Interviews

What now for Georgian politics?

by | Oct 8, 2012

Lincoln Mitchell, Associate at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute.

A new coalition called Georgian Dream won a clear victory in the parliamentary election last week. Georgia-expert Lincoln Mitchell interprets the result.

Did you expect these results?

I believe last time we spoke, and certainly last time I was here, I mentioned that the NDI data had the National Movement capping out at 40 percent, and my sense was that that was a size that they were going to get. I know there was some controversy around that, but after nine years I’ve maintain that belief, that if people, who were voting for them saying ‘yes’. With the prison abuse scandal I felt that their numbers would drop, even. So I did expect this result. I suspect that the actual numbers that they’ve counted were a little higher for the Georgian Dream. What I didn’t expect was that foreign actors present here – observers and diplomats — would be so strong and effective in persuading the United National Movement that they couldn’t try to steal it. That was what surprised me. I expected even more of a fight than it was. If you remember late Monday night the president came on and said that we won 53 seats, they were very aggressive in pursuing that line, but by Tuesday lunch time they have conceded and something happened in those 12-15 hours, where it was made clear to Saakashvili and his regime that they are not going to have this support from the West if they continued down that road, and to their credit at that moment, faced with that decision, they made the right one, and they said ‘we’re done’ and that was a good decision, it was a good decision for Georgia.

You think that the main stimulus behind this very strange decision for Saakashvili was mainly international factor?

The only person, who can really answer to that is Saakashvili, but it was largely international, there is also a sense probably that knowing that with such a mandate against them, and that had he stayed in power the world would’ve known he got there by election fraud. The work ahead would have been so difficult, potentially so ugly, that maybe he just felt that it wasn’t worth it. I don’t know. I’d like to give him that benefit of the doubt, but I just don’t know.

The former ruling party people say that they will not interfere in the governing of the country with Georgian Dream and Ivanishvili mentioned that he advises Saakashvili to resign. He said it would be the best outcome for Saakashvili. How do you think is Saakashvili’s resignation feasible?

Saakasvhili is the elected president of Georgia. And while in some political sense he suffered a resounding defeat, because this election was very much about Saakashvili, technically and legally he is still the president, and he has a legal right, barring something else, to finish that term in office. Whether or not he chooses to do that is of course his own decision, whether or not they move the presidential election up is a decision that has to be made also. The question for me is not so much if he continues to serve as president, but does he see his role as president as simply doing everything in his power to stop Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream. That would be a mistake. Saakashvili has done something interesting: either in his concession speech or right around it, he said I’m in the opposition now. But the truth is, according to the Georgian constitution, he is not the opposition. When Barack Obama in 2010 was president or you can even go back to President George Bush in 2006 they had these elections, when they really lost badly in the Congress, but they remained president. But you didn’t hear Obama in 2010 saying I’m in the opposition. What he said was ‘I would like to work with these people now.’ Here the stakes are little bit higher. So it’s not a question of does he stay in the office, because I think he will. It’s a question of how will he stay in office. For example does he continue to use resources internationally to attack the prime minister and the Georgian government? Does he continue to have the ministries that he effectively can control, doing his bidding, rather than being part of a broader Georgian government. Does he instruct his parliamentary delegation to vote against absolutely everything that Georgian Dream proposes? Things are changing very fast here in Georgia. After yesterday’s meetings, which.. I spoke with some of the participants, but I also read a bit and talked to civil society people. There is a sense that that’s not going to happen; that the government will move forward. That is obviously what we really need now in Georgia.

Is it expected that Saakashvili gives real authority to the Georgian Dream and in Georgian reality it mean Ministry of Interior, Defense and Justice?

My feeling as a political analyst now is that whether or not he gives it to them, they will pick that authority. This is a country, where what the people think matters. We may not have the best elections here, we may not have uncontested elections, but what the people think matters and what we saw on Monday was that Georgian people want Georgian Dream to run things now. Now not forever, but now. They spoke very clearly through the voting booths in the ballots on Monday, made that clear. So one way or the other that will happen. I mean for example the Georgian Dream could reach out to some members of the National Movement in parliament to build a coalition that way. They could agree on negotiations where the president has input on some of these ministries, but doesn’t run them or things will just slow down until the next presidential election, but my thinking is that there is a prime minister; everyone knows where the political power lie in Georgia. Everyone knows who now has a mandate over people and that’s very powerful.

It was very strange seeing a US ambassador present in a rally of Irakli Alasania in Zugdidi. What does it mean?

