Steve Russell is not a well known name in American politics. He is a Republican backbencher from the fifth district of the conservative state of Oklahoma. Russell is winding down his first term and, like most members of Congress, is more likely than not to get reelected later this year. Russell is unusual among members of Congress in that he had a long and distinguished career in the military, having served 21 years in the army airborne division. He was elected to Congress for the first time in 2014 with the support of the Tea Party Express in a crowded Republican primary. His military background helped him land a position on the House Armed Services Committee where he is one of the more junior members. Congressman Russell may not be very well known in the US, but he has, in the last few days, become considerably better known in Georgia.
Last week, Russell waded into Georgian politics opening up the second front of the parliamentary elections, the one that will not be contested by Georgian political parties seeking to communicate with voters and win votes, but by their representatives in the west, seeking to frame and explain the election to European and American policy makers, media and pundits. Congressman Russell’s comments should be listened to in their entirety so that the combination of legitimate concern about Russian aggression, pro-Saakashvili talking points, confusion about current events in Georgia and paranoia on a Dr. Strangeglove like scale can be fully appreciated. These comments suggest that Russell, who is not viewed as a foreign policy heavyweight in the House of Representatives, has allowed himself to become part of a partisan political fight in Georgia. Given the strong ties between the United National Movement (UNM) and the right in the US and Europe, it is no surprise that these comments came from somebody with Russell's political profile.
Congressman's Russell’s speech lays down a marker for the UNM in congress, but because his comments were so over the top, and at times incoherent, it will not have much of an impact. Few other than the most hard line western supporters of the UNM in Washington are going to buy into Mr. Russell’s core thematic assertion, that the current Georgian government is heavily influenced by Russia. That accusation flies in the face of the steady, if frequently slow, progress this government has made towards integration into the west, progress that builds on the work of the UNM government that preceded it.
There is nothing particularly new about this, as a similar dynamic existed in 2012, and to a significantly lesser extent, in other recent Georgian elections. The script, however, is notably flipped from, but also notably akin to, what it was four years ago. In both cases, the governing party sought or will seek, to persuade the west that the election will be conducted fairly, while the opposition sought, or seeks, to identify and draw attention to problems with the election. The difference, however, is that this time it is the UNM that is in the opposition and the Georgian Dream (GD) that is in power, whereas in 2012, the positions were reversed.
The problem this raises is that the Oklahoma Republican's speech is most probably the early fruit of a UNM campaign to undermine the credibility of Georgian elections that, on balance, they are likely to lose. Despite recent polling data that shows the election to be very close, the chances of the UNM building beyond what has proved to be a surprisingly resilient post-2012 base is, according to many Georgian political observers with whom I have recently spoken, quite small. Another GD win in 2016 will render the UNM less relevant to governance and reduce their impact in the west. The best way to avoid this, if voters cannot be moved to change their minds about the former governing party, is to undermine the credibility of the election.
This approach in the long run, and for that matter the short run, undermines and imperils Georgia’s democratic advances in the service of what is likely to be a losing partisan cause. It casts a pall and suspicion over the election regardless of what happens between now and election day. To an extent, the solution to this problem lies in Russell’s conclusions in which he "call(ed) on the President of the United States to assist in monitoring of this fall’s election processes in Georgia as we once assisted them in the pivotal 2003 elections.” This is a sensible idea that should be embraced by Georgian and western political actors regardless of political party. Unfortunately, this proposal is in danger of getting lost in a flood of more partisan suggestions such as requesting that the “United States Department of Treasury and western banks…freeze the assets of (Bdizina) Ivanishvili for violations as an illegal arms trader,” or “call (ing)upon western journalists in our free press to give the Georgian people a chance to have their story heard by investigating and covering the remaining few months of what could be the last free months of a Georgian republic.” Mr. Russell seems to have forgotten that governments in democratic countries, like the US, should not be in the business of telling the media what they should or should not cover.
The tactics of seeking to challenge the credibility of the election before it happens are not new. Nor were they created by the UNM. The GD pursued a similar strategy in 2012, but to see what is likely to become the UNM approach this cycle as no different from what the GD did four years ago is to suggest a false equivalenc. In 2012, there was a broad perception in Washington that the elections were moving along smoothly and that the Georgian government was a democratizing force, in spite of ample evidence that the government was moving away from its early democratic promise. That is not the case today.
There is no proof that Congressman Russell’s comments are the result of efforts by the UNM to persuade the American political class of their view of what is occurring in Georgia. It is possible that a third force, perhaps one supported by Moscow, persuaded Mr. Russell to make these comments hoping that it would undermine the credibility of the Georgian state. It is also possible that Mr. Russell woke up one morning last week and decided that he felt like making a somewhat incoherent rant about Russia’s influence in Georgia, but by far the most likely provenance of Mr. Russell’s comments were, in one form or another, a lobbying effort by supporters of the previous Georgian government. If that indeed is the case, the reality that the UNM could only find an obscure back bencher to carry their election year water is also a reflection of how Georgian politics are viewed in Washington today.
The strategy of beginning to raise doubts about the legitimacy of this election is a smart political tactic by the UNM. It is also a tactic that has the potential to be particularly effective now given recent polls suggesting that the election will be very close. The problem with the current approach, as symbolized by Congressman Russell’s recent comments is that UNM supporters are overplaying their hand. While there are always doubts that can be raised about elections in countries like Georgia, the notion that Ivanishvili is a fully owned subsidiary of Vladimir Putin is one that has no credence outside of the UNM and their supporters on the European and American right. Moreover, in recent years, the GD government has slowly begun to succeed in persuading the mainstream of the European and American political establishment that they are indeed pro-west and interested in making Georgia more western and Democratic.
It is becoming more clear that the 2016 election Georgia will be fought on several fronts, and in several continents. The additional scrutiny on the government is valuable as it may push them towards conducting fair elections and reducing any election related shenanigans, but to the extent that it creates a narrative that seeks to undermine a post-election scenario where, if the election is conducted freely and fairly, the defeated party, regardless of who it is, accepts its defeat and takes its place leading the opposition in parliament, it is a destructive dynamic.
One of the UNM’s best moments during its near decade in power was when the party, and its leader, then President Mikhail Saakachvili, accepted their resounding defeat at the hands of the GD in the 2012 parliamentary election. That decision allowed the UNM to have a post-2012 political life and to remain relevant, despite not being in power, in Georgia. However, if what amounts to a smear campaign against the Georgian government, continues to be at the center of their western strategy as the election approaches, the goodwill that the UNM engendered following the 2012 election will be compromised. The west has a role in trying to ensure that these elections are free and fair, and in pressuring the Georgian government to follow through on their promises to that effect. That is a valuable contribution to Georgia’s democracy, becoming involved in the partisan politics of Georgia and wittingly or not, repeating the talking points of one of the major parties, however, is a considerably less useful contribution to Georgia.
The Georgia Analysis is a twice monthly analysis of political and other major developments in Georgia. Lincoln Mitchell is a political development, research and strategic consultant who has worked extensively in the post-Soviet space. If you would like to be on the Georgia analysis mailing list or are interested in more research, analysis or consulting for your business, government, campaign or other organization, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.