The Georgian Transition: Challenges in the Period Ahead


2012-10-05 by Richard Weitz

By acknowledging his party’s defeat in Monday’s parliamentary elections, President Mikhail Saakashvili has ensured his positive reputation in Georgian history.

The first peaceful and legal transfer of power between opposing political forces has occurred in Georgia’s history.

As the birthplace of Stalin, this is no mean accomplishment.

This ballot therefore marks an important point in a country’s history, when it consolidates its democratic transition.

Specifically, Georgia has passed what many observers had referred to its democratic “litmus test” by holding elections in which the outcome cannot be determined in advance.

The outcome is even more significant given the reforms made to the Georgian constitution in 2010, which give the majority party in parliament the power to appoint the prime minister and transfer many powers that now belong to the president to the newly independent prime minister.

Georgia has been the largest per capita contributor to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. Georgian troops are fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with U.S. forces in the dangerous southern provinces and sustaining casualties. Credit Image: Bigstock

Since opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili will become prime minister, the results also ended speculation that Saakashvili would try to “pull a Putin” and attempt to remain in power by moving to the prime minister position after his second presidential term ends next October. The constitution limits presidents to two consecutive terms.

Georgia’s elections yesterday marked an amazing turnaround.

Just one year ago, another victory for Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM), the governing party since 2004, looked inevitable.

However, the past 12 months have seen one of the most highly competitive elections in a former Soviet republic of the Caucasus or Central Asia, where one-party authoritarian political systems are the norm. The complex electoral system means it could take another day or so before the magnitude of the opposition victory becomes apparent.

Slightly more than half the 150 parliamentary seats are determined by proportional representation, and the Georgian Dream was leading Saakashvili’s ruling United National Movement (UNM) by 53 to 42. percent after a quarter of electoral precincts declared there results. But 73 of the winners are selected in first-past-the-post constituencies, which typically favor the incumbents.

Despite many pre-election problems, it looks like the actual voting went off without major problems. Perhaps because it was very heavily observed by international observers, voting day was peaceful and there are no major allegations of fraud.

That said, despite the result, the election process highlighted certain major flaws that could undermine Georgia’s efforts to reinforce its democratic gains.

There are many credible complaints about the democratic process in Georgia.

These center around the campaign, during which both sides seem to have committed violations. Most often, the UNM used its advantage as incumbent party to harass and intimidate opposition in various ways. As soon as opposition leader Ivanishvili announced his candidacy in in October 2011 the State Audit Office, led by former and current UNM leaders, initiated actions to deny his Georgian citizenship and limit how he and his colleagues could spend their money to advance his candidacy.

The ruling party also was able to benefit from administrative assets wielded by the state on its behalf. Opposition leaders further claimed that the party removed their supporters from government jobs and exposed them to other administrative abuses.

But the opposition has benefited enormously from Ivanishvili’s wealth, which more than negated the boost the governing party enjoyed.

The richest man in Georgia, Ivanishvili used his vast resources to balance the advantages held by the incumbent party in such areas as public TV coverage. Another development that helped the opposition’s cause was the widespread circulation of a cellphone video of brutal abuses in a Georgian jail. Although the government accused the opposition of releasing the recording as a last-minute electioneering tactic, the U.S. government and many other foreign and domestic actors have warned the Georgian authorities for years about ongoing serious abuses in the Georgian prison system. The criticism that Ivanishvili is not qualified to run a country is unfair given his ability to manage large businesses and organize a credible opposition campaign. His wealth also makes implausible the government’s claim that he aims to roll back recent anti-corruption reforms.

The Georgian Dream opposition also benefited from the fact that Ivanishvili offered a credible program, calling for less government spending on high-profile projects and a toning down of Georgia’s rhetorical conflict with Russia that ideally could lead to a resumption of economic ties frayed by their 2008 war.

For its part, Russia has welcomed the election results.

The change in power in Tbilisi could provide both sides an opportunity to make some face-saving changes to promote reconciliation. Although the two countries have irreconcilable differences over the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the element of personal animosity between their leaders will decrease when Saakashvili leaves the scene.

But the Georgian Dream coalition that Ivanishvili heads contains a wide range of people and parties with diverging views on many subjects, including foreign and defense policy. Ivanishvili leads a divided opposition movement whose factions were able to unite more against what they oppose than behind what they support. Polls show that much of the electorate was also influenced more by personalities than by parties. Georgia’s election system will become stronger only when people vote on the basis of policies or performance rather than personality.

To its credit, the government has allowed the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and other international election monitors full and free access to Georgian territory during the campaign and voting. The right of assembly and freedom of expression have also been largely respected.

