Georgia's Election Was about More Than Russia

December 20, 2016 Topic: Politics Region: Eurasia Tags: GeorgiaRussiaDemocracyElectionsGeorgia Dream

Georgia's Election Was about More Than Russia

What Georgians themselves are saying about the country’s recent election.

During the month of October, Georgians overwhelmingly reelected the governing Georgian Dream (GD) political party, founded by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, which in 2012 defeated then president Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM). GD won a huge mandate (49 to 27 percent in the popular vote) and won nearly every seat contested in the districts, securing a supermajority of 115 parliamentary seats. UNM won twenty-nine seats, and the opposition Alliance of Patriots won six seats.

This was the most democratic election Georgia has ever experienced. According to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the October election was “competitive, well-administered and fundamental freedoms were generally respected.”

Most analysts expected a much closer vote, with a hung parliament as a likely outcome. To help craft the right policy towards Georgia, Western policymakers need to understand what brought about this unexpected result. Helping Georgia consolidate its democracy requires guarding against the possibility that it will slide back into autocratic politics from which it recently emerged.

How Did We Get Here?

Many in the West viewed Georgia’s ex-president Saakashvili as a democrat. Yet he had governed Georgia essentially through authoritarian methods—opposition had been marginalized; business was completely state captured; many lived in a state of fear. Though on the surface there was democratic electoral competition, Saakashvili’s Georgia was a perfect example of “competitive authoritarianism.” In spite of this, especially after the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, many in the United States, especially conservatives, supported Saakashvili, including with huge financial aid.

Saakashvili’s luck began to run out in 2011, when Ivanishvili challenged him. Having made his fortune as an oligarch in Russia, by the late 1990s Ivanishvili was living a reclusive philanthropic life in Georgia. In the mid-2000s, Ivanishvili was a primary source of capital for Saakashvili. But once he became active in politics, he used his immense wealth to develop support abroad, unify virtually all opposition parties into one electoral bloc, and create his own TV channel. All of this led his Georgian Dream party to win the 2012 election.

In office, GD had some notable accomplishments: many businesses that had been taken over by Saakashvili’s allies were returned to their original owners, television stations were freed from state control, significant improvements were made to the healthcare system, and Georgia’s relationship with Europe in particular continued to improve (for example, Georgia is about to be approved for visa-free travel into the EU).

Most importantly, Ivanishvili did something remarkable: after being in office for nearly a year, he resigned as prime minister (although he may remain in control behind the scenes). In post-Soviet politics, no politician had given up power at the height of popularity; indeed, most transitions in post-Soviet countries, even when peaceful, have happened under heavy protests or strong Western pressure.

The Election Results

By late 2016, GD had lost significant support, largely due to a slowing Georgian economy. However, UNM’s support did not improve, hovering in the range of 25 to 30 percent. According to pre-election polling, a large portion of GD’s supporters had defected to smaller parties. As a result, many observers thought that five or six parties had a real shot at getting past the 5 percent threshold necessary to secure seats in the parliament. There was a strong chance GD would need to form a coalition to govern.

Instead, GD won an overwhelming victory with 115 parliamentary seats and, in addition to UNM, only the Alliance of Patriots made it into parliament.

This happened because many 2012 GD voters, who had switched support to smaller parties, coalesced back around GD.

According to both pro- and anti-UNM analysts and opinion makers, this largely happened because UNM made Saakashvili the center of its campaign. Saakashvili made regular campaign appearances via video at UNM rallies and on TV, making clear that his intention was to eventually return to Georgia. There also surfaced recordings of UNM leaders and Saakashvili speaking about pursuing a “revolutionary” path if they did not succeed at the polls.

This was the explanation of Davit Usupashvili, the former speaker of parliament (who had been part of GD’s coalition in 2012 but ran independently in 2016 and did not win reelection): “Mr. President . . . successfully performed this role [of a scarecrow] and the result of these elections will be . . . due to this.” In Usupashvili’s estimation, Saakashvili remains so unpopular in Georgia that his interference scared the Georgian voting public away from UNM.

Shota Utiashvili, who headed up the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ Department of Information and Analysis from 2004 to 2012, concurred, writing on his Facebook page: “[UNM’s] campaign started well, with the right messages about creating new jobs, the growth of pensions, liberalization of laws, etc. . . . Dream’s entire campaign was that this was all a lie, that in reality [UNM] was a party of the brooms [referring to videos in which prisoners were molested using brooms under Saakashvili], and that Misha wants to come back [to Georgia]. . . . Doubts about . . . National Movement did not dissipate. At this point, the decisive moment in the campaign came: . . . Misha appeared and said that he was coming back, that the army and the police are on my side. . . . This is when Dream won. People who were already in doubt believed, that what Dream is saying is indeed in National Movement’s plan.”

Interviews I conducted with analysts and politicians on all sides after the first round of the vote point to Utiashvili’s and Usupashvili’s interpretation being correct: that Saakashvili’s active presence made GD’s lopsided victory possible. This is because an overwhelming majority of Georgians, including many that may be disenchanted with GD, view Saakashvili with deep suspicion and fear. Their attitude towards UNM is shaped by their dislike of Saakashvili’s authoritarian legacy and their concern (until recently) that he ultimately sought to reacquire power in Georgia.

It now appears that Saakashvili will be moving away from focusing on Georgia and will be trying to build his political career in Ukraine. On November 7, 2016, Saakashvili resigned as governor of the Ukrainian region of Odessa; since, he has called for new parliamentary elections in Ukraine and has formed a new political party there, declaring that he will be running in the Ukrainian elections.

