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The pillars of Georgia’s political transition

Sabine Freizer
12 February 2004

The three months of November 2003-January 2004 were tumultuous for the small Caucasian state of Georgia. After the “rose revolution” – the massive public protest movement against fraudulent elections which culminated in the resignation of the president, Eduard Shevardnadze, on 23 November – his successor, the 36-year old Mikhail Saakashvili, obtained over 96% of the vote in hastily-organised presidential elections on 4 January. Three weeks later, on 24-25 January, the youngest president in Europe was inaugurated in the capital, Tbilisi.

Read about Georgia’s political turmoil in openDemocracy:

As the post-revolution euphoria begins to dissipate, expectations of Saakashvili and his team – which includes his former revolutionary allies, Zurab Zhvania and Nino Burdzhanadze – run extremely high. Policy-makers and ordinary citizens alike believe that Saakashvili and his government will improve the condition of their desperately poor country. But although the legitimacy of Saakashvili and his colleagues is assured in the short term, popular trust in government remains low in Georgia. The “rose revolution”, a liberating event for many, also demonstrated the Georgian state’s weakness vis-à-vis people power.

How will President Saakashvili respond to this political challenge in the coming months? Three incidents during the two days of his inauguration festivities offer interesting pointers.

First, the holding of an inauguration ceremony in Batumi, the capital of the autonomous republic of Adzharia in south-west Georgia, during a time of high tensions between regional and central government, indicate Saakashvili’s readiness to take radical steps.

Second, the blessing of the president-elect on 24 January by the Georgian Orthodox Patriarch at Gelati monastery, burial-place of the greatest Georgian monarch, David IV Agmashenebeli (“David the Builder”, who ruled 1089-1125), reveals Saakashvili’s willingness to utilise symbolism and nationalism.

Third, the raising of the European Union flag accompanied by Beethoven’s Ode to Joy on 25 January in front of the Georgian parliament indicates the new president’s commitment to deepening ties with Europe.

Thus, even as he took over the reigns of power, Mikhail Saakashvili demonstrated how radicalism, nationalism and European integration may form the foundation of his future policies.

But will he have time to deliver? The majority of Georgians are barely surviving amidst a collapsed economy and a deeply compromised state. They expect immediate, dramatic reforms that will bring substantial benefits to the population. Rather then considering the coming months to be a period of transition towards a better future, they see the new government as representing “a last chance” for Georgia.

What kind of constitution?

It can be said that Mikhail Saakashvili’s ambitions match the Georgian people’s hopes. His first and boldest aim is to change the very nature of the Georgian state. By 6 February, parliament had passed Saakashvili’s proposed constitutional amendments. Although the professed goal is to make the country’s state institutions both more efficient and more democratic, their effect may be to create tension between these twin objectives.

The amendments transform the (1995) Georgian constitution, by providing the president with the rights to dissolve parliament (when it fails to ratify the budget three times) and to dismiss the cabinet of ministers. The post of prime minister is created, with the right to appoint the cabinet (albeit with parliament’s consent). A two-thirds majority of members of parliament will be able to pass a vote of no confidence in the government. The amendments will not affect presidential control over the appointments of governors and the ministers of defence, interior and security; and the president can be impeached by parliament only after higher courts have ruled that he has committed a crime or violated the constitution.

The constitution as ratified provides for three distinct branches of government. In practice, power is largely centralised. Saakashvili believes that a centralised presidential system of government, backed by his huge electoral mandate, will increase his ability to implement swift and drastic reforms. Thus, his advisors have argued that any amendments to the 1995 constitution should provide him with more rather then fewer powers.

There is a political obstacle to this constitutional ambition. In the process of coming to power, Saakashvili accumulated debts to his two revolutionary allies – former state minister Zurab Zhvania and interim president Nino Burdzhanadze.

Saakashvili has publicly promised Zhvania the position of prime minister. It is unclear whether this signifies simply a renaming of his current post. Zhvania’s own preference is to establish a strong premiership on the French model, with the president symbolising the state and the prime minister heading the executive. Zhvania has hinted that his domestic political skills would be an ideal balance for Saakashvili’s charisma and interest in foreign policy.

