The standoff between Iran and the West has moved into the Caucasus, where both the Islamic Republic and Israel are trying to woo Azerbaijan -- a country with firm historical connections to Iran but whose interests have overlapped with those of Israel. The dynamic is upsetting the regional balance of power and threatening to overturn nearly two decades of uneasy peace.
Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili on election day. (David Mdzinarishvili / Courtesy Reuters)
A leader comes to power in Georgia as the country is in economic turmoil and its citizens are in a state of despair. The people overwhelmingly welcome him as a messiah. Gradually, he mobilizes a group of talented officials and puts the country back on track. Although his task is complicated by a poisonous relationship with Russia, he has many friends in Washington and receives extensive U.S. aid and political support. Over time, however, he loses touch with the Georgian public and grows increasingly remote. Many members of his administration accuse him of autocratic tendencies and defect to the opposition. Eventually, an election is held, and the popular vote goes against him. Neither an instinctive democrat nor a bloodthirsty tyrant, he concedes defeat -- if only to protect his reputation in the West.
Curiously, this story has played out not once in modern Georgia but twice. It is the trajectory, most recently, of Mikheil Saakashvili, who surged to power in the peaceful Rose Revolution of 2003. Saakashvili lost decisively in parliamentary elections this October to Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia’s richest man, who is now the country’s prime minister and is set to become its most powerful politician when the constitution changes next year. (Saakashvili, however, will remain president until his term expires in October 2013.) But it is also the story of the man Saakashvili defeated in 2003, Eduard Shevardnadze. In 1992, Shevardnadze -- a Western favorite for his stint as Soviet foreign minister, in which he played a major role in ending the Cold War -- inherited a Georgia wracked by civil strife and dominated by warlords. He initially brought progress to his native land on several fronts, but after a few years he lost his way, allowing the country to slide into corruption and inertia. Finally, the Rose Revolution toppled him.
Although it fell far short of European democratic standards, Georgia’s parliamentary election in October was a breath of fresh air in a generally autocratic neighborhood. The governing party lost and its leader peacefully conceded defeat. The opposition party described its victory as a triumph of the people over a budding dictatorship; Saakashvili and his supporters, meanwhile, portrayed their loss as a step in the wrong direction for the country, a reversal of the ideals of the Rose Revolution, and a covert victory for Moscow. Both narratives are flawed: the recent election is best understood as a major step on a zigzagging but ultimately forward path for a country that has some distance to go before it reaches democracy.
Despite frequent political upheavals, Georgia has evolved, however unsteadily, since 1989, and it is still progressing. Some of its twists and turns, particularly those under Zviad Gamsakhurdia, its first post-Soviet leader, in 1990 and 1991, proved disastrous, but its wrong turns have more often than not been corrected. The Georgian people have proved strong enough to challenge their leaders’ missteps, while the political system, if not fully democratic, has been competitive enough to allow for a change of course.
OUT WITH THE OLD
Saakashvili and his supporters have presented the 2003 Rose Revolution as a Year Zero for Georgia, the catalyst for a "social, moral, and mental transformation" of the country. But eventually, history will probably record that this claim was overblown. The Rose Revolution generally moved the country forward and tackled many problems, most notably bureaucratic corruption and organized crime. Georgian society, however, has shown increasing signs of fatigue with the former government’s high-handed policies.
A different Georgia, both more conservative and more democratic, has stubbornly persisted beneath the surface. Consider, for example, how Saakashvili’s policy of economic liberalization ignored and indeed hurt much of rural Georgia, which makes up half the country’s population. Ivanishvili grasped this fact and emphasized the problems of rural poverty and high unemployment rates throughout his campaign. He was also more culturally in sync with the majority of Georgians, whose social conservatism runs deeper than Saakashvili’s, and many of whom harbor nationalist prejudices. It is hardly surprising that the Georgian Orthodox Church, a bastion of conservative attitudes, effectively made a silent nod toward Ivanishvili’s party, Georgian Dream, despite its professions of neutrality. Meanwhile, urban Georgia -- centered in Tbilisi -- also largely supported the opposition, as it felt that Saakashvili and his flamboyant, top-down governing style threatened democratic values such as freedom of speech and equality before the law.
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