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Democracy has been in retreat across Eurasia in recent years, and in many countries, the lure of Western political models has faded. But Georgia has been an exception. Over the past four years, the country’s media and civil society have flourished and the government has pursued a robust program of reforms. Tbilisi’s pro-Western policies—from its signing of an association agreement with the European Union to its aspiration to join NATO—enjoy solid support from Georgian citizens and the backing of the country’s major political parties.
Georgia’s current stability and pro-Western stance were hardly inevitable. Two decades ago, as Tbilisi dealt with ethnic strife, civil war, and economic collapse, many observers believed Georgia was on the verge of becoming a failed state and a haven for organized crime and terrorist groups. Nor are Georgia’s political gains irreversible. Russia sees Georgia's tilt to the West as a threat. And although Georgian politics has matured considerably in the last two decades, personality, rather than policy, is still a major determinant of Georgians’ electoral choices.
The country’s parliamentary elections on October 8 will determine whether the democratic trajectory of the past few years will continue. In all likelihood, the new parliament will press forward on its current path after October. Georgia's Western partners should welcome that outcome. For its part, Georgia needs to press forward with its economic and political reforms.
FROM TURBULENCE TO TRANQUILITY
Since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Georgia has seen civil war, secessions, war with Russia, and political turmoil. The country’s leadership swung from the loose grip of President Eduard Shevardnadze to the often-heavy-handed style of his successor, Mikheil Saakashvili. Saakashvili's United National Movement was widely credited with shaking up the political scene after coming to power in 2003, but rode roughshod over Georgians’ rights in the years that followed.
The turbulence ended with the 2012 parliamentary elections, when the Georgian Dream, a centrist coalition led by the billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili, unseated Saakashvili’s party. Ivanishvili served as prime minister for only a year, handing over the position to a younger ally in November 2013. Although he no longer holds public office, Ivanishvili remains influential; many Georgians see him as the politician who brought their country back from the brink.
In contrast to Georgia's earlier turmoil, the four years since the 2012 elections have been refreshingly stable, which has allowed Tbilisi to pursue political and economic reforms. In 2014, Georgia signed an association agreement with the European Union, which came into force in July and will deepen the country's political and economic ties with the bloc.
The country passed laws protecting the rights of minorities and introduced economic measures guaranteeing the rights of investors. It also reformed its judicial system by introducing life tenure for judges, allowing television cameras in courtrooms, and appointing members of civil society and academia to serve in the High Council of Justice, a key legal body.
In the coming weeks, Georgia and the EU will likely implement a visa-free travel deal after a number of delays. Many of the country's political elites, including those in Georgian Dream and the United National Movement, the main opposition party, see membership in both the EU and NATO as their end game. Whereas an EU membership for Georgia is not yet on offer, NATO has stated that it is open in principle to Georgia joining the alliance.
JOIN THE CLUB
When a student asked NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg for his message to Georgians pessimistic about their country’s prospects for NATO membership, Stoltenberg responded candidly. “Georgia should continue to do exactly what Georgia is doing, and that is to implement reforms," he said. "Constitutional reforms, electoral reforms, economic reforms, judicial reforms."
That was good advice. Georgia has made considerable progress in depoliticizing its law-enforcement agencies and in improving the conditions of its prisons; these gains must be guarded. Georgia also needs to continue its anti-corruption drive. The biggest challenges likely remain in the reform of the legal system. Although Georgian courts often rule against the government, the quest for a truly independent judiciary is not complete.
Georgia’s Western friends also need to deliver. The Baltic states received a great deal of support from Western countries in the 1990s before joining the EU and NATO in 2004. But for most of its independent history, Georgia was left to deal with pressure from Russia largely on its own. In recent years, Russian belligerence—from its war with Georgia in 2008 to its more recent aggression in Ukraine—has added to Tbilisi’s concerns. NATO membership would address these worries and allow Georgia to focus on economic and political development. Georgia has already participated in some NATO missions, including in Afghanistan; its full membership in the alliance, excluding the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, is the logical next step. And although admitting Georgia into NATO might anger Russia and frustrate its attempts to maintain a privileged position in the post-Soviet space, NATO must now show that Russia does not have a veto on its membership. As for the European Union, both EU and Georgian officials should make sure that the association agreement is successfully implemented.
Georgians will be spoiled for choice in next month's election: nineteen political parties and six electoral blocks, grouping together a further seventeen parties, will participate. Georgian Dream will likely remain the largest party, and the United National Movement the second largest. Unlike in previous elections—as in 2003, when allegations of fraud led to the downfall of Shevardnadze—it seems as though this year's vote will be a fair one.
Unless there is some kind of political earthquake, a large bipartisan majority in the new parliament will support pro-NATO and pro-EU policies. But it is also likely that one or two of the smaller parties that oppose or are ambivalent about Georgia’s pro-Western orientation will take seats, too. Like the uncertainties of Georgia's neighborhood, that is a reminder that neither Tbilisi nor its friends in the West can afford to be complacent about Georgia's progress.