Nino Burdzhanadze, returning to her speakership after her occupation of the presidency following the overthrow of Shevardnadze, would have preferred to move Georgia closer to a parliamentary form of government. This model, supported by elements of Georgia’s active civil society, would grant parliament more powers over impeachment, the cabinet, and the budget.

The rationale of this position derives from the negative recent experiences of presidential models in Georgia, including the aggregation of decision-making power under Shevardnadze.

The debate in Georgia on constitutional amendments has been far from academic. It captured the passions of political advisors, members of parliament, legal experts, and representatives of civil society. Whatever their differences, Saakashvili, Zhvania, and Burdzhanadze are committed to swift constitutional reforms. But their different interests and visions mean that tensions between the three leaders are likely to grow; at least one of them will be politically weakened. The passage of Saakashvili’s preferred amendments on 5 February makes it appear that his vision is gaining the ascendancy while Burdzhanadze’s is losing ground.

This battle over constitutional reforms was the first conflict to seriously divide the “rose revolution” allies. As the parliamentary elections approach, these divisions may sharpen. The unity of the National Movement-Burdzhanadze Democrats alliance is unlikely to survive competition over political appointments. Patronage is a key issue in Georgian politics; senior National Movement members have already informally protested against alleged favouritism in decisions made during the interim presidency.

What kind of country?

Mikhail Saakashvili followed his highly symbolic, spiritual oath at the grave of David IV, creator of a united Georgia a millennium ago, by stating: “Georgia’s territorial integrity is the goal of my life.”

More than a decade after Georgia fought bloody wars with forces in the autonomous north-western republic of Abkhazia, and the northern territory of South Ossetia, the status of these two regions remains unresolved. Mikhail Saakashvili’s next most significant political challenge is likely to be re-establishing a stable territorial settlement in Georgia, one that ensures that centrifugal forces do not advance further.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia are a long way from control by Tbilisi; yet in the short term, it is south-western Adzharia – under its military and political strongman Aslan Abashidze – which most challenges Georgia’s residual stability and territorial integrity.

Relations between the centre and this autonomous republic have been strained since Georgia regained its independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. During most of Shevardnadze’s reign, he and Abashidze maintained an uneasy but peaceful truce; there was no armed conflict like that which devastated parts of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Yet the Adzharian fiefdom has its own armed forces, legislates according to its own constitution, and refuses to pay taxes to the central budget.

Aslan Abashidze’s reaction to the “rose revolution” was far from conciliatory. After closing the territory’s “borders” with the rest of Georgia and installing a state of emergency, Abashidze’s Democratic Revival Party (DRP) threatened to boycott the 4 January presidential elections. In the event, Abashidze opened the polls in response to international and domestic pressure, but still refused to allow pre-election voter registration.

Despite the absence of any campaigning within Adzharia, 78,000 people turned out to vote; more then 90% for Saakashvili. Abashdize then immediately reimposed the state of emergency, allegedly to prevent “destabilisation”. Since then he has also sanctioned the arrest of activists linked to the youth group Kmara (“Enough”). With leaflets and posters carrying messages – including “Enough Abashidze dictatorship because I love Georgia” – Kmara is effectively campaigning to undermine Abashidze’s regime. Democratic Adzharia and Our Adzharia are two other activist groups with the same goals.

During the interim presidency, both Nino Burdzhanadze and Zurab Zhvania adopted a pragmatic and non-confrontational approach towards Abashidze. But this choice may not remain on offer to Mikhail Saakashvili – especially if repression of opposition activists in Adzharia continue, and Abashidze refuses to allow political parties to campaign for the March parliamentary elections.

On 18 January, Adzharia’s minister for emergencies was shot dead in the centre of Batumi. There were rumours that his family was allied to Saakashvili and that the murder was a warning to groups supporting the newly-elected president. As the National Movement-Burdzhanadze Democrats attempt to campaign in Adzharia, in what the DRP see as its own territory, the pre-election violence of 2003 may be repeated.

How, then, will Mikhail Saakashvili respond to the challenge of Aslan Abashidze? As noted, his Batumi inauguration was a powerful expression of his claim to authority over the autonomous republic. A few days earlier, Saakashvili had said: “I will not permit disobedience in the country and use the most severe methods against any forms of disobedience. We should eradicate this tendency once and forever.”

