Scandal and Change in Georgia

Scandal and Change in Georgia

Shocking revelations and an enraged public promise to make upcoming elections very interesting.

Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili. As though Georgia’s turbulent brand of politics wasn't dramatic enough, the October 1 parliamentary-elections battle between the ruling United National Movement (UNM) and an upstart opposition took an even more momentous turn last week.

Videos have surfaced chronicling extensive and grotesque human-rights abuses in Georgia’s prison system. The videos—which showed inmates subjected to various acts of physical and sexual abuse, including one victim being raped by prison authorities with a broom handle—evoked popular disgust and touched off country-wide protests of such size and intensity that many in Georgia have come to call it the “broom revolution.”

Inevitably, the ruling party’s initial reaction was to cast blame on a well-orchestrated conspiracy spearheaded by criminals and backed by opposition leader and Forbes-listed philanthropist Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia. But as further videos emerged, demonstrating the pervasive—and, some say, the systemic—nature of the prison abuse, the government moved into full crisis-control mode.

Heads have already begun rolling. Khatuna Kalmakhelidze, the well-coiffed but seen as largely ceremonial former minister of corrections and legal assistance, was the first to go. But sensing Kalmakhelidze’s minor role in government, protesters also demanded the firing of controversial interior minister Bachana Akhalaia, who was widely believed to exert considerable influence over the prisons system. When Akhalaia finally announced his resignation, the news was met with cheers of both jubilation and surprise by protesters.

The UNM, undoubtedly hoping that the sacrifice of Akhalaia—and the elevation of a respected former public defender to the prisons ministry—would have mollified public anger, has already begun a counteroffensive  accusing the tapes’ well-timed release of being part of a collaborative plot between the opposition and “Russian money.” Seemingly  simultaneously, opposition activists have been arrested and charged with administrative offenses.

When I spoke with Tamar Chugoshvili, chairperson of the Tbilisi-based watchdog group Georgian Young Lawyers Association, she told me that the resignations are mostly cosmetic and “give nothing” to the resolution of the problem.

“[The government has] committed crimes and has to be prosecuted. Even more, the prosecutor’s office was obliged to investigate all the torture cases but never did.” The Georgian public-defender’s office—not to mention advisories from international watchdogs and the U.S. State Department—regularly reported on alarming prison conditions that seemed to be roundly ignored. According to Chugoshvili, this means a number of state officials are culpable in the abuses.

Though the widely disliked Akhalaia calling it quits may have somewhat stemmed the urgency of the protests, the abuse scandal is poised to make a long-lasting impression on Georgian politics. With parliamentary elections only a few days away, an already tough fight between the heavily advantaged UNM and Ivanishvili’s opposition coalition looks to make the ruling party’s slog that much harder. Polling conducted before the scandal by the National Democratic Institute pegged UNM support at 37 percent to 12 percent for Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream Coalition—and a whopping 43 percent of respondents that were undecided or refused to answer. This extraordinarily high latter number, given the UNM’s frequent  misuse of administrative resources, seemed to cloak the extent of Georgian Dream’s popular support. With the game changer of the prison-abuse scandal, victory could be within reach of the Georgian Dream.

“If it’s a reasonably fair election, then I expect [the UNM] to lose,” said Lincoln Mitchell, a Georgia expert and an associate at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute for Russian, Eurasian and Eastern European studies. Before the scandal, Mitchell expected that the UNM might have gotten away with “low-key election shenanigans” to maintain a majority in parliament. But the new political environment “raises the threshold” for the UNM, which makes managing the electoral outcome a much taller order.

Kornely Kakachia, a political scientist at Tbilisi State University, thinks that the scandal is likely to erase the UNM’s institutional advantages and result in a rough tie between the ruling party and the opposition, giving a third party the chance to play kingmaker. “Due to the public outcry, some swing voters may choose one of the weaker third parties,” says Kakachia. He thinks that the eventual winner could very well be the bloc that makes the most convincing case “to clean things up.”

Either way, barring an unprecedented level of fraud, it seems reasonable at this point to expect a vastly diminished UNM after October 1 and even the possibility of Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili having to share power with a Georgian Dream-led parliamentary government.

A Fork in the Road

Unexpectedly, this election represents an inflection point for Georgia. Most prescandal boilerplates from the West have cast the election as a “litmus test” for democracy—despite all evidence of the ruling party’s continued practice of “competitive authoritarian” tendencies—but the scandal and its political fallout have exposed an institutionalized deficit of democratic culture and a concomitant surfeit of impunity. Now, with a realistic chance that the elections could inaugurate real political competitiveness in Georgia, there truly is a chance that this election could very well determine Georgia’s future path.

Should the elections be held to international standards of fairness, an empowered and more popularly representative parliament could restart Georgia’s long-stalled movement toward true political competitiveness—and perhaps democracy. Or the ruling party will have to resort to more direct methods to maintain its monopoly on power, forever jettisoning the charade of a teleological march Westward. One way or another, Western engagement is paramount, not the kind typified by blank checks and frequent praise but a robust approach employing a full complement of carrots and sticks to secure regional interests and support democratic development.

The prison-abuse scandal has galvanized the Georgian public, who will likely turn out in great numbers for next week’s elections and cut deeply into the UNM’s long-standing domination of parliament. But regardless of which bloc ends up forming a government, what matters is the manner by which it happens. This may very well help determine if Georgia course corrects in favor of political competitiveness or slides even further into the recesses of authoritarianism.

Michael Hikari Cecire is an Black Sea and Eurasia regional analyst and an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, where he contributes to the Project on Democratic Transitions.

Image: Michael Reiter