Georgia: social chasm, political bridge

Robert Parsons
21 July 2009

The arguments in the kitchens and salons of Tbilisi, in its taxi-cabs and buses, its cafes and wine-bars are as fevered today as the mid-summer storms that clatter over the mountains surrounding the city. In the ongoing national row over the presidency of Mikheil Saakashvili there is little room for neutrality or nuance. The absence of compromise in the political debate is polarising society with potentially disastrous consequences for all involved.

Robert Parsons isinternational 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 asdirector 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)

"Georgia after war: the political landscape" (26 August 2008)

"Georgia: the politics of recovery" (24 October 2008)

"Georgia on the brink- again" (20 May 2009)

The prominent opposition leader Salome Zurabishvili fears that the country has reached the critical point where one rash move from either side could plunge Georgia into chaos. This is why, she insists, she responded to Mikheil Saakashvili's offer to the opposition in June 2009 by accepting the position of  deputy interior minister.

The gulf between opposition supporters and the police has grown ever wider, Zurabishvili says, especially after a clash between the two sides on 15 June in the centre of Tbilisi. After that, the former former minister felt the only way to bridge the divide was for her to take up the president's offer. It is not that she supported the government, rather that she fears for Georgia's future: the government has lost so much credibility, she maintains, that nobody believes the police even when they are telling the truth. 

There is something in Salome Zurabishvili's views. A gulf does exist between state and society in Georgia and it is becoming dangerously wide. But this take on recent events in Georgia is also disingenuous, because it ignores the part played by the uneasy alliance of opposition forces itself in creating the current political impasse.     

That, however, is not to exculpate the government from responsibility. For the government's handling of the proposal to Zurabishvili throws into question the honesty of its own avowed commitment to compromise - and indeed its competence. No sooner had she accepted the offer than it was withdrawn, on the spurious grounds that this senior politician intended to use the post as a political platform.    

It was a gift to the opposition - proof, they crowed, that Saakashvili could not be trusted. In consequence, the chasm that splits Georgian society yawned wider still (see "Georgia on the brink- again", 20 May 2009).

This is a recurring theme in Georgian history. The notion of a fractured society dominated the political debates of the late 19th century, when the leaders ofthe national movement urged Georgians to reconstruct the chatekhili khidisga mteleba (smashed bridge) between classes and ethnicities. This time the bridge that is collapsing is between state and society.

The state-society chasm

The depth of the crisis facing Georgia today makes it sound paradoxical: but Mikheil Saakashvili's mostsignificant achievement to date has been precisely in...state-building - the transformation of moribund organisations into genuinely functioning institutions.

In 2003, before the "rose revolution" of November-December that year which swept Saakashvili to power in place of Eduard Shevardnadze, the police force was corrupt, underpaid, under-resourced and parasitic. Today, it has changed beyond recognition, even though it still needs reform. The same is true of the army, notwithstanding the shortcomings revealed by the war with Russia in August 2008. There are other improvements. Georgia's customs services come as a pleasant surprise to anyone who has suffered at the hands of those in Russia and other former republics of the Soviet Union; gas, electricity and water are delivered regularly; the tax service operates efficiently; bureaucratic obstacles have been cut drastically. In short, Georgia feels more like a state today than the banana republic it was once close to becoming.

But it is all still very much a work in progress. The list of what remains to be done is long and instructive. There have been years of criticism from the European Union and the Council of Europe as well as Georgia's opposition and civil society, yet severe institutional failures remain: the judiciary remains dominated by the executive, media freedom is still vulnerable to political pressure, and grassroots democracy (particularly in the provinces) is under pressure from the state. Moreover, parliamentary democracy itself has been stymied, in part by Saakashvili's accumulation of power in the presidency and the failure of successive elections to win the trust of the people.

To paraphrase Barack Obama's remark during his major speech in Ghana on 11 July 2009: what Georgia needs today is strong institutions, not another strong man. 

But it also needs a responsible opposition. It is true that members of opposition parties have been harassed and, in some cases, arrested in the provinces; but it is wrong to claim, as some opposition leaders do, that the Saakashvili government is authoritarian or even dictatorial. The opposition's voice is heard on television and radio round the clock; Maestro, its own TV station, has been awarded a licence to broadcast nationwide; its supporters have blockaded Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi's most prestigious avenue, for four months without any escalation o fclashes with the police (a confrontation that took place on 6 May was in a Tbilisi suburb); and its leaders are free to travel as they wish. It is not hard to find examples of authoritarian government in the post-Soviet space, but Georgia is not one of them.   