But Saakashvili’s ability actually to confront Abashidze is constrained. His strategy for addressing the Abkhaz and South Ossetia problems may be significant here. In December 2003, he declared: “We do not want to use force in order to restore territorial integrity. The only other way is to use economic leverage…I am sure, that if the Abkhaz and South Ossetian sides will see that the economy is growing in Georgia they will come to us. We should attract them with economic opportunities”.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia are politically “frozen” conflicts. Since 1994, negotiations between Georgian and these territories have made little progress. In early January, the Abkhaz authorities handed a list of conditions for the resumption of peace talks to Heidi Tagliavini, the UN secretary-general’s special representative to Georgia. The Abkhazians’ first demand was that Georgia’s new government publicly reject the use of force as a means to resolve the conflict.

Saakashvili has, to date, made no public statements in favour of an armed solution to the regional problems. He probably considers that any such course would lose the support and goodwill now directed towards his country. But for negotiations to succeed, Georgia must clearly define the extent of autonomy it would envisage Abhazia and South Ossetia being able to maintain.

What kind of economy?

Mikhail Saaskashvili made his political reputation as a tough, anti-corruption minister of justice in 2000. He must now define an effective strategy to dismantle a system of corruption which permeates the country’s political and economic structures.

Corruption in Georgia takes many forms. Its causes are multiple. Two of the country’s leading analysts, David Darchiashvili and Ghia Nodia, argue that in Georgia “corruption has become so comprehensive and rampant that is has become a part of the general institutional crisis of the state.” Nihilism towards both law and state, lack of civic patriotism, and clan and regional networks are all partly to blame for the scale of the problem.

Law-enforcement officials, even before Saakashvili’s inauguration, began to arrest senior officials accused of misappropriation of state funds. The former president of the Georgian Football Federation (who then paid $350,000 he had allegedly misappropriated into the state budget); the chairman of the National Energy Regulatory Commission (accused of taking $6 million while serving as minister of fuel and energy); Akaki Chkhaidze, former head of the Georgian Railway Company; Omar Gogia, deputy head of the Tbilisi-based Abkhaz government-in-exile – are only some of those recently detained. In early January, Georgian authorities also reportedly sent requests to Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Germany, and Luxembourg to freeze the bank accounts of Georgian officials suspected of corruption.

Saakashvili is likely to further pursue sanctions against those suspected of corruption. He even said on 5 January that Shevardnadze’s family might not be immune: “I never promised Shevardnadze we would not take assets he misappropriated. I promised him his physical security.” Relatives of Shevardnadze by marriage were indeed interrogated over the past few weeks.

But even the prosecution of former officials would not be enough to eliminate corruption, which across the south Caucasus is linked to deep institutional weaknesses. The Georgian government does not collect enough tax revenue, thus is unable to finance social services, which in turn creates public discontent and incentives to avoid paying taxes. This vicious circle will require substantial reforms of the taxation, inspection and regulation systems. These will need to be balanced with other social measures, and may put Saakashvili’s popularity at risk.

A necessary step is the transformation of cultures of unaccountability in state structures, and of patronage and kinship/friendship networks that have provided a basis for personal advance in economic and political life since the Soviet period in Georgian history.

What kind of region?

Mikhail Saakashvili will not be able to remain focused only on these great internal problems. Defining a new international identity for Georgia, and especially to balance the interests of Russia and the United States, is an essential foreign policy challenge. The president’s international education (Kiev, Strasbourg, New York) appeals to American and European leaders, and the domestic popularity of his Dutch wife is increased by her linguistic skill in Mingrelian as well as Georgian.

Saakashvili remains however the head of a small, impoverished country in a region characterised by shifting power balances, contested borders, and stunted economic development. Georgia has recently become a focus of Russian and United States security interests because of what it is not – a stable, defined, secure, settled country. Saakashvili’s challenge is to redefine Georgia as a positive force in the region, one that can contribute to stability, peace and the spread of democratic values, rather then serve as a conduit for various forms of trafficking and the spread of terrorist networks.

Georgians predominantly welcome US involvement in their country, and are deeply distrustful of their Russian neighbour. The local media closely attended the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, at Saakashvili’s inauguration, yet scarcely mentioned the participation of Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov – despite his crucial mediating role in the transition of power.

