Bidzina Ivanishvili’s decision to return to a formal role as Chair of the Georgian Dream (GD) is more interesting for its timing than for the action itself. Ivanishvili, despite his protestations to the contrary, has never fully removed himself from Georgian political life since stepping down as Prime Minister in November of 2013. Over the last four and a half years his role has diminished somewhat, but major Georgian Dream, and government, decisions are rarely made without his input.
It is also unfortunate that the Trump Batumi project that was described in The New Yorker may become one of the few things that readers of that venerable and very high quality periodical now know about Georgia. Although, as the article noted, high level corruption remained a problem even as rates of low level corruption plummeted under President Saakashvili, Georgia today is considerably less corrupt than Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan or many other countries in the region.
While people in Eastern Europe can’t vote in this election, Polish Americans, Latvian Americans, Ukrainian Americans and other Americans with roots in countries that feel threatened by an aggressive Russia do. Many of these voters are part of the very demographic groups upon whom Mr. Trump will rely on for his path to victory against Hillary Clinton. Mr. Trump needs a record proportion of white votes to win this election; and he particularly needs them in states of the upper Midwest, including Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin that have long had large numbers of voters with roots in Eastern Europe.
At first glance, this seems like a minor event. The resignation of a non-president of a non-state in a small and poor region of the Caucasus is not the kind of thing that generally grabs headlines. The broader context, however, suggests that we should pay a bit more attention to these events, particularly as the West is increasingly concerned about Russian aggression.
Statements from various American politicians and organizations with whom Gharibashvili met contained the usual platitudes about Georgia’s strides towards democracy and the strength of the bilateral relationship. The most significant thing about those statements, however, may well have been what was not said. Only a few days before the trip, former Georgian Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili, a very close ally of former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and for most of the previous decade the second most powerful man in Georgia, was sentencedhttp://www.eurasianet.org/node/68094 to five years in prison for various abuses of power.
Two other issues have moved to the forefront of Georgian politics in the absence of a heated election campaign. These are the question of whether or not the Georgian Dream coalition will hold together, and what the impact on Georgian politics will be if Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili steps down shortly after the election, as he has indicated he will do? The general feeling with regards to these questions is that both of these possibilities would threaten the democratic advances Georgia has enjoyed over the last year or so.
The surface similarities between the arrests of former Georgian and Ukrainian prime ministers Vano Merabishvili and Yulia Tymoshenko should not be used to undermine attempts to support the rule of law in Georgia, argues Columbia University's Lincoln Mitchell.
In the 1990s, Western supported and funded democracy assistance programs, including support for civil society and rule of law, technical assistance to political parties and legislatures, and election monitoring to ensure free, fair and democratic elections, played an important role in the expansion of democracy throughout much the former Communist block, Africa, Asia and elsewhere. Over recent decades these tools have been integrated into the foreign policy apparatus of the West, but a funny thing happened on the way to the agora: The environment changed and the programs did not. - See more at: http://www.the-american-interest.com/article.cfm?piece=1421#sthash.3dkmdOrk.dpuf
Rayfield and Jones have written books that all Georgia specialists will read, consult, and use in their research. Jones in particular offers sharp and concise analysis of a critical time in Georgia’s history, while Rayfield condenses millennia of history into one accessible volume. These works have their limitations and perhaps appropriately leave many questions unanswered, but they are among the best books on Georgia to appear since independence.
The recent parliamentary election in Georgia saw the ruling United National Movement (UNM) party defeated by the opposition Georgian Dream (GD) coalition led by new Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili. This election has been variously described as evidence of the strength of Georgian democracy, a turn toward Russia by Georgia, a victory which Ivanishvili bought by spending lavishly in the United States, Europe and Georgia, the end of UNM domination, and more or less everything in between. It is still too early to know the real meaning of this election, but it is possible to make some observations, and raise some questions.
It is possible that the Georgian election will go smoothly and will not be news in the U.S., but that is becoming less likely every day as fines, harassment and efforts to prevent the opposition from campaigning become even more frequent in Georgia. It is, therefore, likely that the Obama administration will be faced with this all-too-foreseeable October Surprise from Georgia. A year ago, there was much the U.S. could have done to make elections better in Georgia. The window for doing that is rapidly closing, but in the next few weeks the U.S. should do whatever it can to effect at least some change for the better.
Currently, with major parliamentary elections less than two weeks away, the Georgian government is playing game of chicken. This one, unlike chicken tabaka, does not involve cooking, will not end well, and is being played for high stakes. It consists of a challenge from the Georgian government to the West to see who will blink first. In the months leading up to the October 1st election numerous international observers, election monitors and foreign diplomats and leaders have commented that the current electoral environment is not conducive to fair elections, and have expressed concerns accordingly. The prison abuse scandal, which is widespread and particularly devastating in a country like Georgia, which has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, although not a partisan issue, has made the political environment even more tense, weakening support for the ruling United National Movement (UNM) party and making widespread election fraud even more necessary for the UNM to ensure victory for themselves.
