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Georgia’s dangerous gulf

Robert Parsons
30 May 2008

Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement won a decisive victory in Georgia's parliamentary elections on 21 May 2008, so crushing indeed that the next parliament will be almost as dominated by the UNM as its predecessor. The Central Election Commission declared on 23 May that the ruling party had won 59.5% of the vote, consigning the main opposition bloc (the nine-party National Council-New Rights coalition) to the margins with only 17.7%.

That is bad news for the development of Georgian democracy and maybe even bad news for the president himself. At this stage in its political evolution, Georgia needs a parliament to act as a credible check on the power of an overbearing executive. The result means that that is not going to happen.

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 disparate and hopelessly disorganised opposition continues in the same state of denial it has been in for some considerable time. The wine magnate Levan Gachechiladze - unlikely leader of the National Council-New Rights alliance - was threatening even before the polls had opened that he would bring 100,000 people onto the streets if he was denied victory. After its comprehensive defeat, the opposition said it would boycott and attempt to block the new parliamentary session (which opens on 10 June 2008) on the grounds that the election was unfair. This guarantees that political tensions will continue, without offering any path to their resolution.

Davit Gamqrelidze, another leading figure in the alliance, claimed that the opposition won over 40% of the vote - attributing this calculation to his side's own observers. This was a "famous victory" that over the "losers" of the UNM, he declared. Gamqrelidze, rarely outdone in the rhetorical stakes, added: "Together with the people, we must cancel the elections results and call new parliamentary elections."

The signs are that few Georgians are credulous enough to believe the assessment or follow the path suggested. The declared result almost exactly matched the results of an independent opinion poll conducted a week before the election, and echoed too the finding of independent exit polls on the day. Any manipulation of the count - and there were indeed problems with the conduct of the election - will not have affected the precise outcome or its overall shape. And a new round of elections is the last thing most Georgians want.

But even apart from residual doubts over the integrity of the process, the election is hardly a credit to Georgia's political system. The experience has (as did the presidential vote in January 2008 which saw Mikheil Saakashvili elected to a second term in office) highlighted both the intellectual poverty of the opposition and the immaturity of Georgian democracy.

Georgia has had fifteen years since it regained independence in 1991 amid the collapse of the Soviet Union to develop an effective, issue-based party system. It has failed to do so: politics remains dominated by personality, people vote for leaders not party programmes (indeed, with the exception of the UNM and the Republican Party, there is scarcely a political programme on view).

It gets worse: for little good results when a party tries to develop one. The fate of the Republican Party, led by Davit Usupashvili, is emblematic here. The party has largely sought to avoid the politics of confrontation and character assassination, and has focused instead on proposing a set of liberal economic and political reforms designed to maintain Georgia's western and pro-Nato orientation but rearrange the balance of power between the executive and legislature.

Usupashvili's reward was that the Republican Party got less than 4% of the vote and will not be represented in the new parliament. Georgian democracy may also be the loser here.

Under foreign eyes

Mikheil Saakashvili's concern in this election was not just to win, but to be seen to win honestly. Before the ballot, a succession of top officials from international organisations - among them the European Union, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (Pace), the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and Parliamentary Assembly (PA), and Nato - had suggested that Georgia's hopes of continuing support (and especially early entry into Nato, which the alliance's Bucharest summit in April 2008 put on hold) could hinge on its conduct. This helps explain why Saakashvili made several appeals to public officials before the vote to insist that they ensured it was free and fair.

In the event, the OSCE/ODIHR electoral mission to Georgia conducted intensive research during the campaign, which highlighted numerous flaws. These included a blurring of the lines between state activities and electoral campaigning, intimidation, and unbalanced media coverage (although it also noted that public TV was the only station that offered viewers a more or less balanced picture).

