2015, like every year in recent Georgian history, will be an important year for the country. Although there are no significant elections, NATO summits or other such major events currently on the calendar for Georgia, the battery of foreign threats, economic stagnation and the struggle to build a strong and democratic state, that have defined Georgia’s almost quarter century of independence, will continue to be of central import to Georgia in the New Year.
The year that just ended for Georgia had elements of change and progress as well as continuity and missteps. In the summer, Georgia signed an association agreement with the European Union, but the sense of joy and accomplishment associated with that event was mitigated by the failure, once again, of Georgia to receive a Membership Action Plan (MAP) at the NATO summit that occurred in September in Wales. Similarly, local elections in early summer that were generally viewed as reasonably democratic provided reason to believe that democracy was being strengthened in Georgia, but the failure of the new government to aggressively dismantle the surveillance apparatus created by the previous government, and several unfortunate public statements by the prime minister raised concerns about Georgia’s democratic trajectory. Numerous arrests and indictments of former government officials were seen by some as evidence of the vengeful and undemocratic nature of the Georgian Government, while others viewed those events as a return of rule of law in Georgia.
The ongoing tension between the President and the Prime Minister, that peaked in the later summer and early fall, never fully receded, but by the end of the year, President Giorgi Margvelashvili seemed to have found his political sea legs. The President, positioned himself as a voice for greater democracy in Georgia, vetoing a bill that would have delayed anti-surveillance actions and appearing before parliament in November to argue for greater democracy and transparency at the highest levels of Georgia’s government.
In early November, Georgia faced its most significant political crisis since the Georgian Dream’s (GD) victory in the 2012 election as three cabinet ministers, Defense Minister Iraki Alasania, Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze, and State Minister of Georgia on European and Euro-Atlantic Integration Aleksi Petriashvili, all resigned or were fired taking several deputies with them. The impact of this crisis, however, was muted as Prime Minister Garibashvili quickly found replacements for the departed ministers, further resignations and breaking apart of the GD coalition did not occur, and Georgia was largely able to reassure its western partners that the country’s overall pro-west political orientation was not going to change.
Strife between the President and the Prime Minister, as well as the departures of the three ministers in November are also wrapped up in the complex role played by Bidzina Ivanishvili. Ivanishvili founded the Georgian Dream, and led it to a resounding upset victory in the 2012 parliamentary elections, but resigned from the position of Prime Minister late last year. Since that time, he has continued to play a significant role in Georgia’s political life, particularly through his close relationship with his protege, Prime Minister Garibashvili.
As in most years, Georgia’s economic development included both positive and negative signs. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) is likely to have been greater in 2014 than in 2013 or 2012; and the business climate in Georgia remained relatively strong, particularly as domestic businesses continued to be allowed to operate free of the political pressures of previous years. Nonetheless, joblessness and an absence of economic activity or hope in much of the country remained a critical part of Georgia’s economic reality.
Russian aggression in 2014 was most visible in Ukraine, but Georgia was not spared from Moscow’s territorial machinations. Border fences, new agreements between Russia and the breakaway territories and a significant Russian involvement in Georgia’s domestic political life continued to create problems for Georgia’s relationship with its large northern neighbor. Although the relationship did not devolve into war or direct conflict, for Tbilisi, the Russian threat did not diminish over the course of 2014.
In the bigger picture, 2015 will probably look a lot like 2014 for Georgia. The economy is not likely to suddenly boom; Russia will continue to create problems for Georgia, but will probably not invade; and the government will embrace democracy in fits, starts and reverses, but will not likely collapse. There are, however, several questions that could be answered in 2015 that will have a significant impact on Georgia’s future.
Can the Free Democrats Build a Real Organization? The Free Democrats, led by former Defense Minister Irakli Alasania, left the GD coalition in November following the shakeup in the Georgian government. The Free Democrats are, in some respects, positioned to play a major role in Georgia’s political life. They have strong pro-western credentials, but are also unblemished by direct association with the United National Movement (UNM) government. Alasania has been one of the most popular politicians in the country since becoming Defense Minister in 2012 and is broadly viewed as plausible future leader of Georgia. All of these things point to a political environment where by 2016, the Free Democrats could supplant the UNM as the leading opposition force in the country. However, the Free Democrats lack resources, do not have a strong national organization and have not done well in the past when they have contested elections without the protective umbrella of the GD coalition. 2015 will be a telling year for the Free Democrats. If they do the hard work of building an organization and raising money, and if the political climate is such that they are allowed to do that, the Free Democrats can become major players in Georgian politics and help make Georgia more pluralist. If, however, the year is spent with the leadership of the Free Democrats, most of whom are former diplomats with ample international experience, frequently flying to Europe to speak at conferences and fora, appearing on television to berate the government and not spending time in the regions and less glamorous precincts of Tbilisi, the Free Democrats could easily return to relative obscurity and minor party status. Additionally, if the Free Democrats are not allowed to organize and build a party, that will be evidence of the weakness of Georgian democracy.
Will the Georgian Dream Move Beyond the UNM Era? In 2014, the GD government continued to indict, harass and otherwise target former high level leaders of the Georgian government including most notably former Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava and former President Mikheil Saakashvili. These actions were extremely controversial eliciting strong support and opposition. Regardless of which of these positions is more accurate, the indictments and arrests gave the government a distinctive backward looking feel. At times it seemed that the GD was more focused on reminding people, inside and outside of Georgia, of how bad the UNM had been, rather than on moving the country forward and solving the myriad problems confronting the Georgian people. If the Georgian government continues to find more form UNM leaders to arrest in the New Year, it will be hard to combat the charge that they are a backward looking regime, dedicated to righting perceived wrongs. If, however, the government turns the corner in 2015, recognizes that the UNM period is receding into history and no longer obsessively revisits those years, it will be much better poised to govern effectively.
How Will Russia’s Deteriorating Relationship with the West Impact Georgia? In 2014, the west responded to Russian aggression in Crimea and eastern Ukraine by imposing severe economic sanctions on Moscow, moving military resources to NATO’s eastern frontier and pledging support for Ukraine as it struggles to rebuild and defend itself from further Russian actions. Although rhetoric about a new Cold War between Moscow and the west, and the all too ubiquitous comparisons of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler, are overstatements, relations between Russia and the west are at their worst point since the Cold War ended in 1991. Moreover, as the New Year begins, there is little reason to think these relations are likely to improve. What happens between Moscow and the west is always of paramount import to Georgia. The increased tension could mean greater western support for Georgia, but it could also drive Russia, who despite the sanctions has not been pushed out of Crimea or eastern Ukraine, to put more pressure on Georgia. Additionally, a weakening Russian economy could create an even bigger domestic imperative for ultra-nationalism that could be bad for Georgia. There are many ways this could play out, but Georgia’s immediate future will occur in the shadow of this conflict between Russia and the west.
What Will Be the Economic Impact of the EU Association Agreement? In the minds of many Georgians, stronger ties with Europe and movement towards the EU is linked to greater economic prosperity. However, the EU association agreement is the beginning of a process, not an end point and is unlikely to yield immediate economic fruit for the Georgian people. Managing this expectation, and finding some ways to show some economic progress from the association agreement will be critical for the success of the GD government. Relaxed visa regimes, greater Georgian exports into Europe and greater European investment in Georgia are among the most obvious ways this can occur.
There are, of course, many other questions facing Georgia in 2015, as well as events that will happen over the course of the year that cannot be seen from the vantage point of early January. Nonetheless, these four questions bear watching as their resolutions will impact much of what happens in Georgia in the next twelve months and beyond.
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