The Georgian Sky Isn't Falling
On the eve of the Warsaw Summit, with the Parliamentary elections only a few months away, it is easy to see all the big picture problems facing Georgia. Russia is not going away; NATO membership is not going to happen anytime soon; Abkhazia and South Ossetia are still functioning as de facto Russian protectorates or even colonies; political life is still extremely polarized; and while economic proposals are easy to come by, solutions to Georgia’s ongoing economic challenges are not in the immediate offing.
In the strange logic of Georgian political life, it is possible that both major political blocks will agree on these points in the election discourse. The difference will be that the opposition United National Movement (UNM) will seek to blame all these problems on the incumbent Georgian Dream (GD) coalition, while the GD will argue that these problems, which may be getting slightly less severe, were caused by the decade of UNM misrule.
Lost on both these parties is another possibility, one for which there is an increasing amount of evidence. Perhaps, things are not going quite as badly for Georgia as the election narrative may suggest. Moreover, it is also possible that while the current government should get much of the credit for this, in some cases they are building on the work of their immediate predecessors in the UNM and even of the Citizen’s Union block led by former President Eduard Shevardnadze, that was in power before being ousted in the 2003 Rose Revolution.
This view should not be overstated, but nor should it be so quickly minimized. It is true that some substantial problems remain. The economy is still not meeting the needs of many Georgians as concerns about inflation and unemployment have been a constant for years, beginning well before the GD came to power. Similarly, Abkhazia and South Ossetia remain under Russian control. However, a closer look at both the economic and foreign policy realm is less discouraging.
More than two years after the Russian invasion of Crimea; and almost eight years after the Russia-Georgia war of 2008, Russia has continued to harass Georgian citizens living in and near the disputed territories, and have moved the line between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia further south, but they have been unable to gain any meaningful international support for their actions, gather the wherewithal to move substantially further into Georgia or figured out exactly what to do with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Even following Russia’s successful incursion into Crimea, they were unable to turn their attention to Georgia in the way that many feared. This might be because Russian President Vladimir Putin decided he didn’t want to commit any more acts of aggression in Russia’s neighborhood, but that is a bit of an oversimplification. Rather, the network of political and security arrangements that Georgia has been building for years proved to be very valuable even if they did not lead directly to NATO membership or a Membership Action Plan (MAP) for NATO. Instead, political signals from Georgia’s western allies, increased cooperation of the kind we saw this week in Tbilisi, and the broad opposition to Russia within Georgia all helped halt whatever ambitions Moscow had towards Georgia in the last two or three years.
Additionally, Georgia is not lurching from crisis to crisis the way it did for many years. The country’s political life is no longer characterized by shooting wars with Russia, massive demonstrations occasionally violently dispersed, fake invasions by Russia, spy intrigue and similar fare. There are still occasional government shakeups, vocal and passionate political debates, the continuing role of informal leadership, although that also existed before 2012, concerns about abuses of power and the like, but no longer of a degree where the fear of the other foot dropping dominates political life.
The coming election promises to be close as the outcome is genuinely in doubt with fewer than three months until votes are cast. While partisans of the GD and UNM undoubtedly believe that victory for their party is essential to the country’s future, some perspective on that is also valuable. Regardless of who wins, Georgia is unlikely to again lose its democratic moorings as it did in the late UNM period. Another way to look at the Georgian election is that there is no likely outcome that will destabilize the country and threaten the rights and standing of minorities the way a Trump victory would in the US. The possible exception to this is if former President Mikhail Saakashvili seeks to return to Georgia following the election to try to mobilize an extra-legal effort to gain power, but even if that were to happen, it would be unlikely to be successful. There is, of course, a lot at stake in this election, as is the case with any national election, but the basic stability of Georgia will not be quite as central to the outcome as was the case in, for example, 2012.
Building a modern functioning economy for Georgia will be the central challenge for whoever wins the October election, just as it has been of the previous two governments, but there are some accomplishments upon which the next government can build The most significant of these may be the slow, but unmistakable, advance of stability in Georgia. While Georgia still finds itself in a geographical region that is unsettled with an aggressive Russia to the north and the Middle East wrought with conflict, refugee crises and terrorism, Georgia itself increasingly stands out from the region in this respect.
The government in Georgia, while not exuding reformist enthusiasm as publicly and boisterously as its predecessor, has continued to build Georgia while striking a tone that is less fraught with adrenaline and more hands off than the Georgia of five or ten years ago. While some see this as a sign that the government is not competent, others see it as a welcome reprieve and a signal that business will be unharassed by government. The fruits of that approach are visible for those who care to look. The indicators are still mixed, but the recent upgrade from a low-middle to upper-income country, the increasing investment from abroad and the steady expansion of tourism all suggest that the economy is not as bad as many suggest.
This may or may not have much bearing on the upcoming election. In democratic countries voters have the right, even the obligation, to ask their leaders “what have you done for me lately?” Accordingly, Georgian voters may determine that the pace of progress has been to slow, that the current government is not likely to solve the remaining and ongoing problems facing Georgia or simply that it is time to give another political party a chance. However, the positive developments in Georgia may help frame this election as one about choice, policy, vision and politics rather than as being about a last chance to save the country from collapse.
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.
Contesting elections without relying on what might be called the Chicken Little approach to politics is a challenge to both the opposition party as well as to the incumbent party. It forces both to articulate a view more sophisticated than simply raising irrational but alluring fears about the opposition. This is what Georgia needs now, but it is not something with which Georgia’s political class, regardless of party has much experience. The GD, after all, came to power warning, not without accuracy, that their victory in 2012 was essential to stave off creeping authoritarianism in Georgia, while the UNM stayed in power for years by claiming that their defeat would mean victory for Russia, and, in so many words, the end of the Georgian state.
Breaking old habits, particularly ones that have worked under similar, but also critically different, circumstances, is difficult, but it will be essential for Georgia’s future. In 2016, the politics of anger and calamity have thus far proven successful in many places, although most polling suggests that will not continue to be the case in the US in November. Georgia, however, can ill afford this approach. Recognizing the accomplishment not just of the GD government, but of the Georgian state, is essential both for deepening Georgian political stability, but for building on those accomplishments.
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.