While speaking at a conference in Tbilisi this week, the Georgian Prime Minister referred to former President Mikheil Saakashvili as “the political past for our country-a very sad past.” Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili is, on balance, probably right about that, but unfortunately for Georgia, the words of William Faulkner are also probably relevant here as well. The great American writer noted that “The past is never dead. It's not even past.”
There is nothing the Georgian government can do about a strange deal involving Saakashvili and Trump five years ago. They can, however, make sure the deal does not get revived, because if it does it will be interpreted as a clumsy effort to curry favor with the American president. Doing that is unnecessary and would undermine the strong ties Georgia enjoys with many other US foreign policy actors. Similarly, there is nothing the Georgian government can do about its former President turned stateless gadfly as he seeks to spin out self-serving analyses of Georgia, Ukraine, Russia and Donald Trump. However, the Georgian government must be recognize where this might lead and be prepared to actively demonstrate that the era described in Davidson’s piece, and the leaders associated with that era are indeed unambiguously part of Georgia’s past.
In some respects these two cities represent different possible futures for Georgia. The Tbilisi future is one where Georgia accelerates its integration into Europe and becomes something of a European outpost in the South Caucasus, on the geographical fringe of what most people would view as Europe. The Batumi future is one where Georgia becomes a genuine crossroads of the Middle East, the former Soviet Union and, to a lesser extent, Asia and Europe. In this vision, it is not just tourists, but investors and trade that comes to Georgia from these parts of the world.
Now economic development has become a major pillar of Georgia’s national security strategy. Foreign direct investment (FDI) in Georgia from powerful, although not necessarily western, countries will help Georgia strengthen its position with regards to Russia. If Moscow sees Georgia as a poor and weak country that is a western project but otherwise largely untethered from the rest of the world, they will be more likely to expand their conflict with Georgia. Fortunately for Georgia, that description is no longer accurate and has not been for a few years. Less fortunately, it is not clear whether or not the Kremlin understands this.
The visa free relationship is also an important achievement for another reason. It demonstrates the capacity of the Georgian government, and the Georgian state, to accomplish something significant and concrete. For many years Georgia has bounced between goals that are abstract such as democracy, territorial integrity and modernity, and achievements that are symbolic frequently leading to more tasks and goals, such as the EU association agreement signed in 2014. Additionally developments like elections that are described as a step in the right direction, or slight improvements to the economy often feel very abstract to ordinary Georgians. This has led to a political system where platitudes and promises are too frequently confused with outcomes. For example, pledging a commitment to territorial integrity or to affluence through radical economic reform, in the past, have too frequently been presented by politicians as accomplishments in of themselves.
A related point is that while Rustavi Two has often been outspoken, and less frequently eloquent, in its criticisms of the government, it has rarely been impactful. Rustavi Two’s constant, and thematically unaltering, drumbeat of criticism against the GD-that Ivanishvili is running the entire country, that the GD is beholden to Russia, that they have engaged in widespread election fraud and the like-must strike the government as dishonest, tiresome and annoying, but it in no way poses, or increases, a political threat to them. Therefore, any repression of Rustavi Two does more damage to the reputation of the GD government than anything Rustavi has said or done in the last four and a half years. It is not at all clear that the GD understands this, otherwise they would have sought a way to resolve the ownership controversy that did not threaten ongoing broadcasting from Rustavi Two.
Georgia is now in its third decade of independence. Although problems of the economy, democratic consolidation and territorial issues endure, Georgia has made substantial progress in the first two of these areas and, presumably, has learned quite a bit along the way. One of the things they should have learned is that radical liberal economic ideas may bring smiles to the faces of people in some western think tanks, policy shops, financial institutions and political parties, but they are rarely effective ways to solve the concrete problems facing the people.
Georgia’s longer term security rests on positioning itself in a complex and rapidly changing region. In the past, Georgia sought to do this by becoming one of America’s strongest allies in the region, but that is no longer enough. As the US-Russia relationship changes, Iran simultaneously becomes more open to trade with much of the world and a possible target of the next American war, conflicts in Syria and Iraq show little signs of abating, the Ukraine conflict goes on and international Islamic movements taken new forms and move in new directions, Georgia must also rethink its place and create a role for itself where it is more valuable to both Russia and the west as a functioning sovereign state than yet another conflict region.
Saakashvili is trying to do the seemingly impossible task not just of defending Donald Trump from the charges that intervention on the part of Russia and that Vladimir Putin helped get him elected, but to also suggest that the entire Trump-Putin saga is something that is the product of dirty tricks by Trump’s opponents. It is not clear from his comments, whether the former Georgian President believes Russia, the Democratic Party or both are the dirty tricksters in this scenario. This reflects Saakashvili’s need both to continue to present himself as a leading anti-Putin voice, while also seeking to curry favor with the new American President.
