The surge of peaceful protests in Ukraine shows the strong pull of democratic Europe to many peoples in former Soviet countries. Georgia has chosen the European path, but to reach this goal Tbilisi must accelerate reforms.
On November 17, Georgia inaugurated a new President, chosen in a free and fair election applauded by the international community. Democracy is taking hold, but to reinforce it Georgia needs a new generation of leaders, a robust parliament and rule of law, and economic growth.
A political novice and respected scholar, Georgi Margvelashvili, won the presidency after being hand-picked by the billionaire former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili. The election was an expression of dissatisfaction with the autocratic style of former president Misha Saakashvili and his party, the United National Movement (UNM). Saakashvili, the leader of the 2003 peaceful, pro-reform Rose revolution, was President for nearly a decade. His party resoundingly lost a parliamentary election a year ago to an Ivanishvili-led coalition of six parties, Georgia Dream.
In October, Ivanishvili voluntarily resigned as Prime Minister and personally selected his successor, longtime aide Irakli Garibashvili, who was recently installed. He will wield significant powers formerly held by the President. Garibashvili has little political experience but for a year served competently as interior minister.
In Ivanishvili’s year as Prime Minister, his government ended many rule of law abuses, allowed independent media to flourish, and brought a measure of political calm. Yet that period saw little economic reform and job creation, urgent needs for a country with widespread poverty and rising expectations.
For two decades dominant figures like Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Eduard Shevardnadze, Saakashvili, and Ivanishvili ruled in Georgia. The absence of a strong executive leader could be unsettling in Georgian politics, especially with key governance institutions still being built. Ivanishvili claims he will not exercise power behind the scenes, but some are skeptical since he funds his coalition. Another uncertainty is whether Saakashvili will leave the limelight. Many of his compatriots hope to rebuild their party without having to bear the burden of his controversial reputation.
Facing a risk of being interrogated or even charged with crimes based on official actions, Saakashvili traveled abroad just after he left office. Should he be charged, political turbulence could increase. Several of Saakashvili’s former ministers have been investigated, charged, or convicted of crimes allegedly committed while in office. Before leaving office, Saakashvili added to political angst by pardoning his former Interior Minister, who had been convicted of overseeing sadistic prison behavior.
Georgia has promising younger leaders. Parliamentary chair Davit Usupashvili and opposition leader Davit Bakradze (the runner-up in the presidential election) have worked together productively. They are reflective of a deep cadre of talent in Georgia. A number of younger leaders were educated in the West and gained responsible posts early.
The greatest challenge for Georgia may be to improve the economy and reduce high unemployment. Per capita income is less than one-third that of the three Baltic countries, even though all were part of the former Soviet Union. Georgia should create more leeway for private economic life, and build an independent judiciary that protects against official caprice and corruption.
At a European Union summit in Vilnius in late November, Georgia initialed an important association agreement that includes free trade and political cooperation measures. Final signature is scheduled a year from now. Over time, closer alignment with the European Union will spur Georgia’s economy to become more competitive and open new markets. Arrest of the former Georgian President, however, would strain the country’s ties with the European Union and the United States, as has the detention in Ukraine of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
The integrity of elections in Georgia remains a concern. Leading up to the presidential vote, Ivanishvili’s coalition used intimidation and slush funds to force out of office or buy the loyalty of elected UNM provincial and local officials. Next year Georgia holds bellwether local elections, and such tactics could lead to serious abuses.
A more effective parliament is also vital. Georgia Dream is reluctant to accept the legitimacy of the opposition UNM, but it must, and the latter needs to act as a responsible opposition. In early November, Garabashvili unhelpfully alleged that the “UNM regime was kind of a neo-fascist formation.” Parliamentary factions in Georgia have been personality-based, but ought to mature to reflect the interests of their constituencies.
Still, Georgia has overcome daunting obstacles and made more democratic progress than any part of the former Soviet Union except the Baltic countries. Unlike them, Georgia gained independence amid civil war and separatist conflicts, and it suffers Russian military control of one-fifth of its territory.
With Russian President Vladimir Putin coercing Armenia and Ukraine to join the protectionist Eurasian Customs Union, Western backing for Georgia’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and Euro-Atlantic vector remains essential.
To advance its democracy and economy, Georgia needs leaders who will work across party lines for common purposes. This is why the messiahs should leave the political stage and let a new generation of reformers take charge.