The OSCE’s interim election report, released on September 24, found that Georgian media outlets were divided according to political outlook, with the state-controlled channels providing more extensive and favorable coverage of the ruling UNM. However, recently enacted “must carry rules” legally required TV cable companies to broadcast all television channels, including those with political advertisements and news shows, for 60 days before the elections, creating a competitive marketplace of political ideas.

The Saakashvili government can boast many accomplishments from its years in power, especially its success in reducing the corruption common in many former communist systems.

The Georgian economy has also responded well to the government’s reforms, which have included reducing regulations and bureaucracy, developing critical energy and transportation infrastructure, legalizing the informal economy while marginalizing organized criminal networks, and promoting foreign investment.

Nonetheless, the recent prisoner abuse scandal and some of the electoral manipulations suggest that the practice of prioritizing ends over means persists in Georgia.

Moreover, government leaders seemed uncomfortable with the core principles of modern democracy, in particular the idea that the vote’s outcome should not be known in advance. They also were reluctant to consider elections as a mechanism not only to validate incumbent parties, but also to achieve the peaceful transfer of power between political parties.

The next few days will give us a good sense of how much damage has been done by the vicious election campaign.

Last month, the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) warned that at times the two parties have acted “like enemies, not political adversaries or electoral opponents.” Their vindictive rhetoric will make it harder to repair relations after the ballot—a necessity given that Saakashvili will remain in office for another year. Georgia’s “winner-take-all” politics is not conducive to the give and take of cohabitation governments. Many observers had hoped that Georgia’s 2008 parliamentary vote would end the protracted and vicious political infighting that has characterized the country’s politics since independence.

But Saakashvili’s opponents immediately accused the government of falsifying the results, leading to years of contested political legitimacy.

This time around, a high-powered team of U.S. diplomats, joined by representatives from other countries, has been warning both sides for months against resorting to violence to contest the results and instead engage in “constructive engagement” with each other after the ballot. Not only would persistent political infighting weaken Georgia’s chances of developing closer ties with NATO and other Western institutions, it would also create a dangerous environment for the country’s planned constitutional transition next year.

With the October 2013 presidential ballot, Georgia will move from the current president-dominant system to one with a strong prime minister who rules through a parliamentary majority rather than presidential appointment. It is not yet clear whether the outcome is sufficient to instill the concept of checks and balances among voters and political leaders. Redistributing powers from the executive to the legislature and the judiciary will create a more balanced polity, with stronger institutions creating the basis for more pluralism.

But it could also create more sources for political bottlenecks and gridlock unless softened by a greater sense of shared national interest and political harmony.

Ivanishvili has been telling U.S. and European officials that he aims to continue deepening Georgia’s ties with NATO but has not expressed a strong desire for membership in the alliance, which would have encountered substantial European opposition in any case. The United States supports Georgia’s future membership, and U.S. officials have announced that Georgia could probably enter NATO without a Membership Action Plan (MAP), but other member governments have yet to endorse this position.

Georgia has been striving to meet NATO technical interoperability as well as to align Georgian defense tactics, techniques, and procedures with those of NATO. It has earned an enhanced status within the alliance, including the creation of a unique NATO-Georgia Commission, thanks to its significant contributions to NATO’s missions, which demonstrate that Georgia is a provider rather than a consumer of NATO’s security efforts.

For example, Georgia has been the largest per capita contributor to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.

Georgian troops are fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with U.S. forces in the dangerous southern provinces and sustaining casualties.

At the same time that other ISAF members are pulling troops out Georgia, Georgia is putting more in. The Georgian government should also reaffirm its non-use of force pledge, while NATO should affirm its support for UN and OSCE principles such as the impermissibility of changing national borders by force, the right of self-defense, and the right of every country to choose what if any alliances or international organizations it can join. For a small country without a major ethnic diaspora in the United States,

Georgia has become exceptionally influential in the U.S. Congress. Its wide bipartisan support manifests itself in generous U.S. assistance at a time when most U.S. foreign aid is being reduced. Washington has provided Georgia with more than $3 in aid during the past decade, making the United States Georgia’s largest bilateral donor.

In early 2009, the United States and Georgia signed a Strategic Partnership, which commits both parties to support Georgia’s democratization, economic development, and security reforms as well as Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. U.S. assistance to Georgia should continue, but now Washington and other donors need to require some clearer conditions and benchmarks for reform in return for further assistance.

These should include measures to address the shortcomings in evidence during the recent national elections, so that the Georgian Revolution that began in 2003 continues to evolve toward an exemplary democracy that inspires other countries to follow its path.

Georgia’s strong support in Washington and NATO is enhanced by its peoples’ strong commitment to liberal democratic values shared by all Alliance members.

For a look at the impact of the Georgian War, see our interview with the late Ron Asmus