept (in practice, nor rhetoric). I submit that what we saw is an "oligarchic coup", of the type not uncommon in poor countries with weak institutions and big personalities (and perhaps, of the type that Khodorkovsky may have accomplished in 2003 in a parallel world).

As such, given the contingent and artificial events that spawned this new revolution, Georgia can hardly be said to have become a model of democracy.

It is too early to tell what relations with Russia will be like after 2013. Doubtless better than under Saakashvili, but that's not really saying anything. I would caution that just because the Kremlin obviously prefers Ivanishvili certainly doesn't mean he will be its puppet once in power (one factoid airbrushed out of history by everyone is that Russia also supported Saakashvili over Shevardnadze in the Rose Revolution). He is strongly committed to NATO membership, which - if pursued with the same old vigor - will continue to cause irreconcilable problems. With 62% of Georgians favoring NATO accession, and only 10% against, it's not like Ivanishvili will be in much of a position to halt this process even if he were so inclined.

One can only hope that under Georgian Dream these disagreements, which are unlikely to go away any time soon, will be discussed in rather more civilized ways than was the case on August 8, 2008.

A rejoinder by Sergei Roy
Former Editor-in-Chief, Moscow News

I must congratulate Mr. Karlin  on his excellent analysis of the politics involved in the recent parliamentary election in Georgia, its causes and consequences.  A few comments are due, though.
Politics and politicking, as described in Anatoly's essay, are surely important, but it is also advisable to take the Marxian - or merely commonsensical view of changes in a society's superstructure as mostly reflections of processes in its economic basis. Ignoring the latter is only excusable in someone like Ms. Latynina (quoted in Karlin's piece):  she writes novels, you know, and clearly has trouble distinguishing between fiction and reality. She may believe, for instance, that under Saakashvili Georgia was going through a period of unprecedented efflorescence, but that's sheer fiction. Mere propaganda, actually. The facts on the ground are different, very much so.
In a nutshell, Georgia is a basket case, in economic terms. According to an oppositionist source, its national debt is four times the size of its annual GDP (not that the latter is anything to write home about). According to the same source, unemployment there runs at an unheard-of 70 percent which was only brought down to the official figure of 20 percent by including everyone who has a few vines growing on the plot of land their house stands on in the "gainfully self-employed" category. That's the sort of cheating that simply does not fool anyone. 
There is also the foreign trade factor. Russia used to absorb all the alcohol Georgia produced rather scandalously, I must say: before Saakashvili, Russia imported three times more wine than Georgian vineyards could physically yield. A friend of mine spent a couple of days in and out of the bathroom after drinking a bottle of unbelievably cheap Khvanchkara. Luckily I had savvy enough to spit out the first mouthful. No wonder a member of Saakashvili's government notoriously said that those Russian swine can drink anything. Now they drink nothing nothing of Georgian origin, that is and Georgian wine and brandy producers know exactly who they can thank for it. No wonder they wish him out of the way of normal economic intercourse.
Also on the economy side, there are between 800,000 and one million Georgians (no one seems to know how many exactly) feeding their own faces in Russia and the mouths of their relations back home. Russo-Georgian relations being what they are, those wretched people have to travel to and from Georgia via Ukraine or Armenia. Again, they and their relations -- know exactly at whose feet they can lay this inconvenience.
Still staying with the economy, only creative writers like Latynina can believe their own fiction that Saakashvili's regime is squeaky clean, that under his rule corruption, endemic in Georgia just as in other lands one  might point a finger at, was stamped out completely. Sure, US money contributed a lot toward computerization, and you can register a company in half an hour or so in Georgia. What will happen to your company afterwards is quite a different matter. All of Georgia's economic life, what there is of it, is in the hands of regime-related clans, and outsiders are unwelcome to such a degree that they see their future as hopeless. Naturally they want a piece of the action which is impossible unless the present regime is changed. Well, so it has been, or is being not without a great deal of interclan fighting, one can safely predict. 
I am sure I have not covered all the economic factors that explain the Georgians' desire to get rid of Saakashvili and much of what his regime stands for. Still, I am just as convinced that even these few factors carried more weight with voters than TV pictures of torture in Georgia's prisons, Ivanishvili's propaganda, and other political and circumpolitical events described in detail in Anatoly Karlin's piece. Above all, the mood of general dissatisfaction with and anger at the populace's economic condition had to be there. It was, and it was the prime factor in the events we have just witnessed and are going to witness.
As for politics, Georgians are no different from many other peoples: they want to eat their mamalyga and have it. They want to have Sukhum and Tskhinval back they lorded it over there for too long to reconcile themselves to the loss. So they want Russia to go away from these regions and yet have normal trade and other relations with it. What can Russia's course be, in this situation? Withdrawing from Abkhazia and S.Ossetia is out of the question, for that would mean NATO bases practically on Russia's southern flank. Therefore a bit of cognitive and emotional dissonance is inevitable for any future  Georgian regime: it, and most Georgians, can dream of NATO and EU membership, heartily dislike Russia and at the same time keep selling it wine, their principal commodity under strict quality control, that is. No more slops with Khvanchkara labels, please.   

Slava Kolodyazhniy
Independent analyst
London, UK

Contrary to what mainstream Western press and pundits have written, Saakashvili's regime has been far from democratic. In fact, Saakashvili has created a police state based on Stalinist methods of intimidation, harsh punishment, unlawful imprisonment and confiscation of property. Businessmen who have dared to criticise the regime live in constant fear of being labelled as "enemies of state" and losing their businesses. Police enjoy unlimited powers, while local governors are obliged to display personal loyalty to Saakashvili. Courts are biased and politically motivated. Meantime, corruption at the highest ranks of the regime has reached unprecedented level, even by Georgian standards. 

