The people who threw the grilled meat products or who protested at the Tbilisi JAM festival, and the much larger number of quiet, and sometimes not so quiet, sympathizers they have in the Georgian population are not a phenomena that is unique to Georgia. They are the spiritual kin of those in my country who don “Make America Great Again” baseball caps and believe that we can make our country strong by building a wall on the Mexican border, of some of those in the UK who believe that their country can reclaim its greatness by leaving the EU, and by many in countries all over the world who have not enjoyed the fruits of modernity and who believe that by taking their country and culture backwards they can reclaim earlier, if sometimes imaginary, glories.
Reducing the election to simply Bidzina against Misha is tempting as it captures much of the feeling among the political class in Georgia, but it is also inaccurate and a disservice to the Georgian people. Most recent polls indicate that fewer than half of the voters in Georgia are at the moment likely to vote for the GD or the UNM. From that perspective, it looks like the voters are not so much divided between Saakashvili and Ivanishvili but that they have a similar view of both political giants-they don't see either of them as key to solving Georgia's problems.
Georgia needs a foreign policy that builds on its occasionally impressive accomplishments over the last decade or so, but that gets away from a singular approach that, at best, depends upon a timeframe for NATO membership that is too long to meet Georgia’s security needs, but that also might never work. This kind of creative policy making is never easy. Nor does it usually occur in any one isolated policy arena. A new foreign policy that resolves the puzzle that NATO membership is not imminent, but that Russia is not going away and the security concerns raised by Russia are real, will not emerge in the context of Georgia’s current economic conditions and, more significantly, current and recent political discourse. The solutions Georgia so desperately needs will be holistic and will likely cause disruption across the political spectrum in Georgia. Creating an environment where that can happen is one of the most important big picture things that can be done for Georgia today and in the near future.
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 far 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.
Regardless of who wins the election or which parties make it into parliament, Georgia’s political parties will be faced with the twin challenges of both forming a government and building the Georgian people’s confidence in that government and the process by which it was selected. There are several immediately apparent obstacles to this. First, the election might not be conducted freely and fairly. Although elections have generally been improving in recent years, there is little precedent in Georgia for elections that are free, fair and competitive. This election will be competitive, providing an incentive for the government to conduct it less freely and fairly. Additionally, whoever loses this election, precisely because it is likely to be the closest national election in Georgian history, will have an added incentive to claim they are the victims of election fraud even if they are not. Thus, the need to make this election free and fair, and to persuade the electorate that it is being conducted that way are of almost equal political importance.
The decision of the Republican Party to run separately from the Georgian Dream (GD) coalition in the fall parliamentary elections is significant for several big picture reasons. First, it means that the GD that presents itself to the Georgian voters in October will be shorn of the two most western leaning members that were part of its coalition when it was catapulted into government in a resounding 2012 election victory. The Free Democrats (FD), the other unambiguously pro-west party in the GD coalition, preceded the Republicans out of the governing block by leaving in 2014. A second, and very important, development, is that the Republicans, despite announcing they will go their separate way from the GD in the fall of 2016, were not immediately expelled from the governing coalition. Thus, key Republican leaders such as Speaker of Parliament David Usupashvili and Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli, will remain in power through the election. That, of course, could change over the coming months. Lastly, the latest fracturing of the GD electoral coalition further jumbles an already crowded political field as the elections approach.
Partisan politics notwithstanding, it is appropriate for Georgian citizens to be outraged by this video and to demand that this not happen again. This is particularly frustrating because these kinds of tactics, and this kind of response, are not new in Georgian political life. Georgia, and observers of Georgian society have, if you will forgive the pun, been through this movie before. When the GD came to power, it was the hope of many, even some who did not vote for them, that their victory would signal the end of some of the more disreputable and abusive practices of the previous regime. Nobody will continue to have those hope unless, at the very least, the current government succeeds in identifying and prosecuting the person or people responsible for this, and preventing it from happening again.