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Georgian politics:

Neal Ascherson, "Tbilisi, Georgia: the rose revolution's rocky road"
(15 July 2005)

Donald Rayfield, "Georgia and Russia: with you, without you" (3 October 2006)

George Hewitt, "Abkhazia: land in limbo"
(10 October 2006)
Vicken Cheterian,

"Georgia's arms race" (4 July 2007)

Donald Rayfield, "Russia and Georgia: a war of perceptions" (24 August 2007)

Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia: politics after revolution"
(14 November 2007) There is no question that these things happened and that Georgia needs to acknowledge and address the problems. At the same time, the early post-election evidence suggests that the country's institutions are making progress in the way elections are conducted. The OSCE's assessment identified the same sort of deficiencies - particularly in counting and tabulation procedures - that had marred earlier polls, but said the day had generally passed in a calm and orderly fashion.

The International Election Observation Mission, which observed voting in 1,500 of the country's 3,630 polling stations, "assessed the voting process as good or very good in 92 per cent of polling stations visited". But it added that despite efforts made to conduct the election in line with OSCE and Council of Europe commitments, their implementation had been "uneven and incomplete".

A troubled polity

Mikheil Saakashvili's double victory in the elections of January and May 2008 should in principle "settle" the contest over Georgia's political direction for the foreseeable future. But if these exercises in Georgian democracy instead leave this contest unresolved, the responsibility belongs also to a political opposition whose unrelenting hostility to the president makes the prospect of compromise in the national interest almost unimaginable (see Jonathan Wheatley, "Georgia's democractic stalemate", 14 April 2008).

Saakashvili had made an effort after the presidential election to bridge the dangerous gulf emerging in Georgian politics, by offering the opposition concessions such as the promise of posts in government, greater consultation and electoral reform. He followed this initiative in April by proposing a regular forum in which opposition leaders and the government could together review national-security matters.

There was brief hope of a breakthrough here, especially when agreement was reached in February on a new board for Georgia's public-broadcasting service reflecting the balance of political forces. Since then, the relationship has gone from bad to worse. The opposition continued to present demands which it backed with ultimatums that threatened demonstrations and hunger-strikes unless its terms were met - an approach that has proved counterproductive.

The hunger-strikes dissolved in ignominy and the turnout at demonstrations fell dramatically from their peak of November 2007, when some 70,000 filled Tbilisi's Rustaveli Avenue for several days in a row. There is a wider failure of political strategy here: the evidence suggests that most Georgians are tired of demonstrations, hunger-strikes, ultimatums and the intemperate language that characterises Georgian political debate. What most people want now are calm, stability, economic prosperity and jobs.

Saakashvili played on these longings to good effect in the last days of the electoral campaign, when he conceded a need for greater transparency to end the confrontational nature of Georgian politics, and again promised the opposition a more consensual approach. In calling for unity in the face of external threat - always a sure-fire vote-winner in Georgia, and more so when the country genuinely feels harassed by Russia - he proposed strengthening the powers of parliament, establishing a regular dialogue with the opposition and engaging it in a systematic way in the decision-making process. Nine days after the election, on 30 May 2008, he extended an offer to grant the opposition seats in the cabinet and the position of vice-speaker of parliament. The opposition remains scornful, its loudest voices continuing to describe Saakashvili variously as a fascist, a terrorist and a bloodthirsty dictator.

A northern shadow

The immaturity of Georgian political culture will remain an obstacle for any government trying to push through political reform. One of the many tests facing Saakashvili will be whether he is able to rise above the almost ritual abuse and name-calling - of which he himself is a noted exponent. The brutal response to the opposition demonstrations in November did serious damage to his international credentials as a democratic reformer and to his standing with the Georgian people. He can't afford to make another mistake like that.

But to lead Georgia to higher ground and to take the people and (in time) the opposition with him, he and his government will need the committed support both of the United States and the European Union. This support can also take the form of rigorous criticism and principled pressure to improve Georgia's governance, especially in the absence of effective internal checks and balances; but this should be combined with clear acknowledgment of the distance Georgia's government has travelled in the four years since the "rose revolution" of 2003-04.

Georgia's interlocutors should consider too that the country has had difficulty in functioning at all in these years, let alone in carrying though an ambitious reform programme, when it has been on the receiving end of constant and intense pressure from Moscow. A Russia ruled by Vladimir Putin has done its utmost to ensure that Georgian democracy does not become a model for others in the post-Soviet space to follow. There is nothing to suggest that the presidency of Putin's chosen successor Dmitry Medvedev will follow a different course.

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