Among openDemocracy's 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-Georgiatinderbox" (16 May 2008)

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

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

Donald Rayfield, "The Georgia-Russiaconflict: lost territory, found nation" (13 August 2008)

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

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

Ivan Krastev, "Russia and theGeorgia 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 andGeorgian democracy" (22 August 2008)

Vicken Cheterian, "Georgia's forgottenlegacy" (3 September 2008)

Rein Müllerson, "The world after theRussia-Georgia war" (5 September 2008)

Martin Shaw, "After the Georgiawar: the challenge to citizen action" (22 September 2008)

Katinka Barysch, "Europe and theGeorgia-Russia conflict" (30 September 2008)

Donald Rayfield, "Georgia and Russia:the aftermath" (16 November 2008)

Thomas de Waal, "The Caucasus: aregion in pieces" (8 January 2009)

Thomas de Waal, "Georgia and Russia,again" (30 January 2009)

Tedo Japaridze, "A Georgian chalkcircle: open letter to the west" (12 May 2009)

Nino Burdzhanadze, "A Georgian appeal:open letter to the west" (12 June 2009)

Ilia Roubanis, "Georgia'spluralistic feudalism: a frontline report" (3 July 2009)

Vicken Cheterian, "Georgia: between warand a future" (8 July 2009)

Plus: openDemocracy'sRussia section reports

Georgian democracy, like its institutions, has a long way to go to meet the standards of many European states. Yet even in barely a decade - counting the period before as well as since the "rose revolution" - there are achievements to build on as well as many areas that need improvement. This is not how leading elements of the opposition see it. They take the absolutist position that nothing positive has been done in the Saakashvili years; as a whole, the opposition creates the impression that if it ever comes to power it is ready to tear down the whole edifice the president has built.

The blind alley

An influential opposition leader and former speaker of parliament, Nino Burdzhanadze, says that street-demonstrations are the only way way left to the Georgian people to bring its preferred leaders to power. After only a few years of democratic reform, Burdzhanadze feels the ballot-box has exhausted its possibilities and that a return of Georgian politics to the street offers a more promising option.   

Yet the Georgian people, it seems, have more patience than their politicians.   Whatever the frustrations that most have with Saakashvili's government, it is clear that today Georgians crave evolution as much as they fear revolution.    

The evidence for this includes the failure of the opposition's "permanent" demonstration and "cage city" in the centre of Tbilisi, intended to remain until Saakashvili was forced from office, to capture the popular imagination. True, there have been peaks of protest - such as 26 May, Georgia's independence day, when 60,000 opposition supporters filled Dinamo Tbilisi's football stadium - but for the most part people have stayed away.

By the end of June, the demo on Rustaveli Avenue had dwindled to a few dozen diehards who refused toaccept the reality - that their efforts to precipitate a nationwide protest movement to force Saakashvili's removal had failed. Their leaders now acknowledge that the cages, filled with their supporters as a  symbol of the alleged tyranny of Saakashvili's rule, had been reduced to a symbolic protest with no expectation of a practical result. In mid-July, the opposition announced that it intended to remove the cages altogether in advance of the visit of United States vice-president Joe Biden on 22-23 July.

If the opposition had been united and possessed a clearly defined set of proposals for reform once Saakashvili was removed from power, the protest's outcome might have been different. But the disputatious forces ranged against the president have always found it hard to reach agreement and outline a strategic plan. As a result they been compelled to define themselves solely in terms of their dislike of Saakashvili. This failing has demoralised even some opposition leaders; privately, some admit the incompetence of their own colleagues.  

The inability of the opposition leaders to connect with the Georgian people and persuade a majority actively to support their case has put them under immense strain.  The frustrations that accompany a course of action that seems to be going nowhere increasingly exposes the cracks in their alliance.   

The maximalists - suchas Nino Burdzhanadze and Kakha Kukava of the Sakartvelos Konservatiuli Partia (Georgian Conservative Party) - still insist that the only subject on which they are prepared to negotiate with Saakashvili are the terms of his resignation (see Nino Burdzhanadze, "A Georgian appeal:open letter to the west", 12 June 2009). The moderates in the opposition now see this attitude as having led the alliance down a path with no exit.   

The deepening fissions have led individuals and parties to begin to go their own way, and take decisions that embarrass their putative colleagues. For example Levan Gachechiladze (a former presidential candidate) and Davit Gamqrelidze (the leader of Akhali Memarjveneebi [New Rights Party]), were caught on video in a Berlin meeting with Kakha Targamadze, an Eduard Shevardnadze-era interior minister. Targamadze is one of the most discreditable figures in the history of post-independence Georgia; he also has Russian citizenship and now lives in Moscow. The meeting is said to have infuriated Nino Burdzhanadze; she and most other opposition leaders rushed to dissociate themselves from the encounter, saying they had not been told in advance it was going to happen.

The trust deficit

But if the opposition is downbeat, Mikheil Saakashvili has no reason to celebrate. The opposition's incompetence and weakness cannot disguise the fact that Georgians are disenchanted with his rule. They do not trust the results of the presidentia land parliamentary elections in 2008; they are angry that he allowed Georgia to be drawn into war with Russia over South Ossetia; they resent the arrogance of the youthful ministers that make up his cabinet; and they lack confidence in the future.   

