Georgia at a crossroads: after the post-war

In Tbilisi, memories of the bitter conflict with Russia in August 2008 are fresh, but everywhere too are signs that forces of change are pushing Georgia in new directions. Jonathan Wheatley takes the measure of a fluid political moment.
Jonathan Wheatley
22 October 2010

When Russian troops gradually withdrew from Georgia's towns and villages in September 2008 following the short war between Georgia and Russia the previous month over the enclave of South Ossetia, attention turned to the potential consequences of the war for the career of Georgia's unpredictable president Mikheil Saakashvili. Many analysts believed that after what proved to be a humiliating military conflict was over, the Georgia's people would turn against Saakashvili and drive him from power.

At first it seemed possible that such a scenario would unfold. As soon as hostilities had ceased, two highly influential Georgian politicians, former parliamentary chairperson Nino Burdjanadze and former prime minister Zurab Noghaideli, moved openly into opposition and scorned Saakashvili for failing to avert the war. Saakashvili's position was undermined still further in early November 2008 when the New York Times published evidence suggesting that Georgian rockets and artillery were launched on the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali before, rather than after, Russian forces launched their attack.

On 7 November 2008, five opposition parties - still burning from their electoral defeat in presidential (January) and parliamentary (May) that year, which they believed to have been fraudulent - launched a campaign to bring the Saakashvili government down. By April 2009, a total of thirteen political parties had joined the campaign and began three months of virtually continuous street demonstrations that effectively paralysed Georgia's capital, Tbilisi. For Saakashvili time appeared to be running out.

Yet almost two years on from the launch of the post-war demonstrations, the authorities' hold on power seems more secure than ever. In local elections held in May 2010, Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM) won 66% of the nationwide vote and retained control of all municipalities. In Tbilisi, where direct mayoral elections were held for the first time, the UNM's candidate Gigi Ugulava won 55% of the vote, far more than the modest 33% won by Saakashvili in the capital in presidential elections in January 2008.

Both local and domestic observers once again criticised the fact that the UNM enjoyed a disproportionate share of financial resources during the campaign; but they largely endorsed the conduct of the poll and reported that blatant acts of vote-rigging were rare, a point reluctantly conceded even by some opposition politicians.

An unlikely victory

So what happened? How did Saakashvili and his team make such a remarkable comeback, especially in the context of a disastrous military defeat and severe economic recession?

The most obvious reason for Saakashvili's victory over the opposition - both during the months of protest from April-July 2009 and subsequently - was the latter's disunity and incompetence. The thirteen-party alliance had no clear leader and no clear strategy. While some parties and leaders, most notably those close to the former United Nations ambassador Irakli Alasania, were prepared to negotiate with the government, others - including Burjanadze - took a far more uncompromising position and were prepared to accept nothing less than the unconditional resignation of Saakashvili.

When Saakashvili refused to budge and the protests entered their second and then their third month without any tangible result, the unity and resolve of the opposition weakened. The radicals called for an intensification of the campaign to include civil disobedience, while moderates called for a return to talks. Ultimately the alliance disintegrated.

A related reason for the opposition's failure was that it never appeared as a viable alternative government. It had no clear common ideology or set of policies. Alasania and his allies in the Republican and New Rights parties (which, together with Alasania made up the now defunct Alliance for Georgia) professed a pro-western orientation; whereas Burjanadze and Noghaideli began to move closer to Russia, with Noghaideli's party - the Movement for a Fair Georgia - even going to Moscow in February 2010 to sign a cooperation agreement with Russia’s ruling party, United Russia. This became part of a series of further consultations in Moscow.

Georgian society, like many other societies in the post-Soviet space, frequently takes to the streets to protest, but lacks the sort of grassroots organisations that can help sustain protests in the long term. Protests are driven from above, by national opposition leaders who are typically former regime insiders and are not always trusted by the people. If protests fail to achieve a quick victory then trust in these leaders ebbs further and the protests lose their momentum.

In 2009, most Georgian citizens - though far from in love with Saakashvili and his associates - could not see where the protests were leading, were tired of the disruption to their everyday life and preferred the devil they knew to the devil they didn't. The blatantly pro-Russian stance of opposition leaders such as Noghaideli may also have deterred many Georgians from supporting the opposition, especially when the government and its powerful media machine branded such leaders as traitors to the motherland.

In Georgia it is elites above all - not society - that determine whether or not a government will survive. The rose revolution in 2003 that defeated then-president Eduard Shevardnadze and brought Saakashvili to power only succeeded because the ruling elite had split two years previously, when the then chairman of parliament Zurab Zhvania and former justice minister Mikheil Saakashvili left Shevardnadze's entourage and went into opposition. Today, despite some notable defections such as those of Zurab Noghaideli and Nino Burdjanadze, the Saakashvili regime remains strong, driven as it is by the seemingly unbreakable axis of Saakashvili and his powerful interior minister Vano Merabishvili.

