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Georgian divisions: a dangerous poison?

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Georgia goes to the polls today for tightly contested parliamentary elections. Despite an horrific prison abuse scandal on the eve of the vote, Mikheil Saakashvili believes his party has done enough to win; Bidzina Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream party hope their energetic campaigning means otherwise. In reality, it is the post-election politics in Georgia that will matter, says Denis MacShane.

Denis MacShane
1 October 2012

Today's election (1 October) to chose members of Georgia’s Parliament are  the most important in the post-Soviet imperium. Georgia was briefly a model social democratic country after 1918. Trade union rights were established. Cooperatives replaced absent landlordism. Women sat in a freely elected parliament. Western European socialist luminaries like Austria's Karl Adler , Ramsay MacDonald from  Britain and others made political pilgrimages to Georgia. In 1920, Britain withdrew its troops and modest naval force from the country. This permitted Lenin, urged on by Georgia's most famous, son, Stalin, to invade Georgia and crush the social democratic experiment.

'Georgia was briefly a model social democratic country after 1918.'

 In a sense Georgia has been struggling to achieve a mixture of freedom and social justice ever since. The 1990s were a lost decade as mini- wars of secession broke out in Abkhazia and South Ossetia - think Catalonia or the Basque Country turning violent to break away from Spain after Franco's death. A Soviet era old guard held power until they were swept away by the first of the so-called colour revolutions in 2003. Unlike Belarus, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, or Armenia, which relapsed into open or barely disguised authoritarian and corrupt rule during the Putin years, Georgia has sought to sustain an orientation to the Euro-Atlantic democracies.

George W Bush Boulevard

The Rose Revolution brought to power a young tightly-knit group of US and French educated technocrats under Georgia's larger-than-life Mikheil Saakashvili. He sought to engage support from outriders of American new-conservatism and new- liberalism. The road from Tibilisi airport was renamed the George W Bush Boulevard. A rather sweet little statue of Ronald Reagan sits on a bench overlooks the river gorge that divides Tbilisi. Saakashvili fired the entire police force so that today Georgia is the only country where the police do not take bribes. There was a kind of anti-state reformism, pushed though against the old structures of party, family, regional connections which had run the country. 

'The Rose Revolution brought to power a young tightly-knit group of US and French educated technocrats under Georgia's larger-than-life Mikheil Saakashvili. He sought to engage support from outriders of American new-conservatism and new- liberalism.'

Not every reform took place. He ignored the squalor of his prisons. They are not as bad as Putin's jails where the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky was put to death in atrocious circumstances but as elsewhere in the region they are brutal places. Unlike Belarus and Ukraine, there is enough media freedom in Georgia for a TV channel hostile to Saakashvili to broadcast video footage on brutal treatment of young prisoners.

On the eve of the election this scandal led to the resignation of the interior minister close to Saakashvili and the suspension of all prison staff. His replacement is a young woman married to Raphael Glucksmann, son of the famous French polemicist philosopher, André Glucksmann. Mme Glucksmann will have her work cut out to reform the prison system but her appointment shows a willingness to admit something rotten in the Georgian state system which Saakashvili's fellow leaders in the region rarely display.

Saakashvili remains a contested figure at home and abroad. The Russian invasion of Georgia which Putin now admits was planned two years before August 2008 has made many western democracies suspicious of him. Russia is now in full military possession of the disputed Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia has 20,000 troops, 650 main battle tanks, 550 armoured vehicles and two ballistic missile batteries now installed on Georgian territory. David Cameron famously flew to Georgia in August 2008, catching Gordon Brown and the then foreign secretary, David Miliband, by surprise. William Hague wrote aggressive pro-Saakaashvili articles at the time. But once in power Conservative ministers preferred promoting trade and business relations with Putin than expressing any support for their turbulent and troublesome friend in Georgia. No FCO minister visits Tbilisi. Saaskashvili has relations with fellow rightwingers in the European Peoples Party but the Conservative Party’s auto-exclusion from that grouping has reduced links.

First serious effort

Today,  the first serious effort will be made to dislodge Saakashvili.  One of the world’s richest men, the Georgian billionaire oligarch, Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose net worth is more than Georgia’s annual budget, has put together an opposition party called Georgian Dream which is making a bid for power. Just about every-Saakashvili-hating Georgian politician – these are too many to count – has signed up to be on the Georgian Dream ticket. A tiny Georgian social democratic party is lined up with open homophobes and regional politicians who say Saakashvili has filled ‘Tbilisi’ with ‘blacks and Chinese.’  The Georgian Dream has hired the most expensive lobbyists in Washington, London and Brussels and with Ivanishvili’s billions has mounted an effective campaign.

'Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose net worth is more than Georgia’s annual budget, has put together an opposition party called Georgian Dream which is making a bid for power.'

All opinion polls however still give Saakashvili’s  United National Movement the winner today. A political party cannot be created overnight. It has to lose one or two elections and find its feet over time. Ivanishvili was the largest single shareholder in Gazprom and has made his billions in Russia. He refuses to criticise Putin. Now he appears to be seeking to buy himself power. Yet even in the confused often corrupt and clientalist politics of Georgia the time may not be ripe for a wholesale swap to Ivanishvili. Growth is an impressive 7 per cent and there is sense of buzz and vigour in the country’s main towns that can be attributed to Saakashvili.

The post-election politics

The real politics starts tomorrow. Saakashvili has said he will abide by the constitution and stand down when his second presidential term ends next year. Can Georgia effect a political leadership change in a truly democratic manner? Will the Georgian Dream convert itself into an enduring party formation? Will the elected Georgian Dream MPs take their seats or instead denounce the election as a fraud and demand recounts despite the mass presence of outside election observers? Will Ivanishvili decide to move to the streets and organise mass demonstrations in order to create a permanent state of tension? If this happens how does Saakashvili deal with city centre occupations? Will the temptation to return to a more authoritarian style as in Belarus, Ukraine or Russia be too great?

The post-election politics of Georgia are more important than today’s casting of votes. What is needed is the presence of the European Union foreign ministers travelling to Tbilisi and insisting to both Saakashvili and Ivsanishvili that politics in Georgia must be pursued by democratic methods. Georgia is a member of the Council of Europe and that body should set up a permanent monitoring capacity. In Moscow, Putin will be watching and waiting. A descent of Georgia into chaos will prove his thesis that Saaskahvili is an unstable adventurer. It could even justify a new military intervention to impose security should the political hates and rivalries in Georgia turn vicious and violent.

'The post-election politics of Georgia are more important than today’s casting of votes.'

Saakashvili tried too hard and too fast to enter NATO, in the model of the Baltic states. He was the political godson of George W Bush but his era is over. Saakashvili is not isolated. But he is more alone than perhaps he realises. In 1920, Georgian democracy was snuffed out by Russia. Today the question is whether internal divisions inside Georgia may become so poisonous that once again the democratic and other advances in Georgia start to go into reverse.

Denis MacShane is Labour MP for Rotherham and a former Minister of Europe. He chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on Georgia and visits the country regularly. He has met Georgian Dream representatives as well as Saakashvili’s ministers.

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