In an interview with the Financial Times, the leader of the Georgian Dream alliance that defeated Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement in this week’s parliamentary elections sought to refute claims that the Caucasian republic would regress.
“I think we’ve not actually had a revolution,” he said. “But people’s preparedness for change was very big – even bigger than in 2003,” he added, pointing to the huge numbers who attended a Georgian Dream rally in central Tbilisi on Saturday.
He said Georgia would not become a repeat of Ukraine, whose so-called Orange Revolution came a year after the Georgian uprising.
Some observers fear that Georgia is set to follow a regional trend of democratic backsliding.
“Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s during the privatization of the post-Soviet economy, will almost certainly move to put Georgia back in Moscow’s sphere of influence,” writes James Kirchik, a Berlin-based fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Before the election, Ivanishvili dispatched a threatening letter to the U.S. ambassador in Tbilisi, “demanding that he stop the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute from conducting polls, as they were showing results not to his liking,” he notes:
Georgia, Mr. Ivanishvili told the Economist last year, is less democratic than Russia (an assessment he will likely have to modify now that his coalition won elections he said his opponent would rig). …Even more telling is what Mr. Ivanishvili doesn’t say. He has never publicly criticized Mr. Putin, who isn’t a particularly popular figure here.
But claims that the “Rose” revolution is dead and buried “miss the point entirely,” says a leading analyst.
“The 2003 popular insurrection in the streets of Tbilisi was never simply the replacement of Eduard Shevardnadze with Mr Saakashvili or of a Soviet-era clique with a post-Soviet generation of leaders,” writes Ian Bremmer, the president of Eurasia Group. “Instead, the Rose revolution, like all genuine revolutions, was the replacement of a sclerotic political order unresponsive to public demand for change with one that at least begins to reflect the aspirations of the people who triggered and sustained it.”
“Over the past nine years they have made impressive reforms, modernizing the bureaucracy, eliminating petty corruption and tackling organized crime,” he contends:
But their economic policies have produced very uneven benefits. Georgia’s unemployment rate is, by conservative estimates, 34 percent. Also, the small group governing the country had developed a sense of entitlement bordering on arrogance. Saakashvili declared major initiatives — such as the incredible idea of building an entire new city of a half-million people on the Black Sea coast — without bothering to consult the wider public.
The government not only failed to deliver tangible benefits, it also practiced a politics of exclusion, de Waal argues.
“The officials who have ruled Georgia for the past nine years have been called the ‘liberal Bolsheviks,’” he notes. “They governed by revolutionary fiat, without building a proper rule of law. We saw the dark side of this with the revelations about systematic torture in Georgian prisons, which helped turn the election in the opposition’s favor.”
The election confirmed the integrity of the electoral process, analysts suggest, but the question now arises whether the two main blocs can cohabit and develop a genuinely pluralist politics following a highly polarized election.
“This is the first time in my life I had a feeling that we have a democracy here,” said Tamar Chugoshvili, chairwoman of the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association.
“Georgian democracy is still very weak, and the domination of one party again would be disastrous,” she said. “I think it will be a challenge for the parties to start working together as well. Too much aggression and hate have been expressed toward each other.”
Hundreds of international monitors observed the poll, including delegations from the Washington-based International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute.
“We have gone through the single most competitive election in the history of the country,” said Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), an IRI delegation leader:
Dreier spoke just before leaving for a meeting at the home of Ivanishvili, who is expected to be the next prime minister. …. Dreier said he and other members of Congress were determined to offer Georgians and the new Parliament help in developing ways to work together across political divides.
While some will raise an eyebrow at the notion of Washington-based politicians advising on cross-party collaboration, democracy assistance is one of the few spheres in which bipartisan collaboration is entrenched.
The success of the election also owed much to the work of Maina Kiai, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of assembly and association, who earlier this year warned against restrictions on the opposition’s ability to organize. Georgia had to address UN “worrying signs” that jeopardized the country’s generally positive democratic trajectory, including legislation apparently designed to bar “certain individuals” – a clear reference to Ivanishvili – from contesting the election.
Despite Saakashvili’s successful reforms, Kirchik notes, Georgia’s poverty rate remains roughly the same as when he came to power in the Rose Revolution.
