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.
Saakashvili's unusual political program has commonly been labeled “liberal Bolshevism.” It was liberal in the sense that, within just a few years, the president and his inner circle dismantled the remnants of the old, essentially Soviet system that they inherited, tackling petty corruption and the Mafia, raising tax collection rates, and overhauling the country’s decrepit infrastructure. Yet it also resembled Bolshevism in its aggressive application, enforced in large part by a highly repressive criminal justice system. Saakashvili often accused his critics of being Russian sympathizers and irremediably corrupt simply because many had held jobs under the previous regime, and some officials in Washington accepted these claims too readily. One U.S. diplomatic cable from April 2009, published by WikiLeaks, loyally echoed Saakashvili’s assertion that his opponents were a marginal, backward-looking bunch. “In large part,” the missive reads, “these are the people and institutions which lost positions, prestige and power with President Shevardnadze's resignation.”
For a long time, there was no coordinated opposition to Saakashvili. This did not so much reflect a lack of discontent in society as it did the difficulty of shepherding the resources to mount a legitimate challenge to the system. The same story has played out in other post-Soviet states -- it is as true in Vladimir Putin’s Russia today as it was in Saakashvili’s Georgia. Saakashvili was genuinely popular during his first term. During his second term, however, he began to lose legitimacy. This was the result not only of the disastrous war with Russia in August 2008 but of a deeper problem: the lack of checks and balances in Georgia’s political system, which began to warp its leaders’ perspectives. For example, without consulting anyone, Saakashvili unveiled plans to build a whole new city of half a million people on the Black Sea. The security forces increasingly took the law into their own hands -- institutionalizing, among other things, horrific abuses in the prison system. Saakashvili’s strange club of foreign friends expanded to include the Belarusian president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, who has been called “the last dictator in Europe”; the populist and semi-autocratic Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban; and the ostentatious American businessman Donald Trump.
It was in this context that Saakashvili fought, lost, and conceded the October election. His strategy had been to hold an election that was basically free on polling day but heavily weighted beforehand in favor of his party. Even though Saakashvili already benefited from de facto control of Georgia’s two main television stations and an electoral law that was written to his advantage, his government attempted to crush the challenger, Ivanishvili, by stripping him of his Georgian citizenship and penalizing him with heavy fines. In the last two months of the campaign season, the government eased the pressure, allowing the opposition more freedom to promote its message, and Saakashvili invited in a horde of foreign observers to put a democratic seal on his anticipated victory.
Indeed, as the polls closed, Saakashvili declared that his party would win a plurality of seats. But as the results rolled in, it became clear that his plan had backfired: he had been defeated in the full glare of the international media and Western observers. Saakashvili may not be a true democrat, but he has always valued his image as one, so he accepted his loss and made a gracious concession speech. What was born that night was a kind of democracy by accident.
…IN WITH THE NEW?
Georgian politics favors big personalities who command patronage and loyalty: it is more a winner-take-all clash between feudal lords than a contest of ideologically coherent parties. And so the opposition could not have wished for a better standard-bearer than Ivanishvili. As Georgia’s richest man -- worth $6.4 billion, according to Forbes’ latest estimate -- Ivanishvili could afford to buck the government’s rules. He had a sterling reputation with the public, having for years funded churches, schools, and prominent cultural figures. Ivanishvili’s lofty status provided an umbrella under which Georgia’s disparate discontented could take cover.
Understandably, Ivanishvili’s position on Russia has been the focus of much speculation. Critics argue that Georgia’s new prime minister has unseemly ties to Moscow, given that he amassed his fortune in Russia; so far, Ivanishvili has fiercely rebutted these charges. He left Russia in 2002 and has recently sold all his assets there, and he currently surrounds himself with a team of pro-Western advisers. Until any evidence emerges to the contrary, the most convincing explanation for why Ivanishvili, like many of his post-Soviet counterparts, chose to make his fortune in Russia is the same reason that Willie Sutton chose to rob banks: because that’s where the money is. Besides, regardless of Ivanishvili’s sentiments, Tbilisi is incapable of fully normalizing relations with Russia as long as Moscow continues to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. Trade between Russia and Georgia may well resume, but the political relationship will almost certainly stay frozen. In fact, the nationalist, xenophobic wing of Georgian Dream, which is largely anti-Russian, presents a greater threat to the stability of Georgia’s foreign relations than do Ivanishvili’s alleged ties to Moscow.
