BACKGROUND: After Georgia’s October 1, 2012 parliamentary elections, domestic politics in the country have descended into a protracted power struggle between the former ruling party, President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM), and the winning Georgian Dream (GD) coalition under Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili. As unexpected as the election results were among most outside observers, the outcome was regarded as holding significant symbolic importance among Georgia’s western partners – for the first time since Georgia’s independence, the country’s political opposition was able to seize power through an orderly election. Yet, as has been repeated by Georgia’s partners in the U.S. as well as the EU following the elections, the real test for Georgia’s transition of power comes not with the election itself, but with the cumbersome process of cohabitation in its aftermath, conditioned by the fact that President Saakashvili remains in office until the presidential elections that are yet to be scheduled for fall 2013.
This process has so far taken all but smooth forms. Several arrests of former UNM officials have led Saakashvili and his associates to accuse the GD government of engaging in an attempt to eradicate what is now the political opposition in a series of politically motivated trials. The GD government, for its part, claims that it is only fulfilling its popular mandate for investigating crimes committed by representatives of the previous government – which was a forthcoming part of its election platform. Mutual distrust and heated rhetoric have impeded cooperation and compromise between government and opposition on practically all initiatives taken by the new government, including most prominently negotiations over amendments to the constitution that would reduce the president's powers and reforms of the judiciary. The current controversy on the government’s proposed constitutional amendment that will prevent the president’s right to dismiss the government six months after the parliamentary election currently threatens to spark a fresh political crisis.
Georgia’s domestic political situation has also given rise to a somewhat absurd competition for international legitimacy between the country’s two main representatives. Georgia’s general foreign policy orientation, based on a firm commitment to continued integration with NATO and the EU, represents a rare source of consensus between the country’s political players and was institutionalized in a resolution adopted by parliament in early March. In spite of a Russian agreement to reopen imports of Georgian wine and mineral water, there are few signs to affirm the UNM’s frequently voiced suspicion over any profound gestures of appeasement toward Russia, and the government has strongly denied any consideration of membership in Russia-dominated regional organizations, such as the CIS or CSTO. Georgia has also reaffirmed it sizeable contribution to operations in Afghanistan, a tested means for cementing its relationship with the U.S., and recently opened for the possibility of a contribution to French operations in Mali.
IMPLICATIONS: Yet, both parties also clearly attribute significant importance to perceptions of Georgia’s domestic political process among the country’s international partners, in a manner that reveals how Georgia’s domestic politics plays out in various international fora. In fact, this tendency in large part represents a continuation of the election campaign, which pitched the UNM’s narrative of a secretly Russia-oriented GD against a GD counter-narrative of a repressive and corrupt government, both allegedly posing grave threats to Georgia’s future.
In the current international dimension of Georgia’s domestic politics, Saakashvili and the UNM are interested in drawing attention to the alleged political aspects of prosecutions, constitutional amendments and changes to the media landscape as infringements to Georgia’s democracy, while the GD government’s message is that legal measures taken against political opponents are fully in observance with the rule of law and that UNM obstructionism is preventing an orderly transfer of power in Georgia. The government has invited OSCE monitoring of the trials so as to reinforce their legitimacy.
In response to Ivanishvili’s cautious optimism for opening a railway connection between Russia and Armenia via Abkhazia and Georgia, Saakashvili said during a meeting in February of the Eastern Partnership members that such designs would benefit Russian designs for the South Caucasus and implied that the implementation of the railroad constituted evidence of Ivanishvili’s “concrete commitments” to Russia. Saakashvili’s recent warning in late February after a visit to Azerbaijan that Russia plans a similar scenario for Azerbaijan as it allegedly applied to Georgia in the 2012 elections, using “oligarchs, Russian funds, blackmailing and provocations,” prompted Ivanishvili to issue a statement saying that the President’s foreign trips were not coordinated by the Georgian MFA and should not be taken to represent the views of the Georgian government.
Ivanishvili has also displayed a tendency to interpret various forms of international critique as covert UNM attacks. In reaction to a Washington Post editorial in November, critical of the arrests of former government officials, Ivanishvili lamented the criticism as the work of lobbying paid for by Georgia’s National Security Council, headed by Saakashvili associate Giga Bokeria. Ivanishvili’s reaction gave rise to several additional editorial pieces in outlets such as the New York Times, the Economist and Le Figaro. The budget for Georgia’s NSC was drastically cut for the 2013 budget year.
Ivanishvili and Parliamentary speaker David Usupashvili reacted in a similar fashion to a critical open letter from members of the European People’s Party (EPP) on March 6, which criticized the Georgian government for persecuting UNM members. Attending a simultaneous EPP meeting, Saakashvili had in an address to the participants termed Georgia’s October elections “a clear setback” for the country’s European integration. The letter was followed up on March 13 with an EPP declaration lamenting “backward steps” in Georgia’s democratization following the elections, to which Ivanishvili responded by terming the allegations unsubstantiated and inviting long-term observers to Georgia.
Days later, Usupashvili embarked on a trip to Washington, DC, in an effort to sustain U.S. support in convincing Saakashvili to refrain from using his constitutional power to dismiss the government and to reassure U.S. decision makers of the legitimacy of the trials that are underway in Georgia. The government also recently announced several newly signed contracts with lobbying firms in Washington, DC and Brussels, replacing many of the previous government’s lobbyists in these locations.
CONCLUSIONS: Georgia’s international predicament today lies less with the declaratory adherence to membership in international organizations such as NATO and the EU than with its ability to demonstrate that it is a country undergoing transition to meet the standards of membership in such organizations. The currently all but derailed cohabitation process and adjacent dual international campaigns for attracting international support for partisan causes in Georgia’s domestic politics is not helpful in this regard. It is to Georgia’s credit that it has so far managed to keep post-election political disputes largely inside parliament and off the streets (although exceptions include the February 8 protest against the President’s State of the Nation Address). Yet, the future of Georgia’s international orientation depends not only on the intentions of Georgian politicians from across the political spectrum, but also on the country’s attractiveness as a prospective member to external observers. For a country that depends to an increasing extent on its domestic politics to demonstrate such attractiveness, especially as western military engagement in Afghanistan is coming to a close; Georgia now stands the risk of circumscribing its options for western integration.
AUTHOR'S BIO: Niklas Nilsson is Associate Editor of the Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, and a Research Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies program. He is currently a Fulbright Visiting Researcher at the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, George Washington's University's Elliott School of International Affairs.