Merabishvili, as Donald Rayfield points out, controls a police force that is far more disciplined and far better paid than during the presidency of Eduard Shevardnadze, when they were notorious for corruption and eventually showed little loyalty towards the state leadership; as such he is probably the most powerful man in Georgia (see Donald Rayfield, "Georgia two years on: a future beyond war", 5 August 2010). This is reflected in the fact that while the opposition's well-organised protest campaign was able to defeat Shevardnadze's weak and divided government in 2003, a different constellation of opposition forces failed to undermine the far more coherent regime of Saakashvili six years later.

The struggles to come

But herein lies the danger for the Saakashvili regime. With the approach of both parliamentary elections (to be held in May 2012) and presidential elections (scheduled for January 2013), the contest over who is to succeed Saakashvili is likely to intensify. Indeed the power-struggle that precipitated the rose revolution in 2003 was primarily about the succession to Shevardnadze: whether it would be a Shevardnadze “insider” from within the various networks of the ex-communist nomenklatura or a young western-oriented leader like Zurab Zhvania or Mikheil Saakashvili. 

A similar dilemma exists today. Saakashvili is barred by the constitution from standing for a third term as president, but is unlikely to want to leave politics altogether. In June 2009, Saakashvili created a constitutional commission chaired by the veteran lawyer Avtandil Demetrashvili to draw up a new constitution. The opposition saw it as a gesture to placate them, and most groups boycotted it to focus on protest. But after the demonstrations lost momentum over the second half of 2009 the work of the commission revived, and it produced its first draft in May 2010.

Root-and-branch constitutional amendments, passed by parliament on 15 October 2010, will transfer significant powers from the president to the prime minister when they take effect in 2013. This has led to speculation that Saakashvili is hoping to to emulate Vladimir Putin's career path in Russia and move effortlessly from president to prime minister the same year, when his presidential term ends.

Such a scenario found less favour among the influential network of former NGO activists that masterminded the rose revolution and have remained within Saakashvili's inner circle ever since. They include Giga Bokeria (the deputy foreign minister), Givi Targamadze (the chairman of parliament's defence and security committee), Levan Ramishvili (the head of the influential Liberty Institute - the NGO that played the key role in organising the protests against Shevardnadze and of which Bokeria and Targamadze were also co-founders), and, most importantly, Gigi Ugulava (the mayor of Tbilisi).

There have been suggestions that Ugulava is seeking the presidency and is unlikely to want to remain effectively subordinate to a prime minister Saakashvili, especially after winning a greater share of the vote than Saakashvili in Tbilisi in May 2010. It is interesting to note that Ramishvili, who is a member of the constitutional committee and has hitherto been seen as a regime insider, opposed the draft constitution, and instead proposed his own version that would have maintained the status quo of a powerful executive president.

There has also been speculation in the Georgian media about the intentions of interior minister Vano Merabishvili, and over his possible support for the idea of a powerful prime minister; though it is unclear where he would stand in the event of a contest between Saakashvili and Ugulava. Merabishvili is a close ally of Saakashvili, but also belongs to the same network as the aforementioned group of former NGO activists (he helped found the Liberty Institute in 1996 and had his own NGO, the Association for the Protection of Landowners' Rights, in the late 1990s). While he lacks the populist touch and is unlikely to want the top job, he probably wishes to sustain his power-base in the ministry of internal affairs; and his stance will be crucial to the outcome of power-struggles at the highest level.

The prospects for change

Georgia shares with many other post-Soviet republics certain features that have made it difficult for democracy to take root. Many of these I identified in an earlier article (see “Georgia's democratic stalemate”, 14 April 2008). Three are worth re-emphasising.

First of all, power is concentrated in the hands of the presidency, which in many ways has echoed the role of the old Communist Party by coming to constitute the only source of political (and to some extent also economic) power.

Second, despite the existence of formal trappings of democracy (most obviously elections), voters are not presented with clear policy or ideological alternatives at election time. Typically, candidates and parties are defined in terms of whether they support or oppose the authorities, rather than how they plan to run the country.

Third, political change comes about primarily as a result of elite intrigue whereby disputes within the spaces of power lead to a reconfiguration of the political spectrum. Everyday citizens play little or no role in this process.

The power of ideology

So is this situation likely to change? There are four factors suggesting that it may do, at least within the medium-to-long term.

First, there is the constitution-making process. The amendments approved by parliament on 15 October, if implemented, will result in the relative weakening of the presidency, which should be good for democracy by providing the kind of checks and balances lacking in the current super-presidential system (see Ghia Nodia, "Georgia Gets a More Democratic Constitution, Though The Process Is Not Perfect", RFE/RL, 19 October 2010).

