As the grape harvest season approaches, Georgia, a country that George W. Bush once called a “beacon of liberty” is today holding parliamentary elections that could serve as a litmus test for the country’s democratic development. The small Caucasian country, that after the Rose Revolution in 2003 managed to transform itself from an almost-failed state to a functioning democracy, might pass Samuel Huntington’s “democratic consolidation test”. In 2012, Georgia had the first peaceful democratic transfer of power in its history, and as Huntington tells it, a second transfer is needed for a country to move from being a “fragile” to a “consolidated” democracy.
Recent developments in Eastern Europe, of course, suggest that the path forward does not preclude backsliding, and Georgia’s hard-won progress is no exception. Unlike its neighbors, Georgians overall enjoy more personal freedom, but the country’s political system retains several liabilities built into. In 2012, then-President Mikheil Saakashvili was voted out of office, and despite speculations that he intended to stay in power, Saakashvili went quietly. Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire who earned his fortune in Russia, was elected, but soon after resigned and appointed one of his trusted aides to the post. Ivanishvili kpt calling the shots behind the scenes, undermining the essential nature of democratic governance by ushering in a period of murky shadow governance.
The upcoming election is one of the most contested in Georgia’s recent history, and unlikely to result into any of the leading parties gaining more than 50% of vote. Ahead of the elections, the two major parties—United National Movement (UNM) and Georgian Dream (GD)—are neck-and-neck in polls. According to surveys published by the National Democratic Institute (NDI), unemployment and the economy are the main areas of concern for most Georgians. A June NDI poll gave 19% to GD and 14% to UNM. A newly-created party of a well-known opera singer, Paata Burchuladze, holds third place. Burchuladze, whose fame at home is due to both his musical career and his philanthropy, hopes to capitalize on the population’s dissatisfaction with both of the main parties. Burchuladze’s “State for People” party is in favor of Euro-Atlantic integration, but stands close to the Georgian Church. It both appeals to conservative voters while promising a liberal economic program.
Game of Shadows
For their part, both of the leading parties are promising to bring in new faces into government. The election campaign has been largely focused on new people, with the “old guard” pushed to the rear. Georgian Dream’s Ivanishvili is not running. Nevertheless, he has engaged in an extravagant pre-election campaign, making use of a weekly TV show where he makes promises on behalf of his party. If anyone doubts Ivanishvili’s determination to play a role in a putative GD government, they need only to tune in and be disabused of their illusions.
On the other side, Mikheil Saakashvili, who is currently serving as the Governor of Odessa in Ukraine, has made statements in support of his party back home, and has been “livestreamed” to a number of rallies. When the question of Saakashvili’s possible future role came up, the United National Movement stated that the party plans to fill its cabinet with the new members that have recently joined the party and that have been promoted to the top on the list for proportional voting. Nevertheless, many in Ukraine (and beyond) are wondering what Saakashvili’s next move will be after the Georgian elections. In his interview with Ukrainian TV 112, Saakashvili said that he plans to continue working in Ukraine. “I am not going to abandon this battle,” he told the audience. His wife, Sandra Roelofs, however, has joined the campaign, and is running for a single mandate district in the Samegrelo region. Roelofs, who holds dual Dutch and Georgian citizenship, is very popular in Georgia for having learned both the Georgian and Mingrelian languages, as well as Georgian polyphonic singing.
A heated campaign got violent earlier this week, when a prominent UNM leader, Givi Targamadze, narrowly survived an assassination attempt in downtown Tbilisi. Targamadze and his driver miraculously escaped a car bomb, which tore their vehicle in half. Georgia has not witnessed such an incident since the 1990’s, when then-President Eduard Shevardnadze twice survived terrorist attacks. Before an investigation was even announced, the incumbent GD government wasted no time pointing fingers at the opposition and Saakashvili, calling it a staged provocation. The UNM, however, blamed the government for the attack, arguing that the decay of the security services on GD’s watch, and its tolerance of (and in some cases collusion with) organized crime (including Soviet-era gangs), led to such an attack taking place. Givi Targamadze, a man whom the Kremlin once accused of planning a revolution in Putin’s Russia, has led the fight against the Russian-affiliated mafia and in general crusades against Russian infiltration of Georgia.
Yesterday evening, on the eve of the elections, the Georgian Ministry of the Interior announced that it had opened the case. The pro-government TV channel sent a journalist to harass the parents of one of the suspects on live TV. He kept asking to the parents if their son had a connection to Ukraine (implying to possible connection with Saakashvili). The parents replied that their son had left for Russia.