The priorities of the current and former superpower in Georgia are very different. Russia remains the biggest market for Georgian exports. Itera, a Russian company, has a virtual monopoly on Georgian gas supplies, while Russia’s RAO Unified Energy Systems controls much of the country’s electricity. Russia also provides employment to hundreds of thousands of Georgian migrants whose remittances contribute to the Georgian economy.

The US also has economic concerns in the region, among them the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (TBC) oil pipeline project, perceived negatively by Russia because its route avoids Russian territory. But since 9/11, US policy towards Georgia has focused heavily on security and counter-terrorism issues. In early 2002, US military instructors started to assist Georgia in pursuing groups allegedly linked to al-Qaida; the Georgian Train and Equip Program (GTEP) to build the capacities of 2,000 personnel of the country’s armed forces was launched in May, at a cost of $64 million. After the “rose revolution”, the US granted an additional $3 million to pay the salaries of those trained under the GTEP.

This level of military involvement has been viewed with alarm in Moscow, which retains two military bases in Georgia, troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia (under a Commonwealth of Independent States mandate), while pursuing a bitter war of attrition in Chechnya. In September 2002, Russia even came close to launching a military operation in Georgia’s Pankisi Gorge where Islamist militants supporting the Chechen cause were allegedly based.

Saakashvili’s first challenge will be to extricate his country from its hazardous military entanglement with Moscow. At the OSCE summit in Istanbul in November 1999, Russia agreed to close two of its four Georgian bases (Vaziani, Gudauta) by July 2001, and to open negotiations on the other two soon after; yet in 2004 Russia continues to maintain troops in Batumi (Adzharia) and Akhalkalaki.

The difficult strategic balancing-act of the Georgian leader makes it more likely that he will seek political and financial support from the European Union. This would also enable him to shift the international focus on Georgia from security and military concerns to broader human development issues. On inauguration day, Saakashvili proclaimed: “Not only are we old Europeans, but we are ancient Europeans…Georgia [belongs] in the European family, in the European civilisation…Our steady course is towards European integration.” It is significant that he visit the Council of Europe in Strasbourg (28 January), and Germany (30 January) before Moscow (10 February).

The southern Caucasus, including Georgia, were until recently no more than a footnote in the EU’s “Wider Europe” policy. This is changing; Georgia and the European Commission delegation signed an agreement involving €28 million of aid, to be disbursed in Georgia in 2004-2006. The EU high representative Javier Solana travelled to Tbilisi on 15 January where he expressed his eagerness “to transmit the EU’s support to reform efforts”; “the EU has an important relationship with Georgia. The expanding EU is practically a neighbour of your country.”

What kind of national project?

As Georgians and foreign observers alike begin to take stock after the euphoria of the “rose revolution”, Saakashvili’s government needs to combine immediate steps which can address short-term political challenges, with work to create the foundations for a longer-term national strategy.

The logic of the foregoing analysis is that Saakashvili’s accretion of constitutional powers, his bold and radical edge, his mobilisation of national sentiment, allied to the popular legitimacy he can draw on, all create a political dynamic and sense of forward movement around the new leader.

In this perspective, Saakashvili seems poised to attempt a difficult balancing-act: appealing to Georgian citizens’ spiritualism and patriotism, while avoiding the dangers of nationalistic excess. It is arguable that in Georgia a nationalist discourse, carefully applied, may be the only way to ensure popular support for change. As a respected analyst, David Darchiashvili, recently argued: “Georgia’s future after the ‘Rose Revolution’ will depend on its ability to mobilize around a national idea. The implementation of any political project requires emotion, even romanticism…Georgia’s democratic forces should draw on nationalism to strengthen their project.” In Georgia, nationalism may help citizens regain trust in their state, political leaders, and future.

Yet nationalism and radicalism remain hazardous political tools which in Georgia could result in a resumption of armed conflict and even further disintegration of the state. This is where Saakashvili’s domestic success is crucially dependent on his ability to develop deeper ties with the European Union and other European institutions, and the funds, values, and political support these ties can help access.

The EU offers Georgian citizens a vision of hope and a sense of belonging to a broader region where they are not everlastingly confined either by their geopolitical position or rivalries between the United States and Russia. Constitutional reform, nationalism, radicalism and European integration are, then, likely to be the four pillars of Mikhail Saakashvili’s approach to governance. It is a risky mix, but one with at least the potential of bringing significant progress towards stability and development.

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