Is Georgia’s first peaceful transfer of power “a good deal for pretty much everyone,” raising the possibility that the country “could once again punch way above its weight in global affairs”? Will the transition set a precedent “in a region riven by conflict and authoritarianism”?
The electoral victory of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition over Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement in this week’s parliamentary poll is a triumph for the Georgia people, the United States and even for Russia (at least for its people), according to George Mason University’s Nino Japaridze and Job C. Henning of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.
Despite concerns that post-election tensions may yet threaten the transition, the election has demonstrated the Georgian people’s political maturity and the robustness of the country’s democratic process.
“This reassertion of democratic political will is also a victory for the United States [which] ….needs a stable independent democratic model to hold up, as it seeks to avoid the impression within Arab societies that its policies are designed to create new client states,” they contend:
A peaceful transition in Georgia enhances regional stability and sets a valuable precedent. Neighboring autocracies have a lot to learn from Georgia. Democracy is indeed on the march — not through external intervention or revolution but through the patient development of political culture, a product of quiet but deliberate policies of building institutions and of monitoring human rights and elections.
Georgian Dream’s win is “even a victory for the Russian people, if not for President Vladimir Putin,” Japaridze and Henning suggest.
“Without the useful foil of an impetuous Saakashvili as the sole face of Georgia, Putin will have a harder time making Georgia look like a font of post-colonial insolence and a menacing outpost of U.S. interference, and Russian domestic interest in normalization of relations is likely to grow.”
Analysts suggest that the poll, which saw the election of Levan Berdzenishvili (right), a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, as a deputy for Georgian Dream, could set a valuable regional precedent.
“Since the collapse of the Soviet Union twenty-one years ago, the fifteen former Soviet Republics have followed mostly bumpy paths toward and away from democracy,” says Council on Foreign Relations analyst Anya Schmemann.
Georgians “stunned the world” by electing the opposition coalition and, despite serious challenges, “a peaceful and orderly transition would be an important success story in a region riven by conflict and authoritarianism,” she argues:
In the Caucasus, Georgia’s neighbors Armenia and Azerbaijan are embroiled in their own frozen conflict and are ruled by hardline leaders …In nearby Central Asia, the nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are among the most autocratic in the world….To the north of Georgia, Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine have rolled back democracy…. Only the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have overcome the former Soviet curse and have successfully democratized as members of the EU and NATO.
“Given Georgia’s fractious history, its contested election and transfer of power are remarkable and hopeful,” says Schmemann, who was in Georgia during the 2008 war with Russia. “Close Western scrutiny of the election surely mattered, and the United States and others will now need to help both sides navigate the transition to ensure its success.”
“Focusing too much on the role of Russia would underestimate how much this is actually a Georgian story,” she insists, as many comments posted on articles and blogs make clear.
Saakashvili’s authoritarian style helped create “a toxic political climate” that was only made worse by the 2008 war over the control of the Abkhazia and Ossetia regions.
“But opposition parties in Georgia were weak and governed more by the personality of their leaders than by any ideology or coherent policy plans,” she writes:
If [the election] paves the way to more open, balanced and sober political processes and dialogue, it will be to the credit of Georgians’ themselves, not the Kremlin or Capitol Hill. It would also mark a major step forward in Georgia’s democratic transition, and one that other countries in the region and beyond may wish to study.
The poll was monitored by hundreds of international observers, including delegations from the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute, two of the National Endowment for Democracy’s core institutes.