The opposition party Georgia Dream has won a convincing victory in Georgia’s parliamentary elections.
Only a year after emerging on Georgia’s political scene as the political project of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, and after a heated and often personal campaign between the two party leaders, Ivanishvili and President Mikheil Saakashvili, of the ruling United National Movement Party, Georgia Dream have a majority in Georgian Parliament. After Saakashvili’s term ends in 2013, Ivanishvili is poised to assume the office of Prime Minister, which, thanks to recent constitutional reforms, will soon be a far more powerful post.
The fact that Georgia has held peaceful, relatively free elections, and that Saakashvili has conceded defeat rather than plunge the country into a drawn out power struggle is a major victory for the democratic process in Georgia. Yet Ivanishvili’s close ties to Russia’s business elite (often indistinguishable from its political elite) could herald a tilt towards Russia and away from the democratising path that has brought Georgia this far.
Ivanishvili has done much to try to counter the perception that he is pro-Russian. He has divested himself of most of his Russian assets and business ties and promised to continue to pursue Georgia’s longstanding goal of joining NATO and the European Union, which he argues doesn’t conflict with his plan to normalise relations with Moscow.
But Ivanishvili can’t have it both ways. Politicians in a region where an increasingly anti-Western Russia asserts a proprietary interest is unlikely to achieve a harmonious balance between Russia and the West. If Obama is re-elected in November, it is even more likely that Georgia will move foster a strategic relationship with Russia. The current US administration has made it clear that it is more than willing to keep out of Russia’s way — whatever the cost may be to the interests of American allies in the former Soviet and Eastern Bloc states. Ivanishvili’s soft line on Putin and his excuses for Russian complicity in the 2008 Georgian War hardly inspire confidence.
Of course, this is not to suggest that Ivanishvili wants to become a Russian puppet. As leader of the majority parliamentary party, he will have to juggle several challenges — from keeping his coalition united to managing the fallout from the ongoing, illegal Russian occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Moreover, Ivanishvili may well wish to carve out an independent political persona, which could cool any his enthusiasm for the heavy-handed Kremlin.
Yet the nature of Ivanishvili’s business ties could not be what they are without a reasonably warm relationship with Russian government. He was the largest individual shareholder in Gazprom, which doesn’t bode well for his political independence, particularly on energy issues. As the New York Times reported, Ivanishvili’s divestment of a chain of Russian pharmacies “was a transaction not likely to take place in Russia without a nod from the government”. His other assets were purchased almost entirely by Russian state-owned companies or businessmen with close ties to the Russian government.
This is, of course, not to idealise Saakashvili, who, though an important leader in Georgia’s democratic transition, has not been faultless.
Following his rise to power during the 2003 Rose Revolution, Saakashvili presided over nearly a decade of economic growth, reduction in crime and corruption, becoming an exemplar of post-communist democratic transition in a neighbourhood increasingly under threat of returning to authoritarianism.
But Saakashvili has not covered himself in glory during the parliamentary elections, and in many ways deserved to lose. Despite leading an important democratic revolution, Saakashvili has masked increasingly illiberal practices with liberal rhetoric. According to Amnesty International, “In [Georgia’s] highly charged political environment, public officials associated with the ruling party have on occasion abused public institutions and administrative resources to restrict the freedom of assembly, expression and association of opposition supporters.”
This is not to mention accusations of politically motivated arrests, harassment and beatings of activists and journalists close to the opposition, and the shameful failure to undertake meaningful penal reform. Recent footage of inmates being beaten and raped have highlighted the pressing need to address systematic brutality in Georgia’s prison system. In recent years, Saakashvili’s political fortunes have also suffered from high unemployment and from the fallout of the disastrous 2008 Georgian War, but it is widely believed that this prison scandal pushed voters towards Georgian Dream.
It is a sad but necessary trait of democracy that it can bring terrible leaders to the fore. In well-established democracies like the US or the UK, this might result in stunted economic growth or disastrous foreign policy decisions, but does not usually undermine the very fabric of the democracy, which has developed a robust self-correcting ability and can is protected by the separation of powers and rule of law.
Transitioning democracies like Georgia, unfortunately, do not so lucky, and are far more fragile. This makes them susceptible to the rise of figures like Putin who, under the guise of democracy, actually subvert it. In the coming months, the international community should keep an eye on Mr Ivanishvili and support institution-building in Georgia as much as possible, lest this fledgling democracy reverse its gains by falling under the sway of an increasingly revanchist Kremlin.