My sense is that they went to Zugdidi because they wanted to do what they could to make sure violence didn’t erupt and that disorder don’t erupt, because the days following the election there was a real fear for many – both Georgian and international – that that would happen, and I would suspect that the ambassador felt that his presence out there would be able to help keep things calm.

Maybe another factor was that Alasania; it is seen here that he is a favorite of the Americans?

Alasania is well liked in the US. He was ambassador to UN for a long time, several years. He had a very positive reputation and a strong network of relationships. So yes, he is well liked in the US and certainly if Alasania takes on an important position.. I understand that negotiations are going on about ministries and things like that today, and yesterday and tomorrow, but I don’t know the details of that; but if Alasania takes on an important position in the new government or an important position in the new parliament, I am sure the US government will be happy about that, but I don’t think they are going out there to see that he can beat Roland Akhalaia, I don’t think that was on the ambassador’s agenda.

Ivanishvili said that he would improve relations with USA. Saakashvili had extremely close relationship with US. How do you envisage this – Georgia and US in the hands of Ivanishvili?

He has made it clear already that he values this relationship, he has made it clear in public statements and I know from my private discussions with him that this is important. The question is, can the Georgia-US bilateral relationship, which now goes back 20 years, move to the next level? So under Saakashvili really what Georgia was an ally of the US. It received an enormous amount of public assistance, foreign assistance which came from our tax coffers in the form of foreign assistance for Georgia and Georgia for its part participated in various military projects which the US supported, which we valued in US. But it was not a close partner in terms of things like trade, business and that kind of thing, so that seems to me to be the next step. To make the relationship more than just kind of money flowing here and troops flowing there, but to build real ties. That’s hard. It’s a big world. Many countries want to have a close relationship with the US, but Georgia is an important country, there is a foundation of a strong relationship. So I would say that the relationship moves forward. Some of that is the work that Saakashvili and his government did. One of the things that Ivanishvili can helpfully do is to reposition Georgia in Washington not as the favorite of the far right, which is a reputation it had earned in recent years in Washington. Its biggest supporters were on the far right of the political spectrum. Close allies of the U.S., particularly those that have received foreign assistance, and need military support, understand the value of having this not viewed as a partisan and ideological issue in Washington. So one of the things that Ivanishvili may seem to do is to reposition Georgia not as the darling of the far right, not a radical with a right wing political ideology, economic ideology, but as a stable strong partner across the political spectrum. This is not going to be easy; it’s not going to be easy to build business ties with US-Georgia; it’s a goal, it’s not an outcome, it’s not predestined, but that would be the direction that I would think to go to strengthen the relationship. Also just paranthetically, the ability politically and willingness economically, but ability economically and willingness politically of the US to continue to give huge amounts of foreign aid has been threatened right now. Our economy is still bad, our debt problem is still serious. So getting out of that cycle of dependence on foreign assistance is important for Georgia. Those sources may dry up. Not because of Saakashvili or Ivanishvili but because of what happens in US.

Can the November elections in the US somehow affect these relationships?

First of all despite the lackluster performance of president he still remains the favorite, Obama does. So we’re still looking at a likely victory by Obama in November, in which case there is continuity. Now but there will be new Secretary of State. The current Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has said she’s not going to serve another term, and she may have other projects in her future, we’ll see about that, but so there will be new Secretary of State. But hat’s normal in the US. If Romney wins, the Romney administration will work with the Georgian government, and they will ask a lot of the same things the Obama administration will ask to Georgian government: are you committed to democracy? And Ivanishvili has to continue to demonstrate that every day; are you going to support our efforts, NATO efforts in Afghanistan? I think the new prime minister has made that clear, but that will still be an issue. Will you support us in other foreign policy – all of those things. A month ago it was different, because if Saakashvili had won and Romney had won, then Saakashvili once he made it into the new Romney administration, that was a very forgiving pro-Saakashvili government. But I don’t think even the Romney people are dumb enough to come in here and try to revive Saakashvili. So I think that that ship has sailed, and now the outcome of our election is less important, has less bearing on Georgia.

What about Russia, Ivanishvili pledges to improve relations with Russia? Many people opponents and pro-Saakashvili people say that its theoretically is impossible.