A more immediate problem is that Ivanishvili and Saakashvili, mortal political enemies, now have to cohabit Georgia’s political space until October 2013, when Saakashvili’s second presidential term will end. Even then, Saakashvili, still Georgia’s most talented politician, will be only 45 years old, and he will face the near-impossible task of planning for a future in which he is young but out of power. The fear, of course, is that the pendulum could simply swing in the other direction, with Ivanishvili using the punitive system he has inherited from Saakashvili to destroy his rival once and for all. In this scenario, Ivanishvili would merely become the new dominant personality in a Georgia that still lacks strong independent institutions. And considering that he is the richest man in the country, Ivanishvili will be able to finance projects promoting his new vision of Georgia with personal funds.
Two months after the election, the Georgian political scene presents a confusing and somewhat worrying picture. On the positive side, the new government includes one of Georgia's most respected Western-oriented politicians, Irakli Alasania, as defense minister; a well-known human rights lawyer, Tea Tsulukiani, as justice minister; and a respected veteran of dialogue projects with the Abkhazians and Ossetians, Paata Zakareishvili, as minister for the conflict regions. Such a government cannot be accused of being regressive. Meanwhile, the political space has opened up: the culture of routine surveillance fostered by the previous administration has receded, the media is livelier, and government has begun to listen to the opinions of nongovernmental organizations.
Nevertheless, the new government's first month in office has been a public relations disaster. Prime Minister Ivanishvili has made a series of strange and erratic statements, including one that disparaged Georgia's Armenian minority (he later apologized), and he has contradicted himself several times on his plans for cohabitation with Saakashvili. Most troubling is a wave of prosecutions of public servants who worked under the previous administration. Philip Gordon, U.S. assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, has cautioned that "it is essential to avoid any perception or reality of selective prosecutions." Yet this issue looks somewhat different from the perspective of Georgians than it does from that of Western officials. In Tbilisi, the Ivanishvili government believes it has a popular mandate to correct past injustices. Some of the arrests that have been made -- such as that of Bacho Akhalaia, the notorious former minister of defense and prisons -- enjoy strong public approval.
Still, all this is at least proof of great political immaturity, and Saakashvili and his team look highly professional by contrast. But it is too early to conclude whether it augurs anything more sinister. The most intriguing plot thread is that Ivanishvili has said several times that he intends to step down as prime minister in 2014, allowing the government to carry on its work without him. He recently qualified this pledge, however, by saying that he would stay "if we cannot fulfill our promises."
An unexpected beneficiary of this moment of democratic turbulence is the United States, which has been accepted as a mediator by both Ivanishvili’s and Saakashvili’s camps and thus continues to possess considerable leverage in Georgia. To its credit, the Obama administration has managed the situation skillfully. After President George W. Bush’s too-close embrace of Saakashvili, Obama’s team placed a much greater emphasis on institutional cooperation, creating a series of commissions to work on long-term cooperation in defense and other spheres. Thomas Melia, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, led an interagency delegation to Georgia in September and put forth a carefully nuanced statement, saying, “We do not favor any particular party or candidate, and the United States government looks forward to continued close cooperation with the leaders the Georgian people choose.”
U.S. influence also comes by default. Over the past 20 years, Moscow has dealt with Georgia with such spectacular arrogance that it has lost all leverage with Tbilisi. Moreover, the EU has underplayed its hand in Georgia, even though its European Neighborhood Policy, which seeks to foster closer relations between the EU and its neighbors, is finally beginning to deliver some results, such as visa liberalization. In the long run, the EU has a lot more to offer Georgia than the United States does -- the kind of slow, unglamorous work that the EU excels at, from building infrastructure to upgrading food standards, has brought benefits to Georgia -- but, up until now, it has been Washington, not Brussels, that has taken the lead on such projects in the country.