A change of power is underway in Georgia. Few expected the Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia bloc to win the parliamentary elections so convincingly, or Mikheil Saakashvili to be so quick to admit defeat, and announce that his party would go into opposition.
One very interesting experiment – that of attempting to reform the public psyche by enforcing progress – is coming to an end in Georgia, and another is beginning. But can the Georgian state develop efficiently in conditions of genuine pluralism and democracy? The previous experiment of the 1990s does not give great cause for optimism.
In principle, the outcome of the Georgian elections was to be expected. Saakashvili and his team have been in power for nine years, a long time for any country. They were also implementing harsh reforms, the architects of which believed that almost any social and humanitarian costs should be borne in the name of transforming Georgia into “a country of the future.” Many will suffer, they argued, but those who weather the change will live in a fundamentally different state.
Even when such an approach succeeds (and several positive changes were observed during Saakashvili’s rule), it usually does little to strengthen the popularity of the reformer. Hence the inevitability of authoritarian rule: it is the only way of implementing reforms that are rejected by a large part of the population.
In addition, Saakashvili was defeated in the 2008 war, in the process irrevocably losing Abkhazia and South Ossetia for Georgia. No matter how strongly the Georgian leadership denounced Russia for its alleged aggression, it could not ultimately escape the issue of its own responsibility in the matter.
And lastly, economic prosperity failed to materialize, and the blame as always, fairly or not, fell on the reformer, all the more so in this case, as the reformer in question was authoritarian.
Bidzina Ivanishvili became the focal point for public dissatisfaction with the authorities. Their clumsy attempts to put a spanner in his works only served to strengthen his position. A friendly neighborhood self-made billionaire (Ivanishvili is the richest man in Georgia) who has never done business in his home country (he makes his money in Russia); he managed to rally vastly different forces and hold them together all the way through to the elections.
His next task will be more difficult, though: without an enemy, the coalition will no longer have a united sense of purpose. The Georgian Dream will probably split into several parties in parliament, making policy coordination much harder.
On the other hand, Saakashvili’s United National Movement could also split into smaller groups following their loss of power. One way or another, parliamentary activities will become much less predictable and much more complex. Since the new parliament will elect the prime minister, who will take over a large part of the presidential powers, a big battle lies ahead.
The negative example of Ukraine should serve as a warning to Georgia. After coming to power in 2004, the Ukrainian “orange” opposition demonstrated astounding political irresponsibility and inflated ambitions on the part of its leaders, which paved the way for the return of the previous regime and nearly destroyed people’s belief in democracy. There is a risk that the Georgian opposition will follow in the footsteps of their Ukrainian counterparts.
The Georgian Dream’s program was based on a rejection of Saakashvili’s rule, but now they will need a new, more constructive, agenda. It is unclear what Ivanishvili and his team plan to do. Dismantling the police state that has been created over the past nine years may seem to herald a time of greater freedom and pluralism, but there is also the danger of nullifying the advantages associated with tight, top-down, control. In particular – the efficient state apparatus which Georgia historically (even during the Soviet era) always lacked. Can the election winners preserve this achievement of Saakashvili’s rule while eradicating his authoritarianism? That is the key question.
Members of the old regime have claimed that Ivanishvili is some kind of Russian project, but they have not supplied any proof to support their allegations, while Moscow has remained strangely indifferent to these suggestions, and indeed, to any other developments in Georgia. Ivanishvili has promised to improve relations with Russia, and he certainly stands a better chance than Saakashvili or anyone from his team. However, those who voted for the Georgian Dream may yet be disappointed – for this very reason.
There is no solution to the main issue hindering the improvement of Russian-Georgian relations – the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – and there is no room for compromise. No Georgian leader, even one directly parachuted in by Moscow, would recognize the independence of these two breakaway republics, for fear of being swept away by the tide of public indignation. Neither can Russia withdraw its recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s independence without losing face as a great power.
Therefore, a thaw in bilateral relations is only possible if the two sides accept the status quo (even if unofficially) and agree to end all discussions around this thorny issue.
Improvements in all other areas are possible provided Georgia takes the initiative. Russia will not take the lead, because it has little interest in Georgia. After recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Moscow does not need anything else from Tbilisi. The new Georgian authorities can express the desire to resume diplomatic relations and are likely to receive a positive response. Cultural relations will probably improve and the two sides may resume the issuing of visas, although visa-free travel is unlikely.
And lastly, Russia may lift the embargo on Georgian wine and mineral water, allowing Georgian producers to regain at least part of their previous share of the Russian market.
This is probably all that Georgia can hope to gain, and even then only if it takes active measures to revive Russia’s interest. Improvements in bilateral relations could be catalyzed by Georgia officially opting against joining NATO, as was the case with Ukraine after Viktor Yanukovych was elected president. However, Georgia is unlikely to do follow suit, because the public opinion largely backs the idea of joining NATO.
Georgia is in for a difficult time, but this should not diminish the significance of what has happened there. There are few post-Soviet countries where power has been transferred democratically through democratic elections, without public upheavals or preordained successors. It has only happened in Moldova (several times), Ukraine (1994 and 2010) and Kyrgyzstan (2011).
If Georgia becomes the fourth post-Soviet country to undergo a democratic transfer of power, this will be Mikheil Saakashvili’s main achievement. However, he will keep his presidential powers for three more months, until January 1, at which point nearly all of them will be transferred over to the prime minister. This is enough time for him to yield to the temptation (or to his supporters’ encouragement) to take radical action to change the election results.