Georgia: the politics of recovery

Robert Parsons
26 October 2008

Georgia is still dazed by the catastrophic turn of events of August 2008, when a brutal five-day war with Russia over the breakaway region of South Ossetia. The events of that period and its aftermath - which saw the country face bombardment, destruction, loss of life, expulsion of Georgians from the affected areas, military defeat and occupation of parts of its core territory - are still vivid and heavy on people's minds. Uncertainty clouds the future as anxiety about economic slowdown merges with the trauma of the conflict. There is a built-up tension in Georgian society that if not carefully handled could yet explode with unpredictable consequences.

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)

"Georgia after war: the political landscape" (26 August 2008)Yet amidst this confusion, one fact remains indisputably clear. Russia's hopes that its combination of military, psychological and economic pressure would lead to the downfall of Mikheil Saakashvili have not been realised. For the moment, Georgia's president has survived with remarkable ease.

This is in large measure because Georgians' anger is mostly directed outwards at the Russians. Although there are doubts in Georgia about the immediate sequence of events that led to the outbreak of fighting on 7-8 August, the vast majority of Georgians accept the government's argument that Russia had long been intent on drawing Georgia into a conflict. Whatever mistakes Saakashvili may have made in allowing it to happen,  most place the blame for the August war at Moscow's door. Many go further and argue that Moscow's aggression towards Georgia made conflict inevitable sooner or later.

It helped, of course, that the war was short-lived. The occupation goes on, but Georgia has escaped the devastation that would surely have followed a more protracted conflict. There was ethnic cleansing of Georgian villagers in South Ossetia, but on the whole nothing to compare with the devastation wreaked by the Russians across the Caucasus mountains, on Chechnya. The country's infrastructure is damaged but international aid has also brought swift compensation. Even during the August war, visitors to the capital, Tbilisi, were struck by the air of normality in the city. On the surface, at least, life goes on as normal.

The opposition's plans

The solidarity of the national response to invasion owes much also to seventeen years of nation-building and, in particular, the efforts made by Saakashvili's government to strengthen national consciousness. There can be little doubt that if the Russian invasion had happened in the late 1990s, the country would have fallen apart within days. Saakashvili has worked hard to overcome the east-west divide in Georgia and in August it paid dividends. To the Russians' surprise, invasion has reinforced national solidarity not weakened it.

This was also a factor in the response of the Georgian opposition, which made clear in the aftermath of the invasion that it was putting its attacks against the government on hold (see "Georgia after war: the political landscape", 26 August 2008). Patriotism aside, though, the truth is that the opposition has not known how to capitalise on August's dramatic turn of events. The coalition of opposition forces has appeared weak and divided. Its more radical elements, like Kakha Kukava of the Sakartvelos Konservatiuli Partia (Georgian Conservative Party), have urged street-protest but, until very recently, others have edged away from confrontation. Some of the small parties that form the United Opposition have broken away and divisions have surfaced over the leadership. This has played into the government's hands.

The opposition has not helped its own cause either by continuing to boycott parliament - in protest  at what it claims was a rigged election in January 2008 (see "Mikhail Saakashvili's bitter victory", 11 January 2008). As a consequence, the government has faced no parliamentary pressure over the handling of the August war. Despite a demand by former speaker of parliament Nino Burdzhanadze for the government to answer forty-three questions on the conduct of the war, and despite the creation of a "parliamentary commission for the study of the August events", no conclusions have yet been reached.

For a short while after the Russian invasion, the possibility appeared to emerge of an alliance between opposition forces and key figures who had either left Saakashvili's National Movement or were thought to be contemplating doing so. This has proved a chimera. But new political forces do appear to be emerging on the Georgian scene. Burdzhanadze set up her own Foundation for Democracy and Development in July 2008, and is planning a return to the centre of the political scene. The widely respected former prime minister, Zurab Noghaideli, also plans to step up his political involvement.
Among openDemocracy's recent articles on Georgian politics, including the war with Russia in August 2008:

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

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

Donald Rayfield, "The Georgia-Russia conflict: 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 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 2008)

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

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

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

Plus: openDemocracy's Russia section reports, debates and blogs the Georgia war.
There is talk too that Georgia's popular ambassador to the United Nations, Irakli Alasania, may enter politics. He has yet to confirm this himself, but his comments on internal affairs (not his official remit at all) in an interview for the Georgian Times (20 October 2008) are revealing. In speaking of how Nato was likely to consider a renewed Georgian application for a membership plan, he said that "major importance would be attached to the deepening of the democratic process in Georgia and of ensuring the independence of the media, most notably television media".

An alliance involving these figures could pose a genuine challenge to the National Movement's parliamentary domination - but it is unlikely to emerge in the near future. Neither Burdzhanadze nor Noghaideli have developed their own party apparatuses yet; but the former speaker at least seems determined to maintain political pressure for change - albeit only by constitutional means. She has written an open letter addressed to Mikhail Saakashvili which was published on 24 October in the Georgian daily Rezonansi and that this parliament should see out its term. In it she argues for elections "within a reasonable timeframe" as the way out of "the grave political crisis" (see "Burjanadze Ups the Ante on Former Ally", Civil Georgia, 24 October 2008).