There is, in short, a deficit of trust for which Saakashvili must take his share of responsibility. The core challenge he faces is to overcome the divide between state and society; his success or otherwise will likely determine the way Georgia develops over the coming years. The task will entail a huge effort of political persuasion, for those who today feel marginalised or persecuted represent a sizeable percentage of Georgia's population - perhaps even a majority.

Saakashvili is at least aware of the scale of the task. He has for some time been proposing a dialogue on issues of genuine popular concern - including the crucial questions of electoral reform, judicial reform and the possibility of change to a more parliamentary form of democracy. He repeated some of these ideas in an interview with the Wall Street Journal on the eve of Joe Biden's arrival; and added an offer to the opposition of a better platform in the media, key government positions and pledges to set a date for new local elections.The president says that the turmoil of 2008-09 has forced him to reset his ambitions and to focus on modernising Georgia by deepening democracy and ensuring a smooth transition of power when his second term finishes in 2013 (see Andrew Osborn, "Georgia's President Vows Changes", Wall Street Journal, 20 July 2009)..

Much if not most of the opposition will dismiss this out of hand - citing the farce over the offer of a government post to Salome Zurabishvili - but an opportunity is there for its more moderate leaders to take him at his word. Irakli Alasania, a former Georgian ambassador to the United Nations - who on 16 July launched his new political party, Chveni Sakartvelo - Tavisupali Demokratebi (Our Georgia - FreeDemocrats) - has already engaged in a negotiation process, although with little to show for it so far.

Alasania's difficulty is in part captured by Ilia Roubanis in his openDemocracy article on "pluralistic feudalism" in Georgia (see Ilia Roubanis, "Georgia's pluralistic feudalism: a frontline report", 3 July 2009). Alasania has created yet another Georgian political formation, but neither it nor any other in the landscape represents larger social or aggregated interests or projects a coherent social or political programme; they are vehicles for ambitious personalities.   

The domination by personalities translates, naturally, into endemic rivalries. The opposition welcomed Alasania when it felt he would bring momentum to their drive to remove Saakashvili, but began to regard him with suspicion as soon as he started to carve out an agenda of his own. Indeed, privately, some say he is now finished.

It is certainly true that Alasania's position is weak. He has no independent means and represents no defined social currents; this leaves him dependent on people he might prefer to distance himself from - like Levan Gachechiladze and Davit Gamqrelidze, whose meeting with Kakha Targamadze put Alasania on the defensive.

A compromise might still be possible if Alasania and his allies in the Aliansi Sakartvelostvis (Alliance for Georgia) press for it. Alasania himself concedes that the door is at least half open. If - as seems very likely - this is what the majority of Georgian people want, there is a political opportunity waiting to be taken.

The door to stability 

What form such a compromise might take is harder to discern but the outlines of a possible agreement are beginning to emerge. Mikheil Saakashvili is evidently not prepared to consider early presidential elections, after winning an albeit contested victory as recently as January 2008. But he desperately wants a chance to redeem himself in the eyes of posterity. He wants to be remembered not as the man who inadvertently opened the gates to the Russian hordes but as one who paved the way for the modernisation of Georgia.

In practice, Saakashvili can only deepen democracy and achieve a smooth transition of power if he cooperates with the opposition. The implication is that his own psychological need for an honourable legacy is also a window of opportunity for the opposition.

If the president is not prepared to negotiate on presidential elections, he may be ready to do so on constitutional change (limiting presidential powers, in particular) and, critically, on early parliamentary elections. It is true that the government has hitherto ruled out this possibility but that could change. In a situation where Georgians' trust in the state is so corroded, a new round of parliamentary elections might help to restore it and to put the political process at the heart of Georgia's national debate.

Something urgently needs to be done to restore faith in the state. President Saaskashvili's speech to parliament on 20 July presents an ambitious programme and suggests that he recognises the need for this. Parliamentary elections, if preceded by electoral reform, might achieve it, as long as they are seen to be free, fair and transparent - which, of course, is a big "'if". 

Georgia's last parliamentary elections were held in May 2008. They took place in a febrile atmosphere, ended in acrimony, and became part of a period of unfolding instability that climaxed in the destructive war with Russia in August 2008. The anniversary of that war is approaching, in conditions of deep uncertainty and worry in the region. The European Union is said to have postponed publication of its official report on the causes of the war over South Ossetia - originally due by the end of July - to 30 September, in order to avoid adding fuel to current tensions.

In these unsettled conditions, Georgians of all political persuasions would benefit if the national parliament were to be transformed into a genuinely representative body with real powers to generate legislation. A plan to institute electoral and institutional reforms and then hold parliamentary elections in spring 2010 could be the key to unlocking Georgia's deep-rooted political crisis.

It could give opposition leaders like Irakli Alasania a strong platform to build towards the presidential election of 2013. It could present Mikheil Saakashvili with three years of stability to carry forward his project for Georgia's social, economic and political transformation. Most of all, it could win the support of Georgia's people and help convince them that politics, clear rules, strong institutions and good governance - not big personalities, loud voices, polarising language and public disorder - are the route to lasting progress. 

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