Like most years, 2017 promises to be an exciting and intriguing one for Georgia. Given how spectacularly wrong much of my political forecasting was in 2016, I am not making any predictions for Georgia, or any other countries for the new year.. However, there are some key questions that will confront Georgia this year and are worth exploring. How Georgia responds to these questions will be of central relevance to Georgia’s future.
Georgia’s constitution as it stands, like that of every country in the world, is imperfect and could be more democratic, but constant tinkering with the constitution is unlikely to change that. A reformed Georgian constitution, will still be an imperfect one. Following the recommendations above will improve the constitution, but there will still be problems. Constitution crafting, like democracy itself, is an exercise in trying to get somewhere that is pretty good while avoiding the problems that often come with trying to achieve an impossible perfection.
As the credibility of powerful western countries on issues of democracy becomes increasingly shaky, one of the primary external checks on Georgian democracy will be removed. If institutions in the US continue to fail in their role as checks on presidential power and if the President, as seems likely, draws no clear line between his private business and his responsibility as President, it will be extremely difficult for the US to warn emerging democracies, like Georgia, of the perils of these kinds of things.
On the human level, this means that Georgians would be well served to be know that many Americans today are frightened and will appreciate understanding on that point. On a policy level, Georgia should also be prepared for a US that may be less stable and unified than any time in at least 40 years. An unstable America is one that cannot help its allies and that will turn inward. That is not good for Georgia either.
The key question that for Georgia now is not whether there is one one party governance-there is. Rather, the question is whether the GD will use that position to weaken democracy. In many respects that is the path of least resistance. Rushing constitutional and even widespread legislative changes, slowly limiting opposition voices and the like is easy; and there is precedent for it all over the world. It is not, however, inevitable. The Georgian government can spend these years continuing to make Georgia freer, facilitating some deliberation both inside the parliament and with civil society and recognizing that competitive politics are better for democratic development. It is not yet clear which path the GD will choose, but it is still too early to condemn their intentions just because they won an election.
Shortly after the election, it was reported that the GD was going to explore constitutional amendments that would focus on two issues: making the President appointed by parliament rather than directly elected by the people, and defining marriage as being between a man and a woman. If you programmed a computer to arrive at two proposals that would be bad for Georgia and damaging to the image the GD seeks to project internationally, it probably would have arrived at these two issues.
This election was defined not simply by a fight between the two major parties, or even a fight between two major parties with significant policy differences. Rather it was defined by a fight over how to define the election. The major division between the two biggest parties was that the GD ran a typical incumbent’s campaign, while the UNM had another vision for the election. The GD sought to highlight their accomplishments, defend their record and frighten people about what would happen if the opposition came back into power-on balance a pretty standard incumbent strategy. The GD strategy proved to be a wise, if at times inelegantly executed, one. The governing party spent their campaign efforts burnishing their record, promising more growth and advances over the next four years and raising fears about the UNM. This was how they won their decisive victory, although they won only a very narrow majority of voters.
The large number of undecided voters, to some extent, represents a failure on the part of Georgia’s political parties, particularly the major ones, but it also is evidence of a disconnect between Georgian political parties, and Georgian political institutions more broadly, on one hand, and the Georgian people on the other. Ironically, this disconnect is exacerbated, or at least revealed more, by the growing stability, even normality of Georgian political life.
Interestingly, as Georgia’s region experiences even greater instability than in recent years, Georgia itself is slowly, and relative to only a few years ago, implausibly, emerging as something of an island of stability. While Georgia is certainly still characterized by contentious and polarizing politics, significant economic challenges and a Russian presence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the state itself is more stable than any time in recent memory, particularly when compared to the rest of the region. Today, Georgia looks more stable than much of the Middle East, Turkey, Ukraine or either of its South Caucasus neighbors. This is seen in the general tone of political life, the often overlooked continuity on key policies between this government and the previous one and even in electoral politics shortly before parliamentary elections.
Claiming that victory for your party is all that is standing between your country and disaster is a well-worn political ploy because it is easy and always appeals to the hardest core supporters of that party. Rarely has that tactic been pursued more unambiguously than in the US election this year. This tactic is appealing and can lead to short term success. However, when it is clearly the result of hyperbole rather than more objective analysis it is damaging to the country, any country, in the longer term, and makes it harder for that country to meaningfully address problems or achieve politically stability.
There was no good time for Brexit, but this vote coming only a few weeks before the Warsaw NATO summit is particularly problematic for Georgia. Warsaw was already shaping up to be another summit from which Georgia would return not empty-handed, but also not with a MAP. The Georgian government should already have been trying to determine both what they would get form NATO as well as how to present it to the Georgian people as a reason to remain steadfast in their commitment to NATO. Now, that summit will occur in the shadow of Brexit meaning that NATO may too begin to look inward more as the political sentiments behind Brexit, and kindred movements in other countries begin to spill over into the real of defense and security. This is unlikely to be a climate in which further expansion of NATO will get a particularly sympathetic hearing.