Georgia after war: the political landscape

Robert Parsons
26 August 2008

As the dust from Russia's tank-tracks settles again over Georgia, the accounting inside the country has begun. For the moment, the accent is on damage- assessment and reconstruction but the focus is already slowly shifting to the role in starting the conflict of Mikheil Saakashvili. Georgia's young president will soon find himself in the spotlight again and it will not be a comfortable place.

Robert Parsons is international editor of France 24. He earned a doctorate at Glasgow University for a thesis on the origins of Georgian nationalism. He was the BBC's Moscow correspondent (1993-2002), and worked at RFE/RL as director of its Georgian service, senior correspondent and chief producer for multimedia projects

Also by Robert Parsons in openDemocracy:

"Russia and Georgia: a lover's revenge" (6 October 2006)

"Georgia: progress, interrupted" (16 November 2007)

"Georgia's race to the summit" (4 January 2008)

"Mikheil Saakashvii's bitter victory" (11 January 2008)

"Georgia, Abkhazia, Russia: the war option" (13 May 2008)

"Georgia's dangerous gulf" (30 May 2008)

So far, the criticism has been muted. I spent two weeks in Georgia in the immediate wake of the Russian attack and found few ready to publicly condemn Saakashvili's decision on the night of 7 August 2008 to launch an offensive against South Ossetian positions. But Saakashvili should not mistake that for acquiescence.

Across the country - from occupied Poti on the Black Sea coast to Tbilisi in the east - the murmur of complaint is growing louder. Why, people are asking, did he allow himself to be dragged into a fight that Georgia could not possibly win?

The criticism of Saakashvili will only mount as the price of war becomes clearer - the loss for the foreseeable future of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia; the cost in human life; the humiliation of Russian occupation; and the influx of thousands more refugees from the immediate conflict-zone.

Russia's challenge

What is not clear yet is whether this rising criticism will translate into a popular movement for the president to step down. For the moment, the continuing Russian occupation works in his favour. So does Moscow's unambiguously stated aim of regime-change and the recognition by the Russian parliament and president on 25-26 August of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

During the war of 8-12 August 2008 and its destructive aftermath, almost the entire Georgian political spectrum has rallied round Saakashvili - an unimaginable prospect before the war began. That will almost certainly remain the case for as long as a single Russian tank or soldier remains inside Georgia proper.

Moreover, Saakashvili has used this unifying momentum to begin preparing a larger political defence of his position. This was reflected in his statement to Georgia's parliament in Tbilisi on 25 August that "we will overcome this misfortune if we remain united." He also provided a detailed account of the development of Georgian-Russian relations in the period since he came to power in January 2004 - a history of edgy restraint in the face of constant Russian provocation.

But Russia was not Saakashvili's only target. He reiterated the familiar accusation that the west was also to blame for the crisis by encouraging Russia to believe it could get away with aggression. The sequence of western misjudgment in "Misha's" eyes began with the failure to respond adequately to Russia's withdrawal from the treaty on conventional forces in Europe (CFE) in July 2007; continued with Nato's refusal to grant Georgia and Ukraine a membership action plan (MAP) in April 2008; and culminated in Europe's inadequate response to Russia's repeated invasions of Georgian airspace in June-July 2008, and its disregard for Georgian sovereignty in Abkhazia.

The president concluded that the sequence of events in South Ossetia in the days before he ordered the Georgian attack left him with little choice but to respond.

It was a characteristically ebullient performance. Some of the arguments will strike a chord with Georgian citizens, most of whom share the view that Russia played an active role in provoking the conflict over South Ossetia. At the same time, they acknowledge that Georgia has suffered military defeat there (and in Abkhazia) and in the aftermath are undergoing the painful experience of military occupation of parts of their country. It remains to be seen how far Georgians will come to blame Saakashvili for allowing the dispute with Russia to have come to a head in this way and to have produced this disastrous outcome.

Among openDemocracy's recent articles on Georgian politics, including the war with Russia in August 2008:

Jonathan Wheatley, "Georgia's democratic stalemate" (14 April 2008)

Thomas de Waal, "The Russia-Georgia tinderbox" (16 May 2008)

Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia's search for itself" (8 July 2008)

Thomas de Waal, "South Ossetia: the avoidable tragedy" (11 August 2008)

Ghia Nodia, The war for Georgia: Russia, the west, the future" (12 August 2008)

Donald Rayfield, "The Georgia-Russia conflict: lost territory, found nation" (13 August

Neal Ascherson, "After the war: recognising reality in Abkhazia and Georgia" (15 August 2008)

Evgeny Morozov, "Citizen war-reporter? The Caucasus test" (18 August 2008)

George Hewitt, "Abkhazia and South Ossetia: heart of conflict, key to solution" (18 August 2008)

Ivan Krastev, "Russia and the Georgia war: the great-power trap" (19 August 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Russia and Iran: crisis of the west, rise of the rest" (21 August 2008)

Ghia Nodia, "Russian war and Georgian democracy" (22 August 2005)

Plus: openDemocracy's Russia section reports, debates and blogs the Georgia war.

Georgia's pressures

Mikheil Saakashvili still has cards to play. He can argue in his favour that the institutions he has established since 2004 have passed the severest of tests (see Ghia Nodia, "Russian war and Georgian democracy", 22 August 2005). It is less than a decade, after all, since Georgia (under the presidency of Eduard Shevardnadze) was being written off by the outside world as a failed state; today, the Russian invasion notwithstanding, it continues to function.