The extent to which the new government “can deliver on promises to rebuild agriculture, stimulate investment and create jobs will depend in part on whether Ivanishvili….can hold together the six-party coalition he formed after entering politics a year ago, writes analyst Neil Buckley:
Another question is whether as prime minister he will be able to cohabit for a year with Mr Saakashvili, who under the constitution is set to remain president until he has to stand down in October 2013 after two terms. At that point, a new constitution comes into force, transferring many of the president’s executive powers to the prime minister – which would formally make Mr Ivanishvili the most powerful man in the country.
Georgia’s politicians will, however, find that cohabitation presents profound challenges.
“Sometimes electorates don’t really know what they want, they are in rather tricky situations, and in Georgia there is a two-way pull, as there is in Ukraine, between getting closer to the EU, which is the president’s line, and rebuilding relations with Russia, which is very much [Ivanishvili's] line,” Patrick Dunleavy, general editor of the EUROPP politics website of the London School of Economics, tells RFE-RL
“And by dividing government between the president and prime minister, or between the president and the parliamentary majority, then they are hedging their bets. They might want, for example in this situation, to rebuild relations with Russia but still have a pro-EU president to keep the prime minister in check.”
“There is a good example of [cohabitation] going completely sour currently in Romania,” says Dunleavy. “[There] the prime minister with a parliamentary majority tried to have the president impeached and dismissed from office, but was stopped by the constitutional court.”
Georgia’s leaders have a responsibility “to engage immediately in constructive dialogue and reconciliation,” said a delegation from the National Democratic Institute (NDI), which included Gregory Meeks (D-NY), a member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and ranking member on the Subcommittee on Europe and Eurasia; former U.S. Rep. Sam Gejdenson of Connecticut, a member of the NDI board; Per Eklund, former ambassador of the European Union delegation to Georgia; and NDI president Kenneth Wollack.
Saakashvili’s prompt concession of defeat was significant “because this is the first time that power has shifted in Georgia through elections,” said Miriam Lanskoy, the National Endowment for Democracy’s Director for Russia and Eurasia.
“The parliament is likely to contain two strong factions which means that both parties will have to learn to compromise to pass legislation or amend the constitution,” she said. “The parliament will also be stronger and therefore more of a counterweight to the executive.”
Few observers expected Georgia’s opposition to win the election, and it “was not an election Saakashvili wanted to lose — indeed he used all the means at his disposal to win it by making liberal use of state resources and the power of the country’s two most powerful television stations,” writes Carnegie’s de Waal:
That strategy failed — and it is to the credit of Saakashvili and his government that they are accepting their defeat. The key factor in ensuring Georgia’s historically democratic election was the massive and close Western scrutiny of the election. Western officials will now inevitably be involved behind the scenes in helping manage and mediate the messy political transition as Georgian politicians now find themselves in unknown territory, forced to actually negotiate with each other.
“One way of seeing Georgia’s election result is as a rejection of geopolitics. Voters were more interested in retail issues than in big strategic questions such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization versus Russia. That is probably a healthy development,” he argues.
“And the hope must be that Georgia is now acquiring a genuine two-party system, rather than merely replacing one one-party system with another.”
Future polls can at least rely on the integrity of Georgia’s election commission whose performance was widely deemed professional and independent.
“There’s no question in my mind … the election commission can be relied upon,” said Lorne Craner, president of the International Republican Institute, from Tbilisi.
“But make no mistake: Georgia will now enter a contentious moment in its politics,” the Eurasia Group’s Bremmer believes:
Saakashvili was always more than a callow, western-educated political leader with a too high opinion of his own worth. He was, and is, a democrat. He institutionalized a democratic system that stands in marked contrast to the central Asian autocracies – and to Russia’s Potemkin democracy. Georgia’s economy will grow by about 7.5 per cent this year. State corruption has been drastically reduced. A strengthened constitution will take effect next year and the president conceded defeat when the votes did not come his way.
Ivanishvili, who will probably become a forceful and active prime minister, will bring a less contentious, more pragmatic approach to relations with his country’s giant neighbor to the north. That is smart, given Georgia’s small size, lack of natural wealth and its tough neighborhood. At the same time, he says he wants Georgia to join Nato and plans an early trip to Washington. That is smart, too. As a transit route for Caspian gas making its way to Europe, and as a western-friendly government located strategically between Russia, Turkey, Iran and central Asia, Georgia can expect friendly overtures from east and west.