Sakartvelo: a political prospect

The two years since the war of August 2008 have been tough for Georgia. But in domestic politics and foreign relations alike the country has achieved more than once seemed possible, says Alexander Rondeli.
Alexander Rondeli
11 August 2010

Two years after the events of August 2008, the future of the small and young south Caucasus state of Georgia remains open. Any realistic assessment of its prospects must begin with a recollection of these events and their aftermath - in particular, how they have affected Tbilisi.

What Ronald Asmus has called “the little war that shook the world” had both longer-term and short-term causes. It was a product both of increasing  tensions in the complex relationship between Georgian and Russia, compounded by Russia’s discontent with the west’s alleged disrespect of its interests; and of an immediate crisis over Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia.

In these desperate days of 8-12 August 2008, Russian troops advanced towards the Georgian capital; even after the ceasefire of 12 August, thousands of Russian troops remained in the country, and were stationed in South Ossetia and the other breakaway territory of Abkhazia - which Moscow proceeded to recognise as independent states. 

Russia’s aggressive stance in and after the “five-day war” enabled it to reassert (to its neighbours and the west alike) the long-cherished political goal of restoring hegemony over at least part of the “post-Soviet space” (see Ivan Krastev, "Russia and the Georgia war: the great-power trap", 19 August 2008). But as well as signalling to Nato and the European Union that it would not accept any further eastwards expansion, Russia hoped to go further - by removing the Georgia’s western-oriented president, Mikheil Saakashvili, and installing a more obedient leadership in Tbilisi; and by regaining effective control over the south Caucasus, including its important energy routes (see "The return of realpolitik: a view from Georgia", 18 February 2010).

Russia was able to establish a military hold over what Georgia came increasingly to refer to as the “occupied regions” of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Yet only three states followed Moscow in recognising these territories’ independent statehood (Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru); and in its larger ambition to dislodge a Georgian president it hated and change the region’s balance of power, Russia clearly failed.

A fragile economy

Georgia emerged from the war wounded but defiant. Its polity withstood the devastating conflict, and its economy survived the concurrent global economic crisis thanks to generous financial assistance from the international community.

But the ensuing months were hard. Amid political turbulence, the authorities attempted in straitened circumstances to cushion the post-war economic problems such as unemployment and poverty which weighed on Georgia’s people. Mikheil Saakashvili’s economic team based its development plans on pre-war annual foreign-investment worth almost $2 billion. This sum fell by more than a quarter in the early post-war period, contributing to a near 4% shrinkage in the economy; though investment is climbing modestly again and the official expectation is that the economy will grow by up to 5% in 2010.  

The search for foreign investors is seen by Saakashvili and his team as the key to Georgia’s economic future. The government thus expends immense effort to portray Georgia as a place with an attractive business climate and regulations - a “land of opportunities” for businessmen. At the same time, the frequent change of economy ministers in Saakashvili’s cabinet in its own way reflects the country’s tough economic predicament (see Donald Rayfield, (see “Georgia, two years on: a future beyond war”, 5 August 2010).

An evolving politics

The political arena has been equally testing. The bitter rhetorical exchanges with Russia continued after the August 2008 war, and diplomatic links were finally broken. Moscow persisted in hoping for Mikheil’s Saakashvili removal. In Tbilisi, the political opposition began to mobilise in street protests, charging that a president with a dubious democratic record who was also responsible for losing the territories should resign.

The protests continued for months in the centre of Tbilisi. They reached a peak at the end of May 2009, but without any tangible result. The opposition, beset by deep divisions and united only in its anti-Saakashvili stance, failed to convince the Georgia’s population either that it wanted more than to come to power or that (if it did so) it was capable of improving the country’s social and economic situation (see Robert Parsons, "Georgia on the brink - again", 20 May 2009). Moreover, the radical wing of the opposition - which dominated the protests - alarmed many Georgians, who feared that an escalation of domestic conflict would lead to a repetition of the chaos, corruption and lawlessness of the 1990s.