The Georgian government’s response to this shooting has been strong. Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirkashvili’s statement that “The law enforcement agencies are applying all the necessary measures in order to investigate the case, to arrest perpetrators and to bring them to justice in the shortest period of time,” struck the right tone, but at the moment tone is not enough. The Georgian government must turn these words into actions, find the shooters, prosecute them in a clear and transparent way and bring some closure to this even. If they are unable to do to this, the government will be damaged.
In the bigger picture, Georgia-US relations could change after the next election, not based on which party wins, but upon which candidates win their parties' nominations. The Democratic frontrunner, albeit barely, remains Hillary Clinton. Ms. Clinton along with several of the Republicans including Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, John Kasich and Jeb Bush share a common view that the US should be actively involved throughout the globe and that American military force can help solve many of the world’s problems. The difference between Ms. Clinton, the Democrat, and Republicans like Mr. Cruz, Mr. Rubio, Mr. Kasich and Mr. Bush with regards to foreign policy, and Georgia in particular, are largely ones of degree rather than kind.
The irony facing Mr. Ivanishvil is, of course, that the most important thing he can do to secure his reputation and legacy, and more importantly continue Georgia’s democratic development, is remove himself from the governance of the country. In many respects this means that Mr. Ivanishvili must allow bigger picture challenges, such as institutionalizing democratic governance and strengthening political institutions, to be more important than the smaller bore questions of preventing a government official from making what he perceives to be a mistake, a wrong decision or a bad appointment. This is much easier than it sounds because in Georgia’s divided and combative political climate it is easy to see how even small mistakes could lead to larger problems.
As the elections approach the major political parties, as well as some of the minor ones, find themselves confronting something of a prisoner’s dilemma. If all the parties ratchet down the rhetoric and recognize that neither one party dominance nor regime collapse is either likely or in Georgia’s interest, the country, and in at least some real sense, the parties, will be better off. However, if only one party makes this recognition, and the other major party continues operating consistently with the paradigm that has characterized previous elections, the latter party will get the better of the former. Sadly, this may lead both major parties to continue doing what they have been doing, thus minimizing their chance of losing out as well as Georgia’s chances of moving forward. Moving past this is the crux of making democracy function. It is the collective leap of faith and belief that oneself and one’s opponents will listen to their better angels, that is both implausible and essential for any democracy that goes beyond the surface of political life. The next months will provide another chance for Georgia to get there from here.
The 2016 election will, therefore, occur on two different tracks for Georgia. The first will address the question of what the election means and what it is about. The second, the more straightforward questions of who will win and what the new parliament will look like. The significance of the horserace numbers and related kibitzing as the election approaches, for example, will depend heavily on the extent to which competing visions of governance rather than simply a referendum on the GD, or UNM efforts to promote regime collapse, are driving those numbers. Similarly, treating this elections as just another test of Georgian democracy will overlook the emergence of a nascent pluralist system that could contribute to deeper democratic development in Georgia. Fully understanding this election requires thinking about both of these frames throughout the election period.
Garibashvili’s record as Prime Minister was decidedly mixed. He led Georgia to an association agreement with the EU, made great progress towards establishing visa free travel with Europe, governed over a period of relative domestic calm and slow but steady normalizing of Georgia’s democratic development. However, he was never able to get the moribund economy moving, was unable to craft solutions to major policy challenges or otherwise resolve many of the daunting problems facing Georgia in both domestic and foreign policy. Although by most measures Georgia has gradually become more democratic in recent years, Garibashvili drew attention away from those advances by making statements about media and civil society freedoms that were frequently clumsy and aggressive sounding, occasionally even threatening. Additionally, Garibashvili, while smart, focused and hard-working, was never a natural politician. Although he could be impressive in small groups settings, he lacked the dynamism and charisma that a head of state needs.
Saakashvili’s public desire to return to power in Georgia is more than just the standard aspirations or boasts by somebody who has lost an election. Rather, they are an expression of the unique role he believes he plays in Georgia, and of his belief that his party’s defeat in 2012 represents some kind of cosmic injustice or transnational plot to destroy him and his country, rather than simply a defeat of an unpopular government that had exhausted the goodwill of the people. This kind of thinking is delusional, but it is also very destructive for Georgia and a UNM that his trying to rebuild and expand its role in post-Saakashvili Georgia. Those in the UNM that are working to rebuild the party in Georgia undoubtedly see the need to move past the Saakashvili era and do not relish these types of comments by the former President, but Saakashvili, for his part, also understands that if Georgia’s political discourse moves on without him, than his hopes of returning to power, regardless of how far-fetched, will collapse altogether.
