Georgia’s search for itself

Alexander Rondeli
7 August 2008

If the summer tends to be a rather quiet time in Georgia’s internal politics, the same cannot be said of the country’s foreign relations. Even the sultry temperatures of June and early July do not afford the political class - and security forces - much respite from the near-perpetual tensions with Russia.

These are most visible over Georgia’s two breakaway (and Russia-supported) regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where claim and counter-claim of responsibility for recent violent incidents have exacerbated an already difficult situation. The last two days of June 2008 saw four bombs explode in two Abkhaz towns (Gagra and the capital Sukhumi [Sukhum]), injuring twelve people; these were followed on 2 July by a bomb in a housing complex along the coast in Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi, and - the most serious incident - a bomb on 6 July in the Abkhaz border town of Gali that killed four people. The first blasts provoked the Abkhaz authorities to close the border with Georgia, which is secured by Russian troops operating under a peace agreement of 1994 (which ended the chapter opened by the short, vicious war of 1992-93).

The window for diplomatic progress to resolve the many issues left unsettled by the war and the unsatisfactory peace - borders, refugees, security, political authority, international supervision, economic relations, reconciliation - remains closed. A faint possibility of opening it may lie with the three-step plan promoted by Germany, published in Der Spiegel on 7 July 2008, which offers all sides a degree of long-term progress in exchange for a certain amount of short-term compromise.

A wave without mind

It is a familiar pattern for a country’s foreign-policy concerns to be influenced to a great extent by internal political processes and events. This is certainly true of Georgia during 2007-08. The country’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili, only just survived a protest wave mounted by the opposition after his closure of the independent Imedi (Hope) television station, which culminated in his clumsy repression of a public rally on 7 November 2008. He then achieved a decisive win in the presidential election of 5 January 2008, after a polarising campaign conducted in a tense atmosphere; afterwards, the opposition coalition challenged the veracity of the results, using the critical assessment by international observers of the election’s conduct as evidence.

Alexander Rondeli is president of the GeorgianFoundation for Strategic and International Studies (GFSIS).

Also by AlexanderRondeli in openDemocracy: "Georgia: a rough road from therose revolution"(4 December 2003),

"Georgia:politics after revolution" (14 November 2007).

The presidential elections had been called a year early, following a referendum which was part of Saakashvili’s attempt to establish uncontested popular legitimacy. But in hoping to secure a new mandate from Georgians, he faced the constant threat by the opposition that if it lost it would deem the elections unfair and fraudulent. The political presumption of Saakashvili’s “innocence” with regard to Georgia’s institutions and governance - a brief achievement of the “rose revolution” on which he rode to power in 2003-04 - was long since broken.

Mikheil Saakashvili’s first term in office thus ended as it began (an early honeymoon period apart): surrounded by internal political problems. The fraught late period included a plot by the late Georgian business tycoon (and presidential aspirant) Badri Patarkatsishvili, which was revealed - and thus thwarted - via a masterful intelligence operation by Georgia’s interior minister, Vano Merabishvili. By winning re-election, albeit in controversial circumstances, Saakashvili has been able to “stay in the saddle” - though he no longer figuratively rides a magnificent white horse (see "Georgia: politics after revolution", 14 November 2007).

Before and after the presidential elections - especially as the parliamentary elections of 21 May 2008 approached - the ruling political force became more active on the social front in an effort to address citizens’ demands. The opposition, meanwhile, continued to sing its same tune of accusation and denunciation of the authorities’ misdeameanours. Everyone knows that even beautiful melodies lose their appeal after they have been sung too many times, and so the familiar scenes of an embittered opposition devoting its energies to negative mobilisation began to lose their potency. This was reflected in the diminishing number of people protesting in the streets of the capital. As many as 80,000 people had assembled in Tbilisi in November, but after the clear victory of Saakashvili’s United National Movement (again contested by the opposition coalition) in the parliamentary vote, the turnout in protest rallies reached barely a tenth of this figure.

A race without care

But the street demonstrations in their way also tend to displace attention from the fact that discontent among Georgia’s population is wide and mostly invisible. Much of this has been the result of Saakashvili and his team having conducted very painful and drastic reforms in all spheres of life without close attention to their likely consequences - a sort of “surgery without (enough) social anesthesia”, partly through inattention or indifference, and partly because of insufficient resources.
Among openDemocracy'sarticles on Georgian politics and the region:

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

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

Robert Parsons, "Russia andGeorgia: a lover's revenge" (6 October 2006),

George Hewitt, "Abkhazia: landin limbo" (10 October 2006),

VickenCheterian, "Georgia's armsrace" (4 July 2007),

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

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

Robert Parsons, "Mikheil Saakashvili's bittervictory" (11 January 2008),

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

Robert Parsons, "Georgia, Abkhazia, Russia: thewar option" (13 May 2008),

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

Robert Parsons, "Georgia's dangerous gulf" (30 May 2008),

Nikolaj Nielsen, "A small bomb in Gali" (8 July 2008).