This has almost certainly come as a surprise to the Russians. It seems clear that they believed their own propaganda that Saakashvili was universally detested within Georgia, and thus were sure that invasion would provoke regime-change. Instead, it has prompted massive displays of national unity in Tbilisi and anti-Russian demonstrations in the Black Sea ports of Batumi and Poti.

Several figureheads of the political opposition as well as everyday citizens have rallied to the president. The hardline opposition leader Levan Gachechiladze - the president's main rival in the election of January 2008 - stood side-by-side with Saakashvili to proclaim unity in the face of the common enemy; the disgraced former defence minister Irakli Okruashvili (who has found political asylum in France) called Saakashvili to proclaim his readiness to serve as a reservist if needed.

The political centre has held. Despite the immense pressure of the invasion, the key institutions of the state have continued to operate almost as normal. The police have continued to perform their duties - where not prevented from doing so by the Russian army; the banks remain open; people continue to go about their normal business; the cafes and bars of downtown Tbilisi are as full as ever.

The provinces have also held. Russia, by digging in around Poti in western Georgia - hundreds of kilometres from the conflict-zone in South Ossetia - is seeking to test the faultlines that once ran between the west and east of the country. But Saakashvili's government has invested considerable energy and resources in 2004-08 into overcoming the wast-east divide. It is to Moscow's disappointment that the provinces of western Georgia have stood loyal to Tbilisi.

Much of this is Saakashvili's achievement. So too is the rapid and vociferous display of European and American support that followed the Russian invasion and subsequent occupation of Georgia. The backing reflects the fact that Saakashvili - a polarising figure as he may be - has put Georgia on the western security and political map. His vociferous proclamation of western values in the face of Russian hostility, and his readiness to send Georgian troops to serve in Afghanistan and Iraq, has even earned him almost iconic status in some of Washington's political and media circles.

But how much will this count for among Georgians when - or if - the Russian troops leave? Much may depend on the scale and swiftness of the western financial and political response. If the promised aid flows quickly, if support for Georgia's financial institutions is strong, if investment continues to flow as it had begun to in 2006-08, Saakashvili may just survive the reckoning of accounts that will in any case almost certainly come his way.

Levan Gachechiladze says he will call for pre-term elections once the Russian troops are "gone". This formulation is studiedly vague, however: does he mean withdrawal from Georgia altogether, or just from those areas they continue to occupy beyond the borders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia?

In any event, Gachechiladze will be reluctant to do anything that could be construed as playing into the Russians' hands. But others may show more bravado. They include Kakha Kukava, who has said that - once tensions have calmed - his Conservative Party will call for mass demonstrations aimed at ousting Saakashvili. But Kukava is a marginal figure with no political charisma (not necessarily a bad thing in Georgia today, of course) and unlikely to achieve anything unless backed by Gachechiladze. Moreover, there must be some doubt that many Georgians have the stomach for mass demonstrations after the events of the last year (including the street protests which were vigorously repressed by the government in November 2007). The chances are that most would prefer a period of political restraint.

Tbilisi whispers

Beyond these two opposition figures, the intentions and ambitions of the former speaker of parliament Nino Burdzhanadze are both more intriguing and less clear. Burdzhanadze was - with Saakashvili and Zurab Zhvania (the president's close ally and later prime minister, who died in unexplained circumstances in February 2005) - was one of the three key figures in the "rose revolution" of November 2003 - January 2004. She unexpectedly stepped down from the post of speaker in April 2008, just days before the parliamentary elections.

Burdzhanadze has kept a low profile since the Russian invasion, though she did tell Reuters on 18 August that the government would face tough questions once the Russians left. Even more importantly, for the first time she stated openly what many had long been expecting: that she was planning a return to active politics. "I am more than sure that right now I have to play a very active political role in the country."

But does this mean that she will try to form her own political party, or link up with other members of the political opposition? If Burdzhanadze does decide to go it alone, there is a chance she could divide the Saakashvili government and cause a split within his United National Movement. That would not necessarily be a bad thing - for parliament's domination by the ruling party is hindering the development of Georgian democracy. The creation of a popular Burdzhanadze-led opposition party might breathe new life into the political process.

If this indeed proves to be her course, the former speaker will have some convincing to do. Many admired her calmness under pressure during the November 2007 crisis in Georgia, when her mediation between the opposition and the government helped prevent matters getting further out of hand. But she has yet to show she can give the country direction. It is not fully clear what she believes in, and in what direction she would want to lead Georgia. It is also no help to her cause in current circumstances that some voices in Moscow have mentioned her name as an acceptable alternative to Mikheil Saakashvili.

Perhaps more worrying for Saakashvili is the new name emerging from the Tbilisi rumour-mill (see Elena Koinova, "Georgia: Contemporary Myth Making", Sofia Echo, 26 August 2008). A growing number of well-placed Georgians speak admiringly of Irakli Alasania, Georgia's ambassador to the United Nations, whose composed TV performances and briefings have been a prominent feature of the current crisis and won him domestic and international respect. Alasania is, like Saakashvili, young and western-educated. He has not himself suggested that he is seeking a role in politics; but the fact that so many are discussing the possibility in Tbilisi may be a hint that he is about to make a career-change. If Irakli Alasania were to form an alliance with Nino Burdzhanadze, that might be enough to make Saakashvili - and many more in Georgia and beyond - sit up and pay attention.

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