Bread and Circuses
Whatever the investigation finds, the rumors have taken on a life of their own. If you stop a cab in Tbilisi, the taxi driver might tell you that Targmadze had decided to blow himself up, or Saakashvili did it in order to destabilise the country. Facts are annoyances when the blame game brings more political gains, especially so in a conspiracy-prone country like Georgia.
The elections are taking place during times of real economic hardship. The currency has depreciated and poverty levels are high. The Georgian Dream government, which has been consistently criticized by the opposition for its inability to deliver on its promises, seems to have resorted to staging a circus, instead of giving bread to people.
In 2012, leaked video-recordings containing graphic images of prison torture helped Georgian Dream’s ratings a few weeks ahead of elections, and GD appears to be resorting to similar tactics this time around. A number of compromising recordings have emerged, though none have been authenticated. Some try to implicate the UNM of fomenting a coup, others claim that the opposition is staging violent provocations. There have been sex tapes implicating opposition leaders and allied journalists. Ivanishvili paid for a TV series to document and catalogue the wrongdoings of Saakashvili, and his weekly TV show appearances serve to demonize the former government.
The message is coming across loud and clear: a vote for the opposition is a vote for violence. Overall, however, the Georgian public appears indifferent; inured to this kind of stuff, voters are by and large just shrugging their shoulders..
The Russia Factor
The biggest question for these elections is what the governing coalition might look like. Georgian Dream has not excluded the possibility of forming a coalition with pro-Russian parties if they are able to win seats in parliament, bringing genuinely anti-Western, xenophobic and homophobic rhetoric well into the political mainstream. And although the Georgian public is still overwhelmingly pro-Western—those recent NDI polls from June show 72 percent of Georgians support European Integration—the number of those who support better relations with Russia at a cost of European integration now stands at 29 percent.
One of the biggest issues that has come up during the campaign—and fits with the agenda of pro-Russian forces—is the question of defining marriage constitutionally. Although Georgia’s civil code already defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, Georgian Dream has argued that this is not enough. The question dovetails perfectly with the Kremlin narrative about a decadent West contrasted to a Russia that protects traditional values. By campaigning hard on this issue, GD has made a successful appeal to Georgia’s conservative electorate, and has managed to demagogue any politician that has even had the temerity to suggest that the measure is purely symbolic given the existing laws on the books—much less argue for marriage equality.
Closely cooperating with the Orthodox Church—the most powerful institution in the country— Georgian Dream-allied activists collected 200,000 signatures, and requested to put the issue to a referendum. The country’s president, who had a falling out with the ruling coalition, refused to hold it. And although the referendum is no longer a possibility, Prime Minister Kvirikashvili promised that GD would amend the constitution after the elections.
Pro-Russian forces have been gaining ground since the 2012 elections. Pro-Russian media outlets receive support from the government indirectly (the government buys ads) and Bidzina Ivanishvili has openly said that he would love to have the pro-Russian parties as his partners. A few parties have adopted surprisingly brazen pro-Russian messaging ahead of the elections, with one of them going as far as advocating for Russian military bases in the country. (The leader of this party, the so-called Centrists, Vladimer Bedukadze, was involved in recording and leaking the prison abuse videos that brought down Saakashvili. He is a close ally of Ivanishvili, and the GD government let him plea bargain his way out of his case after the elections, even though he was directly involved with torture.
In 2012, Georgian Dream promised warmer relations with Russia. The government launched direct negotiations with Moscow over its breakaway regions, freed several Russian spies, and refrained from criticizing the Kremlin over its actions in Ukraine. Despite these efforts, the Kremlin began erecting barbed wire fences along the border of South Ossetia, setting up a de facto state border and depriving scores of people of their property. The Kremlin continues to violate the August 2008 Six Point Agreement, Georgian citizens are frequently kidnapped by Russian soldiers, and most recently, these de facto border guards have shot a Georgian citizen dead at the administrative boundary line (ABL). Georgia has gained little from its change of rhetoric. It does seem to have opened doors to increased Russian infiltration. Pro-Russian groups and parties are better funded than ever, and, according to the opposition, Russia might directly be behind the recent assassination attempt.
A Pivotal Moment
Despite the sordid nature of Georgian Dream’s rule and underhanded campaign tactics, and the threat from a resurgent Russia to the north, 57 percent of the electorate remains undecided—a testament to the trust deficit that remains (deserved and undeserved) from UNM’s Saakashvili-era legacy. These voters will ultimately end up deciding Georgia’s future direction. But even more critical than that is that all parties accept the legitimacy of the process, no matter what the result. Democratic progress is a fragile thing, and though it has taken its lumps in Georgia, there is still good reason for optimism.