Contrary to the regime’s propaganda, President Saakashvili has failed to regenerate the economy, with unemployment reaching a staggering 50% and poverty being rampant. (Note that unemployment benefits are virtually non-existent.) While average pensions amount to $65 a month the cost of utilities stands at about $100 per month. Modern labour code is yet to be adopted, with corrosive phenomena such as age discrimination being widespread. Inequality has sharply risen, with members of the regime profiting from their political connections. 

The regime, however, has taken care to present itself as genuine democracy – indeed a model democracy in the former Soviet Union. Unfortunately, the mendacious Western media have generally gone along with this sham, failing to provide an objective picture.  

Assuming Ivanishvili succeeds in consolidating his new regime, he will face a very difficult uphill struggle, not least because of rearguard action by Saakashvili and his cronies. Georgia needs a comprehensive rethink of its economic strategy, focusing on the revival of industry, agriculture and tourism. It must urgently address the issues of poverty and unemployment, while servicing its huge sovereign debt of $13.5bn. An intrinsic part of this strategy must be the revival of trade with Russia. At the same time, Ivanishvili will maintain the previous regime’s approach to the European Union, harmonizing the domestic legislation with that of the EU. Regarding NATO membership, I believe that Ivanishvili must adopt a pragmatic stance and recognise that economic regeneration and normalization of relations with Russia is a priority. NATO membership will therefore remain in the "long grass” where it has been since 2008.

Amiran Kavadze 
Former Ambassador of Georgia to Switzerland, Holy See, UK, Sweden,
Permanent representative to the Geneva UN office

These articles represent quite interesting approach (despite my personal disagreements with the certain views presented in the articles) and a positive sign for a Georgian new political establishment. International media pays considerable attention to the ongoing processes in Georgia and it has now become evident that it is getting a paradigm shift in changing of the government by the constitutional means only in one of the post-Soviet republics.

My prompt and superficial judgement of published articles is the following:

We have to acknowledge that Georgia is already well adapted to the life living without any Russian support/influence - great loss for Russia - and is very keen to introduce European and universal values;

The country is becoming truly democratic state - good example the recent parliamentary elections of Georgia and peaceful transfer of power from the ruling United National Movement party to the opposition Ivanishvili-Georgian Dream Coalition; 

Georgians never reconcile with human right abuses - this was a grave mistake of Saakashvili regime not to respect interests and rights of the population, that is why he so bitterly lost elections, especially in Tbilisi, Kutaisi and Batumi - places where he invested a lot and made life of citizens relatively nice and comfortable; 

Territorial integrity of Georgia, apart from European and Euro-Atlantic integration, is No 1 priority for all governments eternally - if any Georgian leader ever gives up struggle for territorial integrity he will immediately become a political corps;

For many Russian, Ukrainians, Iranians, Armenians, Azebaijanians - Georgia is a bright example how people can rule the country despite the existing shortcomings; first time in my life I saw so many Russian, Iranian and Armenian tourists this summer in Georgia - very interesting observation - they feel very secured and comfortable in Georgia; It means that Georgia is getting attractive country for millions of tourists from the region;

I work with many Britons here in Tbilisi, they don't want to return back to London or Edinburgh; it means that their life in Georgia quite enjoyable and comfortable - even for Western Europeans, again - very positive sign. 

Certainly, I can write a lot about Georgian politics and "Georgian dreams", but wish to underline only one main point – during last two decades Russia for us became a very distant and unfriendly country both politically and economically. I am not blaming only Russia in wrong doing. Georgian authorities from their part did their best in spoiling centuries long good neighbourly relations as well. Now there is a right time to start rapprochement with Russia. The new government has already declared readiness to start improving bilateral relationship on the bases of international law and good faith (and not according to "new realities” as Russian leaders want to expose). In my opinion if the official Moscow continues on the same way - ignoring Georgian elementary interests, keeping diplomatic representations in Sokhumi and Tskhinvali, military bases in occupied Georgian provinces – Abkhazia and South Ossetia, banning Georgian import, etc - the Kremlin (and entire Russia) will loose a nice and friendly neighbouring 
country forever. On top of that Russia has to resolve a numerous problems in Northern Caucasus and change its policies towards entire Caucasus region. I am absolutely confident, all above-mentioned incentives will serve the Russian interests as well. I would friendly suggest to the Russian leadership to read more about history of Caucasus, may be they will learn some lessons from the past, which will be quite useful for future endeavours. At the same time the new Georgian government should start with confidence building and be more diplomatic in relations with its Northern neighbour. Now this timing is a litmus test for both countries – we will see if they have enough political will to break the existing deadlock situation. 

Alexander Mercouris
Mercouris Blog

I just wanted to add two points to this very interesting discussion: 

1. Georgia and Ivanishvili have beneath them a ticking bomb in the sense that under Saakashvili economic growth depended heavily on very large capital inflows from the west. Will these be sustained now that Saakashvili looks like he is going to go? Given that Georgia runs a trade deficit how without these capital inflows is it going to service its debt? If these capital inflows cease or go into reverse then it seems to me that Georgia will face severe difficulties including risks to its currency. 

2. I completely agree with Slava Kolodyazhinsky's comment that for the sake of its economic future Georgia needs to restore its economic relations with Russia. However the comments of the Georgian diplomat in the discussion thread shows the difficulties this faces. If he forgives me saying so his comments betray the lack of a sense of reality that is common within the Georgian political class. At the end of the day what the Georgian political class seems to want is a complete economic rapprochement with Russia at the same time as Georgia continues to demand the return of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and full integration with the EU and NATO. In other words it wants to both have its cake and eat it as well. At the end of the day Russia needs Georgia far less than Georgia needs Russia and it unreasonable and unrealistic to take this approach.
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