2 October 2012
James Nixey

James Nixey

Head, Russia and Eurasia Programme


A quite extraordinary event has occurred in a small corner of the former Soviet Union. For the first time a majority ruling party has been ousted from power, not by a death (natural or otherwise), not by revolution and not by coup: Georgia’s three million-odd voters have actually done it at the ballot box.

More importantly, Georgia, which has gone through civil war, interstate war and domestic protests, is calm.

And more remarkably, President Mikheil Saakashvili has accepted defeat reasonably gracefully – which may ensure that his legacy is not entirely in tatters. Indeed, defeat was the best thing that could have happened to him and his country’s reputation.

The election itself was, if not truly democratic and fair (voters abroad seem to have been especially disenfranchised and the opposition had a few extra hoops to jump through), then at least fiercely competitive. The opposition has won anyway, doing especially well in the cities. Cynics would say that there was too big a gap for Saakashvili to get away with rigging it. 

This parliamentary election is a pointer to the country’s decision in next October’s presidential election. Saakashvili will have to step down as his two-term rule ends in 2013. He may step down before then following this result. But his party will probably find a replacement in his image, much good it will now do them. The next few days should, in fact, provide a clear indication of Georgia’s path (and its stability) well beyond any elections. 

To casual outside observers the election rested on something that elections rarely rest on: foreign policy. Saakashvili accused his unexpectedly strong challenger of being a pro-Russian stooge on the flimsy evidence that he made his US$ 4-6 billion (estimates vary) fortune in Russia and has made conciliatory noises to the country which he left in 2002. Bidzina Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream party, meanwhile, accuse the ruling party of bankruptcy – financial and moral – not to say unnecessary antagonism of their large neighbour to the north. 

But foreign policy – and even relations with Russia – comes consistently low in opinion polls of Georgians’ concerns. Social welfare and individual prosperity are more important – though those 'internal' issues have morphed into foreign policy anyway: for Saakashvili and his party, Georgia will grow prosperous only by realizing a ‘European dream'. Although as noted, it has stepped back from its commensurate values of late. 

Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream does not accept that good relations with Europe and Russia are mutually exclusive. This is outwardly sensible, but now he has power (now and especially in 2013), Ivanishvili may find out that such ostensibly enlightened views – much like the Russia-US ‘reset’ - are naïve. This will depend on what both sides do, not just on what they say.

Russia has been judiciously quiet. There is no proof that Ivanishvili, who was only allowed to spend a fraction of his fortune on the campaign, is in any way beholden or even amenable to the Kremlin’s unconcealed desire for influence. But he is likely to take a less antagonistic policy than Saakashvili, for whom there is no way back with President Putin now, even though Georgia already benefits from substantial Russian investment. 

Assuming Georgia does not erupt into civil war, an initial turn to Russia with Ivanishvili would bring a more immediate economic benefit than a re-engagement with the non-committal West under any Saakashvili-inspired system. Though that equation is far more suspect in the medium to long term. So, Russia is content either way. Both now and next March, it either 'gets' the current ruling party which it finds easy to discredit, or more likely, a more accommodating, new administration with which it can do further business (probably Russian-style). A rare win-win for the Kremlin.

Most observers have lamented the slow but steady decay in Georgian democratic development in the past five years and it is hard to feel sorry for the regime. A disappointing economic picture, the centralization of power and the small matter of partial responsibility for the August 2008 war, have certainly tarnished the Saakashvili administration’s credentials at home and abroad. Yet, the 2003 Rose Revolution did bring to power the most radically transformative government and un-Soviet President ever seen the ex-USSR space (Baltic states apart) and the country’s genuine progress in social reforms and strong euro-atlanticist direction cannot be denied. Georgia has at least struggled with itself (and with others) for a break from its Soviet past (and its Stalinist progeny) and a new start.

The 12 countries of the former Soviet Union (Baltic states apart) have now managed an outwardly impressive 119 parliamentary and presidential elections between them since independence in 1991. The vast majority of them, though, have been entirely devoid of meaning, simply serving as expedients for the continuation of power. Most of the people have been cheated most of the time for over twenty years. This appears different. 

But Ukraine, whose own elections are on 28 October, is the bigger country and the bigger prize for both Europe and Russia. But it is undoubtedly regressing, headed the way of Belarus whose own disgraceful elections have just been rigged. The West has lost – and washed its hands of - both Ukraine and Belarus until the regimes change of their own accord. 

But in Georgia, there is still everything to play for, if peace prevails. It remains the country in the former Soviet Union with the most charm, and the most potential to take steps forward. The irony is that Mikheil Sasakashvili has had to lose power to prove it.

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Please note: This is an updated entry from the original posted online earlier in the day.

Also read:
Georgia: National Security Concept versus National Security
Programme Paper
S. Neil MacFarlane, August 2012