During this period of difficult change, many groups within the population of Georgia have felt socially humiliated. Their poverty is hard enough for proud people to bear, but the sense of humiliation has been reinforced by the arrogance of a young and sometimes brash leadership, its insensitivity to their problems and its failure to think about the real sources of their tragic situation. The Soviet legacy plays a double role here: close enough to see and feel its continuing influence, distant enough to justify attributing the blame for Georgia’s situation to the present government and leadership alone.

Georgia’s current social and economic problems owe much to the fact that Georgia was within the Russian and then Soviet empires for a period of two centuries, during which time its economy developed as an integral part of Russia and then the USSR. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia went through tremendous political, economic and social difficulties in which it plunged into civil war, ethno-political conflicts, corruption, disorder and bad governance.

When Mikheil Saakashvili and his team came to power in 2004, they started quite consciously to attempt to break with the Soviet and post-Soviet legacy: its structures, mentality, governance and other dominating elements. The new leadership calculated that it had only a little time to achieve its goals. Its attitude was that the use of revolutionary methods to implement quite drastic reforms would inflict short-term pain but that this would be succeeded by tangible progress facilitated by financial investments from abroad.

Many things were indeed done well but the social cost remains very high. Georgia still has no resources to provide social safety to the country’s poor. Many Georgians endure very straitened circumstances. The radical elements of the opposition exploit their predicament without offering much in the way of solutions to alleviate it. Georgia’s political culture is not mature enough to accommodate serious argument over policy; political life is very personalised, and sentiments of personal sympathy and antipathy tend to dominate and distort public discourse.

The result is that the ruling authorities and the country’s opposition have failed to find a modus vivendi, though this is absolutely necessary for a country going through the painful process of post-Soviet transformation. The political rules of the game in Georgia are rough and this is not only because of the rough approach of the authorities. The fractious opposition has few if any constructive tunes. Instead, it uses the quieter summer period to start preparing for the autumn, when it plans to renew its struggle.

A land without room

At the same time, the biggest problem for Georgia’s leadership is Russia’s determination to show the country that it simply cannot live without Russia’s “brotherly love”. In fact, Russia’s overt influence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia has now reached a critical point. It is clear that Russia is seriously determined to teach Georgia a lesson and to show all post-Soviet states that they will be punished, too, if they behave like Georgia (see Georgia and Russia: Clashing over Abkhazia, International Crisis Group, June 2008).

Russia wants Georgia to remain within its political, military and economical orbit. But what can Russia offer: democracy, prosperity, security, protection? Russia wants to keep Georgia for itself but Georgia wants to escape from the claws of the former “big brother”. Georgia is a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional society and it has to become a genuine democracy in order for it to survive as a viable nation-state. Thus it is a strategic imperative that impels its core national goal - to join the European and Euro-Atlantic structures; rather than (as it is often assumed to be) Russophobia.

In this respect, the tensions over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the overflights and shooting-down of spy-planes (and the bombs in Gagra, Sukhumi and Gali) - whoever bears the main responsibility in each case - do not bring much hope for Georgia. The larger picture is one where the Russian leadership continues to act in ways that can only be interpreted as aggressive, and against which Georgia is enfeebled in reply. At the same time, western well-wishers routinely turn a blind eye to this unequal confrontation, with the smell of oil and gas prevailing over feelings of sympathy and understanding. The east-central European countries with their own fresh memories of the “imperium” tend to be more sensitive to Georgia’s problems with Russia, and to try to support its struggle for real independence; but by the same token their voices carry less weight in European counsels.

So far, Russia has managed to hinder Georgia’s path to Nato membership, using its special relationship with Germany and other European Union states as a means of discreet pressure to block Georgia’s being offered the roadmap to treaty protection. If Russia can succeed in provoking Georgia militarily, and thus portraying its weak neighbour as an unpredictable, mad, and irresponsible state, it will reduce even further Georgia’s chances to get the "membership action plan" when the possibility next arises in December 2008. Even if it doesn’t, Russia can continue to rely on its influence on Germany and a few other European countries to pursue its objectives in the south Caucasus. The diplomatic mediation process suggested by Germany on 7 July 2008 may offer a glimmer of light in this respect.

2008 is already and will remain a very difficult year for Georgia. By all forecasts, it seems that 2009 will be no easier. Russia will still be there. Georgia has made limited but significant diplomatic headway in the 2004-08 period. But real support from the west still does not look to be forthcoming.

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