How the West Got Georgia Wrong

The recent election is a cautionary tale of the dangers of mistaking branding for reality and choosing personalities over institutions.

Bidzina Ivanishvili, leader of the Georgian Dream coalition.Results are in from last week’s hotly contested parliamentary elections in Georgia, and billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition looks to have won control of the country’s parliament, having beaten the once-overwhelmingly dominant ruling United National Movement. More than a political upset, the opposition win seems to have upturned the dynamics of the Georgian political landscape.

Though roils caused by the prison-abuse scandal helped supercharge the stakes, few analysts were sanguine about Ivanishvili’s chances of wresting control from the United National Movement’s comprehensive parliamentary supermajority. International polls seemed to underline this sensibility, with a widely circulated August poll from the National Democratic Institute showing a commanding twenty-five-point lead by the ruling party. Given its near-total media monopoly and a pre-electoral environment methodically oriented in the ruling party’s favor, few anticipated an opposition breakthrough of this election’s speed and size.

Initial signs on election night seemed to confirm skepticism over opposition prospects. Although exit polls showed Georgian Dream with a commanding lead in the proportional vote, President Mikheil Saakashvili simultaneously contended that single-mandate contests would preserve the UNM majority—just as interior-ministry forces stormed polling stations in a regional town. But only hours later, Georgian Dream was celebrating victory as Saakashvili conceded defeat, a turn of events that defied both the ruling party’s expectations and even the most sober Western assessments. How was the conventional wisdom so wrong?

Clearly, few anticipated the deep well of public support for Ivanishvili’s coalition, particularly in the regions outside the capital, which has long been the stronghold of UNM power. Many visitors and journalists who spent their time primarily in Tbilisi’s manicured central districts and along board-approved tourism routes caught few glimpses of the devastating poverty that still grips the Georgian countryside outside the shadows of the five-star hotels.

Mamuka Tsereteli, director of the Center for Black Sea-Caspian Studies at American University, explains this disconnect as the result of a “virtual reality” created by the Georgian government.

“This [UNM] government is very smart, very articulate,” he said, noting that UNM leaders successfully courted Western visitors by showing off the country’s rapid face-lift and a dose of classic Georgian hospitality. “They were good salespeople of this virtual reality and sold it to the West as if it was the whole story.”

But it wasn’t the whole story. When Ivanishvili burst onto the political scene last fall, the billionaire improbably gave voice to many Georgians who had been left behind by the government’s manic reform program, which was heavy on glass buildings and swank promenades but seemingly little concerned with more prosaic issues such as poverty, state impunity and the country’s stubbornly stratospheric unemployment rate. Conversely, considering the state’s de facto domination of the economy, the choicest jobs were generally reserved for the politically connected. Though a summer cabinet shuffle saw the creation of a state ministry to combat unemployment—a curious redundancy with the economic ministry—the move was likely too little, too late for many Georgian voters.

If the Georgian government was unable to see it, so too were its friends and counterparts in the West, who were impressed by Georgian GDP growth and its high rankings on international indices. And the UNM and its leadership, which had long been enthusiastic partners to the United States and Western Europe, had become a metonym to many analysts—and especially the more casual observers—for modernization and liberalism in a region traditionally hostile to both.

Sam Patten, an American political consultant who has advised both the UNM and, more recently, Georgian Dream leader Irakli Alasania, told me that symbols and first impressions remain a powerful currency in places like Washington. “People get too comfortable with their friends—that’s why they got it wrong.”

“In the two nanoseconds that [Western policy makers] have, they remember they like [Saakashvili]—excitable, maybe, but part of the charm,” says Patten, stressing the challenge of getting people to reevaluate their assumptions midstream. “Getting it right means being nimble in your thinking, and that can be very tough sometimes.”