The authorities also showed better crisis-management skills (including patience) than during comparable turbulence in November 2007, when they used riot-police, tear-gas and rubber-bullets to disperse anti-government demonstrations in Tbilisi (see Robert Parsons, "Georgia: progress, interrupted", 16 November 2007).

The opposition’s failure to achieve its goals through street-actions eventually fragmented it further. The next battlefield became the local and Tbilisi mayoral elections of 2010, and the demand for reforms in Georgia’s election law to make it fair, transparent and democratic.

The government proposed its own changes in the election law, and some opposition parties (the Christian Democrats and National Democrats among them) agreed to work together with the ruling United National Movement on the issue; but more radical parties refused to participate in the work, accusing the government of seeking to entrench its power and guarantee a fraudulent outcome in any election.

Thus, 2010 turned into an important year for Georgia on both domestic and foreign political fronts. So far, the United National Movement has passed the test with some comfort: it enjoyed success in the local elections, and its candidate won the first-ever popular vote for Tbilisi’s mayor (widely considered a rehearsal for the next presidential poll in 2013). The victor in the capital was the incumbent Giorgi (Gigi) Ugulava, a close ally of President Saakashvili, whose 55% of the vote - against the less than 20% of his main challenger, Irakli Alasania, Georgia’s former United Nations ambassador - guaranteed him a second term.

The election results carried the twofold lesson that most Georgians feel the government has made visible improvements in renovating the infrastructure of Tbilisi and other cities; and that candidates who focused on jobs, healthcare, and social benefits were rewarded. This more “practical" orientation, away from the all-or-nothing demands of the street-protests, represents an improvement in Georgia’s political culture.

The electoral victory of Georgia’s ruling party has clarified the country’s political situation. It has also signalled the beginning of the next contest over the presidency. Irakli Alasania, seen by many in Tbilisi as a more balanced politician than Mikheil Saakashvili, has announced his intention to transform his Alliance for Georgia into an effective political force capable of achieving victory in 2013.

A key issue in the struggle over Georgia’s future is the shape of a new constitution. A draft produced by the government proposes substantial limits on the powers of the next president: over the right to select candidates for prime minister, over the dismissal of cabinet members without parliamentary approval, over the procedure for impeachment, and over the powers of local councils.

Mikheil Saakashvili’s opponents fear that he is planning to extend  his power by assuming a strengthened prime ministership after the end of his two presidential terms (all he is allowed by Georgia’s current constitution), then perhaps returning to the presidency at a later date; thus some of them are seeking to halt the adoption of any new constitution by the parliament elected in May 2008, which is dominated by Saakashvili's supporters.

A moment in history

The war of August did not change Georgia’s pro-western orientation. The elections of May 2010 have given the appearance of consolidating it, in that a series of high-ranking politicians from the west have visited the country and reiterated their support. The most prominent is the United States secretary of state Hillary Clinton whose tour of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia ended in Tbilisi, where on 5 July 2010 she offered a firm pledge of solidarity - and repeatedly used the term "occupation" to describe the presence of Russian troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Mrs Clinton said that the Barack Obama administration "flatly rejects" Russian claims to have a privileged sphere of influence in the countries on its borders. She also did everything to reassure Georgia’s authorities and people that America’s wish to "reset" relations with Russia would not entail the sacrifice of their interests.

This visit, alongside those of the European Union’s foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton and the French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, was seen in Georgia as a crucial gesture of support for the country as the second anniversary of the war with Russia approached - especially as Russia has still not complied with the provisions of the six-point agreement that ended the war (known as the [Nicolas] Sarkozy-[Dmitry] Medvedev deal after the two presidents who secured it).

Georgia’s relations with Russia continue to be an existential problem for it. Any small country that lives beside a giant neighbour would prefer to have normal if not good relations with it (see Donald Rayfield, "Georgia and Russia: with you, without you", 9 August 2007). The events of August 2008 have made this impossible for the moment, turning the standoff that already existed into an embittered deadlock. In this sense, and considering the fate of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia two years on is still living in the war’s aftermath. In other ways, however, the country has survived and developed beyond the most dangerous moment in its modern history. The future indeed remains open.

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