They may be right about that, but we’ll see. The question it seems to me is that there is consensus among the Georgian people and their leadership mostly across the political spectrum on some core issues like NATO, about territorial integrity and specifically that a good chunk of the country is occupied by Russian troops, so that frames Georgian political life here across the spectrum. Those things are going to remain true today, will be true tomorrow. Ivanishvili is going to, I think he wants to get the country into the NATO; he wants to restore territorial integrity regarding Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in terms of means you will see something different. So what I would say is that you will probably see a deescalation of the rhetoric, a deescalation of the saber rattling, the constant talk of war, constant fear of war that so much characterized Georgian politics and so much corroded Georgian domestic political life is every opponent was called a Russian stooge. As that happens you may get to a situation hopefully where it’s possible to have greater trade and there some issues on which Russia and Georgia agree to disagree, but some recognition that there has to be a strong relationship; that they can’t be ready to go to war all the time. The problem with that I see is that Putin was very happy with a Georgian administration and Georgian government that was constantly making noise. That was valuable for Russian domestic politics. So a more common mature approach to Russia is not what Putin wants, but again the Georgian people has spoken, and he has to live with that.

Can we expect United National Movement as a strong capable opposition for getting back parliament in the future, or will it dissolve as all other former Ruling parties in this country – Communists, Round table of Zviad, Shevardnadze’s Union of Citizens?

That seems to me an absolute key question. What happens in Georgia is that a one party system solidifies, then that party slowly corrodes, until it reaches a tipping point at which it collapses. This regime reached its tipping point I think when those videos were released. If those videos were not released this was not a competitive election. So the question in that context, is what does the National Movement stand for that might mobilize people, and the problem is that kind of just stands for support for Misha and his cronies and being close to power, but they’re no longer close to power. So I hope that the United National Movement will remain an important opposition, but I hope that that opposition doesn’t just become the normal cycle of, we want to get in power, no we want to get in power, or you’ve done so bad, now you have to leave and it’s time for someone else to take over, which is really what happened in 2003 and this last week. My hope whether it’s National Movement or somebody else is that multiparty politics are institutionalized here and that may come through what is now an omnibus ruling party over time breaking into different parties. Maybe they run as a list once, but they don’t always vote the same way in parliament. If you remember the tail end of the Shevardnadze years, parliament was a place of debate, but wasn’t important because the president held all the power, but it was a place of debate, it was place of discussion. That’s a good start to at least get back to that and then have partisan line that reinforce that. The tremendous instability, in the Georgian political system remains a problem.

And this election in my view doesn’t guarantee a multiparty system, keeps the possibility in the air and victory for the National Movement would have guaranteed a single party dominant system. We hope that doesn’t happen now, but we have to recognize that without care, without a daily focus on democracy that can happen.

What do you think about these conflicts of Abkhazia and so-called South Ossetia; how will these election results affect them?

I think, right off the bat, it won’t. The challenge is if the new Georgian government while seeking the same goals, recognizes the need for people in Abkhazia and South Ossetia regardless of the very legitimate, I think legal and historical points of the Georgian government has always made, which I think are correct, recognizing that what those people think in terms of real politics matter and then I think finding a way.. In previous years under Saakashvili regime, Washington and Brussels went to Tbilisi and though that was how decisions and they set the tones for politics in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. As a result the people in those regions, people still living there were very isolated from the West. And then what happened was that Russia would come along and say ‘Misha is a bad guy with a gun’, which everyone kind of believes there, and America’s is standing right behind them, that made sense to them and as result there is no interest in the West. We the West have a role to play here and that role I believe is to weaken the Russian grip on those places and the way we do that is through our soft power, through our civil society, rebuilding relations – non-governmental relations, position of US and most of our allies is that we don’t recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia. That will remain the position of US and that should remain the position of US. These are not countries, they are not states, we don’t want to recognize them, but to work with the people there, maybe get them thinking ‘you know, there is a lot that the West can offer, better then Russia can offer in terms of freedom and democracy and economic opportunity and maybe that regime in Tbilisi is not really to get us and we can find a way to work together and a long run – The first step is to pull them away from Russia and the second step is to find some kind of way to bring them back into Georgia, but that’s not a one step process. As opposed to the old regime which was this kind of I thought in very deceptive notions of strategic pacts, which is ‘hey we’ll be a model for democracy and they’ll just want to join us’ – that’s fantasy and that was a fantasy.

I didn’t watch all the prison videos to the end, but I got the point, but when I saw them one of the thoughts I had was wow, what if you watch that in Sokhumi or Tskhinvali, what you will think; it’s the worst thing you could show. Nobody could see that and say ‘I want to be part of that country’.



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