When I turned to the BBC’s World news website on 30 May, expecting to see how the local elections in Georgia were progressing, it was with some trepidation.
Tbilisi held its first ever direct elections to the post of Mayor of Tbilisi – one of President Saakashvili’s key democratic reforms – as well as regular local municipal polls.
It was the first test of national support for the much-criticised Saakashvili since the war of August 2008; but, more importantly, it was a test for democracy in an ex-Soviet state, which is rightly looking to be a Western democracy.
There was nothing on the website, it was not news – at least not in the UK. In a way it was a good thing that the Tbilisi elections did not make news: it was a sign that things were running smoothly and without scandal. But I also believe it is a shame, because these albeit local elections have much bigger significance for emerging democracies in Europe and around the world.
Good news is often “not news”. Even the pro-Moscow Russia Today could not find a derogatory word to say about the Tbilisi poll.
On Monday a report by the OSCE democracy watchdog mission reported that Georgia had made “evident progress” in this year’s elections. As Dame Audrey Glover, the head of the mission, said: “These elections were marked by clear improvements and efforts by the authorities to address problems occurring during the process”. And the EU parliamentary delegation said the vote represented a “real step toward the democratic development of the country”.
The opposition parties in Georgia did not dispute the veracity of the vote and, yes, there were some minor “shortcomings” and allegations in one or two electoral districts. What election around the world doesn’t have them?
The key thing was that Europe declared the Georgia elections “free and fair” and that progress had been made.
The important point is that Saakashvili has clearly listened and learned from the criticisms of previous elections since he came to power in the Rose Revolution of 2003.
Over the past year, Tbilisi has instigated a serious democratic and electoral reform process, including modernising the electoral code, increasing state funding for opposition parties, appointing an inter-agency task force on free and fair elections, engaging and recruiting more election observers, holding the first ever TV debate (as the UK has only just done) and setting up a parliamentary channel based on C-Span and BBC Parliament.
In all these reforms the government has involved the opposition parties and NGOs by inviting them in for consultation; but also appointing opposition figures to key bodies involved in the reform process.
People have been trying to claim that the “colour revolutions” of the ex Soviet Union are dead, just because in Ukraine five years after the Orange Revolution its hero President Viktor Yushchenko was ousted for the pro-Moscow Viktor Yanukovych.
In the elections on Sunday 30 May the governing party of Saakashvili scored a resounding victory with 55% of the vote for mayoral candidate Gigi Ugulava. Leading opposition candidate Irakli Alasania gained 20%.
Saakashvili cannot seek a third term under the constitution, so will not be contesting the next presidential elections due in 2013; but his National Movement party, which led the Rose Revolution, is still clearly by far the most popular cause in Georgia seven years later and in spite of some domestic criticism of his handling of the 2008 war.
But, while the Rose Revolution is obviously alive and well in Georgia, this is not a time for triumphalism in Tbilisi. One cause for concern from the recent elections is the lack of a strong and focused opposition in the country. Saakashvili has done a lot to ensure a level playing-field, but one thing he cannot do is make the fragmented opposition more popular. That must come through people like Alasania – the most credible candidate to the West – continuing to talk about policy, not personalities. He made some welcome suggestions to reform health care during the mayoral campaign and was magnanimous in defeat, declaring the elections “valid”, adding: “Tbilisi has made its choice”.
Last year’s street demonstrations in the capital, calling for the resignation of the president, failed. Then there were no other policies amongst the nine or so divided opposition parties. That is thankfully starting to change.
Georgia has always had a tradition of going to the street to get political change – that worked once under previous oppressive conditions – but now the opposition must focus on making their case in parliament, not on the streets. Some of the opposition politicians who have refused to take their seats in the parliament are starting to realise this. And that is welcome.
Parliament is the appropriate and most effective, grown-up forum for change in a mature democracy. Britain's new prime minister, David Cameron, and US vice president Joe Biden bravely flew to Georgia in August 2008 to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Georgian people as Russia launched its land, sea and air assault on this tiny nation. Moscow now feels it has won back Ukraine and it slowly regaining influence and control of the energy-rich Stans. Russia wants to close down the OSCE as a forum for democracy, human rights and election monitoring. Georgia's sturdy independence and progress towards European democratic norms remains an obstacle to Russia once again becoming master over the former nations of Soviet and Tsarist imperialism.
This election is a reminder that London, Washington and Brussels should not forget Georgia, even while all the reset buttons are pressed in the hope that the Kremlin is ready to lessen its zero-sum approach to foreign policy.
Denis MacShane MP was Minister of State for Europe 2002-2005