Politics and governance are closely related, but nonetheless distinct ideas. Many of the challenges facing Georgia lie at the confluence of these two ideas, but also in the difference between them. Georgia is a country that for many years has been deeply concerned with politics. Discussions of politics dominate the domestic media as well as foreign commentary about the country. Government officials, and those who would like to be in government, spend a great deal of time thinking about politics, positioning themselves politically and trying to persuade voters and others of their views of opponents and themselves. Even triumphs of governance in Georgia are often at least as much about politics as about policy outcomes. Despite this, it is the the challenges of governance that must be overcome for Georgia to move forward..
The current government of Georgia, despite winning three consecutive elections and ousting the United National Movement (UNM) from power in 2012, is not as good at politics as its predecessor. There is no leader in the current Georgian Dream (GD) government who enjoys the political instincts, skills and charisma of former President Mikheil Saakashvili. The UNM was very adept at drawing on political techniques from different systems and countries to increase their appeal. They had a strong understanding of political imagery, appeals to nationalism and other powerful sentiments and were very skilled at attacking opponents and playing them against each other.
The GD leadership is not as politically skilled. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili is given to blunt expressions of anger that make him sound petty and undemocratic. President Saakashvili had these moments too, of course, but was also able to use rhetoric in a more skilled way to balance out these gaffes. As President, Saakashvili President Saakashvili seemed to be perpetually be in campaign mode, traveling both domestically and internationally, giving speeches, making promises and creating photo opportunities. He was like many western politicians, Bill Clinton comes to mind, who both strived on the attention and energy of a campaign like environment, but who also seemed somewhat lost and uncomfortable without it.
Neither Saakashvili’s successor, Giorgi Margvelashvili or Prime Minister Garibashvili have a similar passion for the campaign trail. Former Prime Minister and GD founder Bidzina Ivanishvili was more politically gifted than his successor and possessed his own form of charisma, but Ivanishvili has retired from government, although he continues to be a powerful person in many respects. The GD has also been less able to effectively employ as broad a range of political techniques in the service of their party.
For many outside of Georgia, the difference between the political skills of the GD and the UNM are most apparent in their communications with western journalists, policy makers and others. For the UNM this was a top priority. Accordingly, messages were frequently crafted specifically for western consumption. Western journalists were courted, treated well and given as much access as needed. The UNM also always had a coterie of polished English speaking representatives and spokespeople available to speak to the media. None of this is true of the GD. The GD government cares much less about western opinion, and makes little effort to conceal this. Not surprisingly, what is left of the UNM continues to be very effective in framing and influencing public opinion. UNM affiliated NGO activists, MPs and former government officials continue to cultivate their ties with the west and, for example, are much more frequently quoted in the western media than those affiliated with the GD. This again reflects how politically savvy the UNM was, and is.
The UNM’s time in power, particularly the last five or six years were much more successful politically than with regards to governance. Moreover, during those years most of their governance related accomplishment were, in many respects, primarily political. For example, good ratings in various economic indices that reflected well on the UNM but did not create jobs or lower inflation, and consistently positive coverage in the western media while internal democracy was eroding were, at their core, about politics, not governance.
After the election of 2012, things changed. The GD was not as politically adept as the UNM leading to a relatively rapid decline in their political support that has left them with broad, but not overwhelming, popular support at home and to a relatively unfriendly media environment outside of Georgia. Additionally, the GD has, like the UNM, not been able to solve the myriad economic, security and other problems facing Georgia. In other words, while the GD is not as good at politics as the UNM was, they are not significantly better at governance either.
The reason for this, of course, is that governance, particularly in a country facing the challenges that Georgia faces, is very difficult, much more so than politics. The governance related problems facing the GD, including the current devaluation of the lari, persistent unemployment and a failure to stop Russian encroachment and annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are not radically different from what occurred during the time the UNM was in office, but problems of GD governance are not buffered by skilled political maneuvering. This became very apparent last month when the UNM held a rally in Tbilisi to, among other things, protest government policy that allowed Russia to gain influence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Lost in much of the western coverage of that event was the reality that those territories declared their independence and became de facto Russian protectorates under the UNM government.
Thus the biggest difference between how the two successive Georgian governments have addressed stubborn problems of governance is essentially that one did the politics better. The problem for the GD is that by not doing the politics well it is much easier for domestic and foreign critics to focus on the failures of governance. It is harder to draw attention away from, for example, persistent unemployment without the distraction of a shiny new bauble of a proposed brand new city in western Georgia. Similarly it is easier for the government to avoid scrutiny around personnel moves from the west if the western media and diplomatic classes are overwhelmed with a persistent stream of dubious but cheerful stories about the country’s democratic advance.
The GD’s political weaknesses therefore make their problems of governance more acute and potentially damaging. A government that has done the politics well can explain away problems of governance by blaming outside powers, or asking patience from a population, but the GD cannot do these kinds of things because they have not prepared the population accordingly.
It is not clear whether the GD’s failure to do the political work well is by design or poor execution, but it is beginning to be damaging, not least with regards to international audiences. Since coming to power, the GD reduced the Georgia’s investment in communication, particularly in Washington, and never set up an international press operation comparable to that of the UNM. While this is, in part, a principled and admirable response to a UNM government that put too many resources and too much attention into this, it has hurt the GD. By failing to craft their own narrative, the GD left an opening that the UNM was only too happy too fill. That is why, for example, the arrests and indictments of UNM officials are almost always framed in the west by charges of selective justice or using the law for political means rather than as an exploration of the criminal activity of the previous government. This is undoubtedly frustrating for the GD, but it is also inevitable given the lack of a sophisticated political strategy around these decisions.
For the GD, doing the politics poorly has meant there is much less room for error. Every piece of bad governmental news is magnified because of a faltering political operation. The GD’s challenges are not, however, simply problems of politics, but improving the way they do the politics will help the government gain some time and some slack from voters and international actors that will make it possible for them to devote more time to problems of governance and get credit for whatever success they achieve in that area. If they do not begin to do the politics better, the pressure, both domestic and foreign, will remain intense as faults and mistakes will be magnetized with the help of a savvy opposition, while accomplishments will go unrecognized. Obviously, this could be very damaging at election time.
Over time, problems of politics become problems of governance. The reverse is true as well. For the UNM, despite a political operation that remained polished and highly skilled throughout their time in office, it became increasingly difficult to explain away a stagnant economy to voters or to divert foreign attention from things like the prison scandal that occurred shortly before the 2012 election. For the UNM, this ultimately led to a spectacular political failure, but one they had managed to fend off of for years, primarily because of their strong political operation.
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