Accordingly, Saakashvili's rhetoric tells a very clear anti-Russian story, but if the Georgian government were to be judged by outcomes, rather than rhetoric, with regards to Russia, a very different story would emerge. Regardless of its intentions, the Georgian government has delivered a set of outcomes that are in Russia's clear interest in the region. After being in power for more than eight years, Saakashvili and his government have seen roughly 20 percent of Georgian territory ceded to Russia for the foreseeable future, allowed Georgia's NATO and EU aspirations to become little more than a pipe dream, have presided over very difficult economic times in Georgia, a country now besot by joblessness, inflation, and a debt problem which will become more serious in the next few years.
For most of the time since Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2003, concerns about the increasingly less democratic nature of Georgia’s regime, which people in Washington began to notice sometime around 2008, were always raised privately. A trip to Tbilisi by a visiting U.S. official would include public congratulations to the Georgian government for its democratic credentials, while concerns about the lack of media freedom, recent electoral or legal shenanigans, or the growing centralization of political power were made privately and discreetly. Similarly, Georgian officials visiting Washington were publicly greeted with platitudes about the strength of Georgian democracy, while concerns were, again, raised privately These warnings were generally politely ignored by the Georgian government who continued doing as it pleased while seeking to persuade the Georgian people that Saakashvili was uniquely able to win financial and political support for Georgia.
It is not clear that the U.S. is able to influence the degree of election fairness in entrenched semi-democratic or semi-authoritarian regimes, but it is clear that the current approaches are no longer sufficient. The tools which are necessary to push countries to better elections are no longer simply help with election lists and other straightforwardly technical tactics, but include things like concrete political pressure linked to consequences, a willingness to publicly urge foreign leaders to conduct fair elections, and intervene more frequently when government abuses occur in the pre-election period. The politics of doing these things in countries that are allies is very complicated. It is unlikely, for example, that the U.S. government in Washington or Tbilisi is going to link assistance to Georgia, a country that has more than 1,000 troops in Afghanistan, to fair elections, or that leaders of American allies will be publicly chastised for things like arresting opposition activists or threatening opposition supporters, but unless the U.S. is willing to do these things, its ability to push countries to better elections will be severely limited.
The Georgian government has very cleverly exploited this situation, frequently complaining to both foreign and domestic audiences that Georgia lacks a serious and powerful opposition. The government has, of course, complained about the opposition being too weak while simultaneously working to ensure that this remains the case. Thus, the Georgian government has been able to deflect criticisms of one party dominance by arguing the self-fulfilling prophecy that due to the UNM’s popularity nobody was able to pose a plausible challenge. This explanation has been useful and accurate for several years.
The spy case and the bombing case, individually and together, raise a number of important, if largely unstated, questions for the Georgian relationship with the U.S. The first question is what if these accusations are wrong? In this scenario, the photographers have been essentially framed and the bomb near the U.S. embassy was the result of one man’s actions with no connection to the Russian embassy. This is a hypothetical scenario, as it certainly cannot be assumed that these accusations are wrong or unfounded. Nonetheless, if these accusations are false, than Georgia has again demonstrated a willingness to overstate Russian involvement in Georgian domestic affairs and to risk undermining relations between Russia and the US.
If the Georgian government had scripted recent events in Abkhazia, and between Abkhazia and Vanuatu, it could not have gotten a better outcome than what has actually occurred. Vanuatu, a tiny Pacific Island state briefly recognized, or almost briefly recognized, Abkhazia in the beginning of June. Almost immediately after the announcement of the recognition there were rumors that the government of Vanuatu was back tracking as Vanuatu’s Ambassador to the UN claimed to know nothing of the recognition. Georgia, of course, has continued to maintain that Abkhazia is part of Georgia. This view is supported by the U.S., the European Union and most of the world.
Recognition of Abkhazia by Vanuatu does not make Abkhazia a real country, but it may have an impact on this. As Vanuatu is too small and distant to have any direct bearing on Abkhazia’s future, its decision to recognize Abkhazia is better understood as part of a larger story. The Abkhaz have sought to tell as story of a small state which has won its independence from a larger more powerful neighbor, slowly building relations, and winning recognition, from different countries around the world. Vanuatu’s recognition clearly fits into this narrative.
The current Georgian paradoxes are not altogether unusual. There are other countries that have been modernized by soft authoritarian regimes, or that have financed economic progress on borrowed money and faced the consequences when those debts have come due. Perhaps recognizing the unexceptionalism of Georgia can be useful for policy makers. This might allow policy makers to see Georgia as a country more concerned with modernization than democracy, and to recognize the potential seriousness of a looming debt crisis, which is scheduled to coincide with a sharp decline in American assistance, and how this could have a potentially destabilizing impact. This might be a better foundation for a sound Georgian policy than increasingly vague rhetoric, particularly from Washington, about democracy and territorial integrity.