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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Sunday’s local elections in Georgia were predictable, both with regards to the outcome and the statements by international election observers. President Mikheil Saakashvilli’s United National Movement (UNM) won solid victories in every local council in Georgia while Gigi Ugulava, the UNM candidate handily defeated Irakli Alasania, the leading opposition figure, in the race for mayor of Tbilisi. Meanwhile the OSCE/ODIHR election report declared that the “The 30 May municipal elections marked evident progress towards meeting OSCE and Council of Europe commitments. However, significant remaining shortcomings include deficiencies in the legal framework, its implementation, an uneven playing field, and isolated cases of election-day fraud.” This is the election observation equivalent of a gentlemen’s B.
You know it is a rough time for democracy in the former Soviet Union whenimages of fisticuffs from the floor of the Ukrainian parliament are broadcast all over the world; and that those images of fistfights, eggs being thrown and wrestling over a giant Ukrainian flag represent some of the better news regarding democracy in the region. Obviously, debate and discussion is more appropriate than violence and shouting matches in any legislature, but sadly, this incident is one of the rare signs of democratic life in the region.
Georgia’s dilemma with regards to Abkhazia is clear. Georgia seeks to reintegrate Abkhazia into Georgia and reassert its sovereignty over Abkhazia. However, this task, which has never been easy, is made more difficult because the presence of Russian security forces in Abkhazia makes it easier for the Abkhaz leadership to ignore Georgian overtures of any kind. Moreover, the steady growth of Russian influence in Abkhazia means that the challenge gets more difficult as time passes.
Importantly, the program showed a Georgian military defeat, thus highlighting the sense of fear and indeed victimhood that has come to define the Georgian government, and threatens to define the Georgian nation as well. While there is no question that fear of Russia is legitimate in Georgia, if that fear becomes the defining characteristic of that country, and cripples Georgia’s ability to grow, develop or govern itself rationally, than Russia has won without firing an additional shot.
The ability to persuade foreign leaders, particularly those who are allies, to support the U.S., both in big issues such as the war in Iraq, and more specific issues such as combating terrorism in one place or not initiating conflict, is a key piece of U.S. foreign policy. The ability to persuade rests on the critical assumption that there are benefits to helping the U.S. and costs to not doing that. These costs and benefits, however, need to be moderate in nature. A foreign policy that, for example, sought to cut off all assistance to countries that did not support the U.S. on everything would be bullying and ineffective. Similarly, it is essential to recognize that sometimes allies will have legitimate interests that differ from those of the U.S.
Obama’s decision to stop pursuing this is being described by critics as surrendering to Russia and a sign of the American president’s weakness. When viewed through the narrow lens of competition and machismo, this is not an unreasonable conclusion, but when the lens is expanded to include the actual interests of the U.S. and its allies, things look a little different.
The Russia Georgia war in a paradoxical way changed everything and changed nothing. Accordingly, determining the real impact of the war can be a puzzling task. The initial fears articulated in Tbilisi and Washington last August have proven false. The dominoes did not tumble throughout the former Soviet Union; a new Cold War did not occur, President Mikheil Saakashvili is still in power in Georgia; and Russia did not take over Georgia. Although these extreme scenarios did not come to pass, something did change.
Biden’s challenge is to thread the needle of asserting continued American support for Georgian sovereignty while taking a more sober view of the true nature of domestic politics in Georgia. Demonstrating that while the U.S. remains committed to supporting Georgia, the U.S. also understands, and is concerned about, the shortcomings of Georgian democracy, the role of the Georgian government in those shortcomings and why this is so bad for Georgia, will show Russia, and the world, that the new American administration has a more sound and less personality and ideology based understanding of the world than the Bush administration did. This is the kind of reset U.S. Russian relations needs.
The war between Russia and Georgia has receded from the front pages, but the questions it has raised are still urgent. Russia’s aggression toward Georgia, which greatly exceeded what was necessary to achieve its stated goals, and Moscow’s continuing efforts to weaken and destabilize Georgia, make it clear that Russia is a real threat to several U.S. allies. From Azerbaijan to Latvia, the Kremlin’s actions have been duly noted. The next American administration will confront the fallout of this war and face a hard challenge: It is not possible to craft Georgia policy without looking at the broader U.S.-Russia policy, while it is not possible to craft a broader U.S.-Russia policy without recognizing the role the U.S. plays in creating tension between Russia and Georgia.