Mario Cuomo, the former governor of New York State and father of the state’s current governor, once noted that “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” Cuomo was referring to the difference between campaigns based on vision, hope and imagery and the hard slog of real governance. A related observation might be that you campaign retrospectively, but you have to govern prospectively, meaning elections are often won by asking voters to reflect on the recent past, but governance must move the polity forward. This reflects the current environment facing the Georgian Dream (GD) government in Georgia, but this is not unique to Georgia. Similar dilemmas have confronted newly elected parties or coalitions who have unseated parties that been in power for a long time in many countries.
The GD victory was largely due to a retrospective vote on the United National Movement’s (UNM) almost nine years in power. By late 2012, most Georgian voters believed the UNM had at best run its course, and at worse, veered into authoritarianism and criminality. In that context, the GD did not have to campaign on vision or a concrete platform, but on the more basic idea that it was time for the UNM to go. That proved to be a successful campaign strategy, but it gave them very little guidance about what to do once they got into power.
Moreover, because the GD was a broad opposition coalition somewhat hastily assembled for the purpose of defeating a dominant ruling party, it is not surprising that their campaign platform was long on platitudes and criticisms of the incumbents, and short on specific visions for Georgia’s future. This was the necessary, inevitable and strategically wise way to approach those elections, but it is not something on which governance can effectively be based.
After almost two years in power, it is apparent that, despite clarity around the very big picture goals of the government, the GD is not driven by a consistent and detailed vision for the future of Georgia. European integration, prosperity, democracy and the like remain the long term goals of this government, just as it was with the previous government. However, in this form, these goals are dangerously close to being platitudes. Achieving these goals is much more likely if a vision exists that fleshes these ideals out. If the government could identify what a prosperous or democratic Georgia would look like-what the economic engine of that Georgia would be, and what form the democracy would take, it would be much easier to get there. This level of detail is what separates platitudes from vision.
The GD is also somewhat handicapped by a predecessor that didn’t just have vision, but had many visions. The UNM, and particularly former President Saakashvili, peripatetically leapt from vision to vision at a dizzying pace. Particularly during his last years in office, the President proposed visions of Georgia as the new Singapore, the Baltics east, or a Libertarian paradise. Big promises such as building the new city of Lazika, or replacing all the taxis in Tbilisi with green vehicles defined these visions. After a few years of that, despite the impressive pace of change and number of new buildings, monuments and fountains that were constructed during that time, most Georgians understood that larger UNM visions were not to be taken too seriously. The GD government must break with that and lay out more coherent visions and policy roadmaps for achieving those ends.
The Georgian government, not least because of the arrests of numerous former government officials and the recent charges against Saakashvili himself, has been soundly criticized in the west for being too focused on the past. While it is inevitable that some would express outrage at the arrest of Saakashvili, the charge of being too focused on the past is easier to make because of the absence of a nuanced vision for the future. If these same charges and arrests were made against a backdrop of major, and detailed, policy proposals on the economy, national security, education and the like, the international reaction would be much different, as GD attempts to address the past would be seen in the context of a generally forward looking government.
It would be wrong to claim the new government has not sought to address these and other policy areas. The agricultural fund, efforts to reform and strengthen the military, or generate foreign investments are significant, but absent broader plans, policies or visions, they seem modest, scattered and insufficient. Without a vision to unify these ideals, they tend to seem piecemeal and and vague. The problem, is, in part, not that these ideas are poorly thought out. In fact, many of them are well thought out, but there is little that holds them together. How, for example, does an investment in agriculture link to the EU association process or a strategy for national security.
For a country like Georgia that, particularly with regards to questions of economic development, has a unique combination of strengths and weaknesses, having a vision is particularly important. Georgia could become prosperous by becoming a hub for international investment and finance. It could rejuvenate its still too moribund agricultural sector and through building an export based economy. A knowledge economy where Georgia becomes a center for programmers and developers of new apps could be they key to national wealth in Georgia. All of these, with the right combination of a clear plan, appropriate policy decisions, hard work, and a few breaks, are possible. However, it is more or less impossible to pursue all of these at once.
It is not just the economy where Georgia would benefit from a cohesive and clear vision for the future, but in other areas as well. One of the most notable things about Georgian politics in recent years, going back to the last years of the UNM government, is how the questions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have receded from the national dialog. Leaders in both this and the previous Georgian government frequently mentioned that Russia occupies a substantial portion of Georgian territory, but that has been about the extent of how the issue of the breakaway territories has been part of Georgian politics in recent years. The reasons for that can be debated, but this is further evidence of the lack of strong vision from the government. Over time, this lack of vision on Abkhazia and South Ossetia makes the problem harder to solve because time goes by and positions on both sides become hardened.
The current Georgian leadership, beginning with the Prime Minister, Irakli Garibashvili, is different from any previous Georgian leadership because there are no larger than life figures who by force of their history, personality or wealth can dominate politics and become the face of their country at home and abroad. On balance, this is probably a good thing as it makes it possible to develop institutions and to move away from the governance and politics by adrenaline that, on balance, has been damaging for Georgia. It is positive that the people leading Georgia now do not simply promise, explicitly or implicitly, to save the country based on their personality or wealth, but until something else fills that void, Georgia will be essentially stuck in neutral.
Crafting a vision, building a consensus around that vision and turning it into policy is central to political leadership. For most countries, including Georgia, this already difficult task is made even more difficult by events and condition that sidetrack the government and require immediate attention. Nonetheless, the ability to remain proactive despite a stream of events that require decisions and action is something that all effective leaders must do, and a key component of leadership itself.
For a Georgian population still suffering from a weak economy and living under the constant threat of further Russian incursion, the ability of the government to articulate a vision and build support for that vision is more than just an abstract concept. It is key to their economic and political future. Unless the Georgian, or any government, knows where it is going, and has a relatively clear idea of how to get there, progress will be extremely difficult.
It is not too late for the Georgian government to build such a vision, but it will not happen by magic. It will require leadership, an honest assessment of the country’s strengths, weaknesses and options, and the willingness to say no to some constituents and interests. This will not be easy, but the stakes are not insignificant. The parallel tasks of breaking Georgia’s cycle of one party rule and collapse, moving the economy forward and fleshing out Georgia’s European identity so that it has meaning beyond simply an abstract good, are what will make the difference between success and failure for the GD, and indeed for Georgia itself.
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