It is not clear whether Burdzhandaze is referring to presidential or parliamentary elections, but her scornful depiction of the parliament as "a fictional body" carries the implication that this is where her intentions lie. She does not specify a timetable either, though it may be that spring 2009 - a target envisaged by other opposition leaders - is her focus.

The letter is another move in a delicate political game. But overall, the outlook for the opposition does not look good. If it consents to take up its seats in what Burdzhanadze calls the "one-party parliament", it looks weak; but if it takes to the streets in looks disloyal.

The frustration is beginning to tell. Pikria Chikhradzeof the Akhali Memarjveneebi (New Rights Party) announced on 21 October that some opposition parties were going to launch a new type of opposition movement, which would "work closely with international organisations and representatives of the international community"; but she refused to explain exactly what the New Rights had in mind. She set the launch-date for 7 November, the first anniversary of last year's violent dispersal of an opposition rally by the police.

Another of the opposition leaders, former presidential candidate Levan Gachechiladze, has called for a wave of protest against the government beginning on 7 November. But this is a risky strategy. There seems to be little appetite in Georgia for street-protest and little support for the opposition either.   For a while in 2007 it captured the national mood and appeared to give it direction but the political scene has now moved on. Nor is it clear what a wave of demonstrations would be intended to achieve. The opposition says it wants a free media, an independent judiciary and electoral reform but Saakashvili himself admits that these are necessary. It is unlikely that  the demonstration on 7 November will bring anything like the support of a year ago.

The president's world

This is so not least because Russian troops still occupy Georgian land. Leaving aside South Ossetia and Abkhazia, they are dug in in Akhalgori district, which is just 40 kilometres from the Georgian capital and was incontestably governed from Tbilisi before August. Georgians appear to take the view for now that any action that risks public disorder would play into the hands of the Russians. These are critical days for the opposition. A failure to mobilise support in November could lead to political marginalisation.

This suggests that for the moment Saakashvili's position is strong. He would be wise, though, not to be complacent. He has acknowledged the need for reform but Georgians and - it seems, the international community - are looking for more than words. Niki Rurua, a member of his close inner circle of advisors, insists Saakashvili is sincere in his commitment to reform and that he understands its urgency. He adds too that Saakashvili is ready to open  the government to constructively minded members of the opposition (see "Georgia: the aftermath", Sunday Herald, 19 October 2008).

But he rejects the demand made by figures such as Burdzhanadze for early parliamentary elections. Rurua insists there is no popular demand for elections; that they would be divisive at a time when the state is still in danger from Russia; and very expensive to organise amid straitened circumstances.

All this may very well be true, but unless Mikheil Saakashvili acts on his promises to carry through a second wave of democratic reforms it could change - and quickly. There is a great deal of pent-up energy following the August war and much frustration that could yet take a negative turn. This is likely to be compounded in the months ahead by the slowdown in the economy - in part as a result of the war but also the inevitable consequence of the global financial crisis.  In Georgia, like everywhere else, credit is drying up fast. Georgia's construction boom is coming to an end and investors are staying away.

On a visit to Georgia in mid-October, United States assistant secretary of state Daniel Fried made clear that Washington expects Saakashvili to honour his promises. Georgia, he said, needs to make progress in strengthening its democratic institutions. "As these institutions are strengthened - independent media, a strong independent judiciary, a strong viable opposition - the Georgian state will strengthen and it is up to the Georgian government but also the Georgian society - everyone needs to do their part in building these institutions."

If domestic patience is limited, the patience and commitment of the international community is not unconditional either. A new administration in Washington (especially if it is headed by Barack Obama, given John McCain's close ties to Georgia's president) may not be as understanding of Georgia's demands as its predecessor, particularly if the government is perceived to be dragging its feet on reform. True, Georgia's partners and friends in the west have been generous: a conference in Brussels on 22 October attended by sixty-seven nations pledged $4.55 billion in aid and loans - a third of it from the European Union and over a fifth from the United States. But its delivery could hinge on evidence of domestic progress - particularly in media reform (see David Kakabadze, "The Morning After Georgia's ‘Day Of Joy'", RFE/RL, 24 October 2008).

In 2007, Reporters without Borders rated Georgia sixty-sixth in its table of international media freedom; in 2008 it has fallen to 120th. That's a catastrophic fall that reflects badly on the country's international prestige. It is also a factor in domestic politics; Nino Burdzhanadze's open letter in Rezonansi on 24 October calling for fresh elections says they should be held "only under the conditions of an improved election code, a healthy electoral environment and free media."

Yet the fact remains that Georgia is still a beacon of democratic light in the post-Soviet space - albeit one that gleams a little less brightly today than it once did. With international assistance, Georgia could achieve much more but to do so its government will have to concentrate on building a consensus within society and finding a way to move beyond the catastrophe of August 2008. A failure to do so could put all the gains of the last few years in jeopardy. 

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