By Daniel F. Wollrich
On October 1, Georgia held parliamentary elections that were sure to be a victory for President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement party. Except they weren’t. In fact, challenger Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition—“a group of progressive opposition forces in the Republic of Georgia”—prevailed and will enjoy a parliamentary majority. Even before all the ballots had been counted, President Saakashvili gave his concession speech, overtly accepting the shift in governmental control. The symbolic power of the election and the results’ acceptance by the leadership, however, is far more important and indicates a strong Georgian embrace of democratic governance.
Georgia, a post-Soviet state located in the historically conflict-ridden Caucasus region south of Russia and north of the Middle East, has a short democratic history. With two centuries of explicit Russian dominance (save a few years following the violent collapse of the Russian Empire and during the early consolidation of the Soviet Union), Georgia only reestablished its independence in 1991. While not immediately embracing a democratic institutional framework like the Baltic States, Georgia under Eduard Shevardnadze—former Soviet minister of foreign affairs and Georgian head of state from 1992 to 2003—experienced a mild improvement over the Soviet regime. The country’s politics were marked by stuttering liberalization and weak, often merely symbolic, democratic institutions. Fraud and corruption continued to mar the country’s government, sparking the Rose Revolution following the fraudulent November 2003 parliamentary elections. Shevardnadze was cast out and the Saakashvili era began. This marked the shift to a truly post-Soviet Georgia, establishing enough democratic institutions to earn the title “democracy” from Western observers (even if not a “full democracy”).
Of course, Georgian democracy has been far from flawless. Saakashvili, elected president in 2004 and re-elected in 2008, had seen his popularity wane in the past few years. Accusations of authoritarian rule had sprouted, derived from the strong hand he has played in instituting changes to Georgia’s political landscape. Saakashvili’s most overtly disturbing move, at least internationally, was his attempt to remove his challenger, Ivanishvili, from the political scene by revoking his Georgian citizenship. A law was invoked—driven by Saakashvili—that forbids Georgians from maintaining multiple citizenships. Since Ivanishvili was also a citizen of Russia and France (he has since renounced his Russian citizenship), he was stripped of his status as a Georgian citizen. A constitutional amendment introduced in May, however, may pave the path for a non-Georgian citizen (under certain conditions) to become prime minister. The legal battle remains unresolved, and when—or whether—Ivanishvili can become prime minister is yet to be determined.
More recently, the scandal surrounding abuse in Georgia’s prison system has deeply tainted the carefully cultivated righteous image of Georgian leaders. The torture, taunting, and sexual assault of prisoners sparked angry demonstrations, resulting in the resignation of recently appointed minister of interior Bacho Akhalaia. Moreover, defense minister Dmitri Shashkin was minister of penitentiaries after 2008, indicating the depth—and height—of the scandal in the government. The Georgian regime was struck at its heart, immediately prior to elections, and the evident overstretch of high-level governmental power suggested that Georgian authorities might reveal themselves unwilling to play by rules of fairness and democracy, should they lose the popular vote.
Yet, a warmer light shined upon Georgia’s future this month. The election’s winner was the democratic process. When Saakashvili conceded in spite of expectations that his party would prevail, he showed by action what his words had claimed for years: his rule was for bringing democracy to the Georgian people. In 2008, Georgia held what the Organization for Co-operation and Security in Europe called the “first genuinely competitive post-independence presidential election,” and this year, the country enjoyed its first democratic change in power.
Predicting where this leads is difficult. One key challenge not yet discussed here concerns Georgian sovereignty over its entire claimed territory and relations with its northern neighbor, Russia. Throughout his rule, one of Saakashvili’s primary goals has been shoring up the country’s autonomy and establishing territorial integrity, noting that he inherited autonomous or semi-autonomous regions in the northwestern Abkhazia, the north-central South Ossetia, and the southwestern Ajaria. Although he quickly and successfully reintegrated Ajaria, stoking optimism for the remaining two breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia would prove more resistant. These difficulties stemmed in large part from these regions’ mighty benefactor to the north. This territorial problem continues to haunt Tbilisi, with no apparent solution. It will disrupt Georgian efforts at reconciliation with Russia, regardless of Ivanishvili’s desire to warm relations, and it will obfuscate any paths to NATO membership and official alliance with the West.
Domestic problems also trouble Georgia’s immediate political future. Opposition rallies have continued beyond the election and threaten domestic tranquility and the peacefulness of the transition, in spite of Ivanishvili’s calls for their end. In addition, as discussed above, the question of Ivanishvili’s citizenship and whether he can even become prime minister presents a peculiar and unfortunate case of domestic institutional manipulation interfering with democratic system processes. Regardless of who assumes the role of prime minister, the probability of political wrangling and the possibility of stalemate between the Georgian Dream coalition in parliament and Saakashvili and the United National Movement in the presidency until next year loom threateningly.
Nevertheless, one cannot underestimate the power of commitment to an idea and especially, as in this case, democracy. Although Saakashvili and Georgia’s political future once seemed intimately intertwined, the president’s prompt and willing concession suggests that Georgia’s governing ideology is not Saakashvili-ism but rather democracy and the rule of the people. Going forward, numerous factors must be watched: Will the Georgian Dream be a dream of democratic consolidation? Will the press be open and liberated and will transparency infiltrate the government? How will the new government relate to the West, Russia, and its other immediate neighbors? Will the dilemma of South Ossetia and Abkhazia prove obstructionist to international integration and domestic stability? These and other questions illustrate the challenges before Georgia’s new government. But the peaceful, legitimately democratic change of power in Kutaisi bodes well. This election is indeed huge news for Georgia’s democratic endeavors.