Despite renewed resolve to fight ISIS in Paris, Washington and elsewhere, it is unlikely either that any resolution will be brought to the conflict in Syria anytime soon or that Russia will back away from its support for Assad, a position that is anathema to Washington, but significantly less of a concern for several European NATO members. The combination of the salience of Syria for much of the west and the new, if very complex, role played by Russia in that conflict means that Ukraine, Georgia and the rest of post-Soviet region, Russia’s primary geographical area of concern, will receive less attention from western powers that are not capable of taking on too many conflicts and too many opponents at one time. This is not good news for Georgia as it is, in some respects, more vulnerable on two fronts, to an increased threat of Jihadist terror and to an even more unbound Russia.
The threats to Rustavi 2 are bad for democracy in Georgia, but it also is a significant misstep on the part of the Georgian government. Media freedom is an issue that resonates throughout the west; and the events surrounding Rustavi 2 can be portrayed clearly and starkly, albeit not always entirely accurately, to the west in a way that is looks very bad for the Georgian government and the Georgian Dream. The almost universally harsh response from the west to these events is evidence both of the significance of the issue itself, but also of the lack of any reservoir of goodwill towards the Georgian government in western capitals. This latter problem has made it very hard for the government to make their position clear or defend themselves to the west. This would be challenging under any circumstances, given what is going on with regards to Rustavi 2, but is even more difficult now.
The controversy surrounding Rustavi Two is emblematic of some of the worst elements of democratic development and domestic politics, in Georgia today. The two largest political blocks are resorting to tactics aimed at consolidating and mobilizing their base by continuing to rehash the political issues and battles of the first years of this decade. For the GD, this takes the obvious form of constantly restating UNM abuses from the years they were in power. For the UNM, this consists largely of seeking to create a false equivalency between problems of democracy, in this case media freedom, between the current and previous governments. While seeking to repress or seize Rustavi Two is not good for Georgia’s media climate and raises questions about this government’s commitment to democracy, it is not comparable to the government violently breaking into a television studio, destroying the studio and then shutting it down, as the UNM government did to Imedi in 2007. In recent weeks, UNM tactics have also manifested themselves in the phone calls between Saakashvili, Bokeria and Gvaramia that raise great concerns about their commitment to Georgia’s democratic future. The west’s reaction to these discussion has so far been muted, but perhaps that will change.
This may be pluralism’s moment in Georgia because bigger picture politics have created an opening. The inability, by design or not, of the GD to consolidate strong one party rule in the manner of the UNM and the Citizen’s Union of Georgia (CUG) before them, combined with the unlikelihood that the UNM can reenergize the Georgia people and again become the majority party may create an additional push factor towards a more pluralist system, and will at least ensure that the political space for pluralism to develop will continue to exist for a few years.
Reading too much into poor turnout at one rally would be a mistake, but for the pro-Russia activists in Georgia, and their supporters outside of Georgia, that rally must have still been a disappointment. Additionally, these events highlight that while the 2016 parliamentary elections will be a test of the GD’s leadership, Georgia’s commitment to fair elections and democracy, the resiliency of the embattled UNM, as well as the strength of the pro-west forces represented by several parties in Georgia, it will also be a time for the pro-Russia forces to either demonstrate their strength or recede into Georgia’s political background and decreasing relevance.
Substantively, the primary challenge for Georgian soft power, or image making, is to present itself as different from other countries in a region that is understood to be unstable, war torn and not particularly pleasant to visit. If Georgia is seen in that context, that will frame all decisions made by potential tourists and investors. Georgia has been working to push back against that generally unfair characterization for most of the last two decades with some success, but with some remaining obstacles. The key here is that people, whether potential investors and tourists, domestic opinon leaders or policy makers, will respond both to rational, policy based arguments about Georgia, but also to less concrete soft power approaches as well.