The process itself has indeed (as Ghia Nodia says) been far from ideal: it occurred (as always) behind closed doors and may be aimed at giving Saakashvili a leading political role after he abandons the presidency. However, constitutions can often take on a life of their own to transform the political landscape in a way not envisaged by their makers. This may be premature; the constitution has been changed arbitrarily by the authorities many times over the last few years, and this could reoccur. Yet there are grounds for cautious optimism here.

Second, Georgian politics is now far more ideological than it was during the presidency of Eduard Shevardnadze. Mikheil Saakashvili's government is driven more than ever by ideology. The doctrinaires that have shaped its policies mostly come from the aforementioned network of former NGO activists. Their ideology can best be described as neo-liberal, admixed with a pro-United States foreign-policy orientation and strong sympathies with rightwing and market-friendly US think-tanks. There are also strong elements of neo-conservatism, which endeared many UNM ideologues to President George W Bush.

Third, amongst these former NGO activists there is suspicion of the Georgian Orthodox church and its continuing influence in politics. The support the church enjoys amongst the general population, however, means that the political leadership has been reluctant openly to express anti-church sentiments.

Georgia's political parties have been slow to reflect the varying ideological currents that coexist in Georgia (among them neo-liberal or even neo-conservative, libertarian, traditionalist Orthodox, and anti-free-market). The neo-liberal tendency dominates the UNM, although in the context of an apparent split within the party between the libertarians of the Liberty Institute who oppose the influence of the Georgian Orthodox Church and more pro-Orthodox traditionalists.

The newly-formed Christian Democratic Movement (which gained 8.7% in the parliamentary elections of May 2008) was the first party to be blessed by the Georgian Patriarch Ilya II, and seems to represent traditional Orthodoxy. Similarly, the leader of the extra-parliamentary Conservative Party has made hardline pro-Orthodox statements, condemning homosexuality and calling for a ban on celebrating the “satanist” feast of Hallowe'en.

The Labour Party (7.4% in the 2008 elections) has also defended the church and at the same time attacked the government's pro-market policies. The small Republican Party (3.8% in the elections) prides itself on a libertarian (though not so rightwing) ideology and - despite its opposition to the authorities - shares the Liberty Institute's suspicion of the church.

Such ideological positions expressed by Georgian parties at present tend to be mere instruments to win popular support at home or financial support abroad (the same is true of the different positions towards Russia, with the new Movement for a Fair Georgia taking a clearly pro-Russian stance). Yet real ideological divisions are consolidating; in particular the division between pro-Orthodox traditionalists and more secular libertarians who believe in a clear separation of Church and state is fast becoming a key cleavage in Georgian society, perhaps to become an important feature of the Georgian body politic in the next decade. Even the emergence of an ideology-based party system of a western European type is conceivable within a decade or two.

The rise of new media

The fourth factor is that Georgian society has changed remarkably since the mid-1990s. In 1995, the Georgian state and economy were in ruins. Bandits still roamed the streets, poverty was endemic and the electricity grid had virtually ground to a halt. The population was cold and hungry, and not surprisingly gave priority to day to day survival over political activity. Today, while poverty remains a problem and unemployment is still endemic, the average standard of living has improved markedly, almost all Georgians have twenty-four-hour electricity, and crime is not significantly worse than in many other European countries.

In such circumstances, citizens are more likely to enjoy the luxury of voicing political demands. Most importantly, however, is the way the internet is transforming social communication. The government has justifiably been criticised for attempting to limit the freedom of the media (especially television), though in any event many Georgians are now able to receive a wide spectrum of views through the internet - which the government has neither the will nor capacity to censor.

A survey conducted throughout Georgia in May 2010 by the International Republican Institute (IRI) found that 22% of Georgian citizens claim to use the internet at least once a week, compared with the figure of 17% revealed by a similar survey in June 2009. Another survey (covering Tbilisi only) carried out by the IRI in November-December 2009 reported that 41% of residents of Georgia's capital use the internet at least once a week.

The use of social-networking sites, most notably Facebook, has exploded amongst young people and many (including not so young) Georgians are using Facebook to broadcast news stories for their friends to read. In May 2010, students at Ilia State University used Facebook to organise a demonstration to uphold the right of freedom of expression against perceived attacks by ultra-Orthodox Christians. Acts of police violence in Georgia regularly appear on YouTube. It is fair to assume that the use of Facebook, YouTube and other forms of electronic media as an instrument for mobilisation will become more commonplace in coming years.

The leaders of the opposition and some commentators have claimed that Saakashvili is taking Georgia on the road to Belarusian-style authoritarianism. However, post-Soviet despots such as Belarus's Alexander Lukashenko and Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov were able to restrict the flow of information before a reasonably free and vibrant media had established itself. In Georgia, that moment has long gone. A return to Soviet-style censorship in Georgia is now almost unthinkable, especially since Georgia has discovered Facebook. Democracy may be coming to Georgia, whether the authorities like it or not.

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