The Biggest Problem with the Results

Since 2012, a popular view among some analysts in the West is that notwithstanding GD’s pro-Western rhetoric, Georgia under GD has embraced a significantly more pro-Russian trajectory. Additionally, some have argued that there are now fully pro-Russian political forces in Georgia that are gaining steam, often pointing to Alliance of Patriots, which was the third-largest party to win seats in the parliament. In holding this view, these analysts converge with the point of view advocated by UNM, which often accuses Ivanishvili and GD of harboring pro-Russian and anti-Western sentiments.

Based on interviews I conducted with leading government and opposition leaders and activists in Georgia in June and October of 2016, no one in Georgian regards the reelection of GD as the vindication of a pro-Russian foreign policy. In fact, many Georgians blame Saakashvili for strengthening Russia’s hand in the region, by precipitating the 2008 war which led to Russia’s full annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This is also the view espoused by former supporters of Saakashvili in the West. For example, in a controversial (and disputed) passage of her memoir, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice held Saakasvhili accountable for falling into the strategic blunder of “letting the Russians provoke him” into the disastrous decision that allowed its northern neighbor to occupy South Ossetia.

Meanwhile, the Georgian elite continues to be staunchly pro-Western, as is the Georgian population. For example, in a July 2016 poll, 53 percent of Georgians believed that the country would benefit from greater Western integration, while only 29 percent favoring closer ties to Russia. Whether Ivanishvili’s role portends a pro-Russian direction in Georgia in the longer-term is difficult to say, but his actions suggest otherwise. Under Ivanishvili, GD has prioritized EU and NATO integration, and in July Georgia and Europe began implementing the Association Agreement of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (which was initiated in 2014)—establishing, among other things, visa-free travel to Europe for Georgian citizens.

There is scant evidence that smaller parties in Georgia are truly pro-Russian. In the interview I conducted with him in October, Bokeria told me that Alliance of Patriots should be regarded as an anti-Western (and therefore a pro-Russian) because it takes conservative positions on religious and social issues that clash with certain liberal elements of the American public. This appears to be a smear tactic, given that Alliance of Patriots’ social positions are no different than those supported by at least 40 percent of the U.S. population, and its leaders combine social conservatism with a strong track record of support for Georgian independence.

The strongest risk posed by GD’s leadership to Georgia’s ongoing transition to democracy is not so much that Georgia will voluntarily “slide” into Russia’s sphere of influence, but instead the continuing dependence of the nation and its ruling party on the financial resources and the personality of Ivanishvili.

Georgia in 2016 is far more politically free and competitive than it has ever been. This progress is reflected in a stronger business sector that is no longer captive to the state, respect for private property and individual rights, and a robust media environment. This is largely thanks to Ivanishvili’s influence, including over GD, and his personality. However, whenever things depend on one person, rather than institutions, dangers of one-party rule (and even the rule of one man from “behind the curtains”) are significant. Without a stronger and more diverse opposition than the one provided by UNM to keep GD in check, it is hard to imagine what will stop GD from becoming more authoritarian and corrupt over time.

UNM is the only “real” political party in Georgia with strong leadership and years of experience in government. It is, indeed, a stronger political party than GD, which would probably cease to exist without Ivanishvili. UNM has significant financial backing, and it controls the most influential source of news in Georgia, the TV station Rustavi 2, and benefits from a very strong and positive reputation in the West. For this reason, there is a significant chance that UNM will eclipse the rest of the opposition (most of which is not in parliament). In order to transform into a legitimate and responsible opposition party that can appeal to Georgians, UNM must moderate the essentially “winner-takes-all” authoritarian mentality that it practiced under Saakashvili.

Georgia’s Future and America’s Regional Interests

U.S. policymakers will have to keep a watchful eye on Georgia, because the country continues to serve as the regional proxy for the U.S.-Russian tug-of-war for influence in Central Eurasia. The most damaging element of Saakashvili’s legacy is that his blunders and authoritarianism undermined America’s reputation and power in both Georgia as well as the region more broadly. Had Saakashvili not stepped into Putin’s trap, giving him an opening to occupy Georgia, the precedent that enabled Russia’s future incursion into Ukraine most likely would not have been established.

U.S. officials should pay close attention to what Georgians refer to as Russia’s “creeping occupation” of its regions, as well as to GD’s rhetoric and policies with respect to its Russian neighbor. GD has taken a more conciliatory approach to Russia than did Saakashvili. But as the New York Times reported recently, the sentiment of the ruling party is that this has not paid off, with Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili stating that “there is no improvement” in relations with Russia, since the fence that Russia started to build in 2013 has been inching further into Georgian territory since. Indeed, Kvirikashvili told the Times that “the only way forward for Georgia is to make the country a full member of the Western family.”

The West should be especially watchful of any signs of creeping autocracy in Georgia, and must encourage GD and Ivanishvili to respect the rights of smaller opposition parties (especially those not in parliament) and the independent media.

Giorgi Areshidze is Assistant Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and the author of Democratic Religion from Locke to Obama (University Press of Kansas, 2016). Born in Georgia, he has lived in the United States since he was 13. This analysis is based in part on interviews and materials collected during two recent research trips to Georgia (in October and June 2016). He would like to thank Irakly Areshidze (his brother) and Gia Areshidze (his father).

Image: Posters in Tbilisi during Georgia’s parliamentary election. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/@Shuvaev