Upcoming elections in Georgia could have an impact on whether or not this post-Soviet republic continues to normalize its relations with Russia.
Supporters of the United National Movement, a leading opposition party, hold Georgian flags during a rally in Tbilisi, Georgia, Wednesday, Oct. 5. Photo: AP
With so much of the West’s focus on the situation in Syria and Ukraine, there has been little attention given to the post-Soviet republic of Georgia. There has been little progress towards this Caucasian republic’s joining NATO and in the near future, it is hardly likely to receive the long-awaited Membership Action Plan, which is a source of irritation for the Kremlin. Neither is Georgia the main point of confrontation between Russia and the West.
Although from time to time Moscow and Tbilisi exchange diplomatic stings over the problems of the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and over Georgian-American military cooperation, this does not seriously affect the dynamics of their bilateral relations. Despite the existing contradictions, Russia and Georgia are trying to normalize their relations.
To make the task easier, the third Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, who has become a kind of enfant terrible to Moscow, currently lives and works in Ukraine. Meanwhile, neither Russia nor Georgia is willing to make concessions to each other on matters of principle and cross any “red lines.”
This refers, on the one hand, to the North Atlantic Treaty aspirations of Georgia, and on the other hand, to initiatives for Abkhazian and South Ossetian independence.
However, parliamentary elections are scheduled in Georgia for Oct. 8. In the post-Soviet space, the election of members to the supreme legislative body typically attracts little attention. But in the case of Georgia, the parliamentary campaign has a special significance because its results will predetermine the formation of the government, which in turn will be responsible for the establishment of domestic and foreign policy priorities.
According to the Constitution of Georgia, the real executive powers are concentrated in the hands of the Prime Minister and his Cabinet, while the President mainly carries out representative functions and serves as a symbol of state. Suffice it to say that, before his promotion to the presidential post, the current head of state Giorgi Margvelashvili was little known to the public and received his first post in the power hierarchy only seven months before becoming a presidential nominee.
What then are the main intrigues involved in the current parliamentary campaign? How might its results affect the internal situation in the country and the situation in the South Caucasus as a whole?
Four years ago, the elections to the supreme legislative body of the country radically changed the domestic political landscape of Georgia. The party United National Movement (UNM), which was supported by then President Saakashvili and Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili, suffered defeat - despite the fact that the party had enjoyed absolute dominance during the preceding nine years.
Contrary to the popular media stereotypes, it was not a crushing defeat. With 65 seats, UNM became the only minority opposition party in the parliament. The victory went to the bloc Georgian Dream (85 seats out of 150) headed by the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. No other party received representation in the supreme legislative body. As for Georgian Dream, it was able to unite disparate forces only for the sake of achieving a single goal - making Saakashvili leave.
That goal was achieved in several stages. First, winning the election, then forming a government and gaining control over the parliamentary committees, cleansing the judiciary and diplomatic corps of Saakashvili’s people, electing a new President and initiating criminal proceedings against the key figures that embodied the past epoch.
On the one hand, Georgia created a precedent for the peaceful change of power. Previously, a change of power had been the result of either a coup (overthrow of the first President Zviad Gamsakhurdia) or a Color Revolution (resignation of the second president, Eduard Shevardnadze). On the other hand, the tough confrontation between Georgian Dream and United National Movement in the period of the 2012 parliamentary campaign and the ensuing dual power (concluded by the exit of Saakashvili) imposed a heavy imprint on Georgian politics.
Today, the Georgian Dream, being the ruling party, fears a revanche on the part of the United National Movement. Over four years in power, it has lost its allies and is no longer a coalition but a party monolith. For the October election, the Republican Party of David Usupashvili and the Free Democrats of Irakli Alasania are running on separate party lists.
Over the past year, the ratings of the Georgian Dream have plummeted, and its advantage over UNM is negligible. However, there is still hope for candidates in single-seat districts. 77 members of the Georgian parliament will be elected by the party lists (provided those parties overcome the five percent barrier), while 73 seats will go to the majority election winners.
The ruling party is hoping to strengthen its positions by using both administrative resources and ordinary voters’ fears about possible destabilization. The Georgian citizens’ phobias are also played on by Saakashvili. Having become a Ukrainian politician, he has not at all given up the idea of returning to his homeland. Hardly a day passes without his promising all sorts of retribution on his opponents, and promising his backers a new wave of the transformation of the country and progress on the path of strategic cooperation with the U.S. and European Union.
However, there are some other outstanding players in the 2016 campaign. Recently, Paata Burchuladze, the leader of the bloc known as State for the People, burst onto the Georgian political scene. He is a talented orator, is inclined to populism, and actively exploits the theme of the unprotected “little man.” Moreover, the ex-speaker of the parliament, Nino Burjanadze, has also become a political force in the election.
With just a few days before the election, the results are hard to predict, and surprises cannot be excluded. Among those is the prospect of forming a coalition government, as a victory with a distinct advantage may not be achieved by any single party.
However, the 2016 elections have a foreign policy dimension, too. Four years ago, radical changes occurred in all the internal processes in Georgia. The forces that had been in power became the opposition, and yesterday’s critics transformed into the advocates of stability.
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Still, the priorities of the nation’s foreign policy were hardly affected by those radical internal perturbations. It was the Georgian Dream government that first initialed (November 2013), then signed and ratified (summer 2014) the European Union Association Agreement, which had been seen as a difficult task even during the presidency of Saakashvili.
The powers that replaced the eccentric leader continued the participation of a Georgian contingent in the NATO Afghanistan operation. As formerly, Georgia has not progressed towards membership in the North Atlantic Alliance, but the primary policy goal aimed at the comprehensive development of cooperation with NATO as a whole (and the U.S. in particular) is still there.
However, there are nuances. In contrast to Saakashvili, the current Georgian powers have overhauled their tactics. The prospect of achieving their strategic goal — entering NATO and the EU — no longer entails a head-on confrontation with Russia and an unfreezing of the two ethno-political conflicts (i.e. Abkhazia, South Ossetia). Instead, it now means normalization of Georgia’s relations with Russia, that is, minimization of the tough rhetoric and the resumption (although on a limited scale) of socio-economic cooperation and diplomatic dialogue.
Although Burjanadze’s reputation in Georgia is that of a “pro-Russian politician,” she does not advocate for the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and does not call for confrontation with the West. Her goal is to diversify the country’s foreign policy and depart from the rigid choice between Moscow and Washington – a choice that, from her point of view, makes Georgia a hostage to the game of the great powers.
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With every year, the idea is more and more widely discussed in Georgian society. The election is going to be a kind of test that will show the potential for its conversion into a real political factor.
However, it seems that in terms of foreign policy prospects (unlike domestic policy), the parliamentary elections do not promise any big surprises. Even if the boldest predictions come true, and the “Eurosceptics” win, then in practical terms, they will have to give up at least the most radical of their proposals, if only because Moscow is not ready to fundamentally change its Abkhazian–South Ossetian policy and attitude to NATO (especially in the context of other post-Soviet processes taking place).
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.