With the triumph of the “Georgian Dream” alliance, led by the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, over Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement in the Georgian parliamentary elections — and a crucial, civil acknowledgment of this defeat by President Saakashvili — democracy in Georgia has made one giant leap forward. And this is a good deal for pretty much everyone.
This is first and foremost good for the Georgian people. Since the extra-constitutional but widely admired “Rose Revolution” in 2003, Saakashvili’s “modernizing” policies have certainly helped clean up bribery, eliminate chronic power outages and set the stage for economic growth. Much credit is due for these contributions to a state that was teetering on the brink of failure in the wake of President Eduard Shevardnadze’s second term.
But the implementation of these policies long ago veered toward the authoritarian. The multiple videos of revolting prisoner abuse surfaced late in the campaign but should have surprised no one. Whether or not such actions were actually condoned by the authorities, the politics of intimidation were central to the United National Movement’s governing strategy and abuses were sadly inevitable. Polls show a strong deterioration of support for the movement in the weeks before the election, making it likely that the videos had a heavy impact on the outcome. And they should have.
Over the past several years, society and the economy in Georgia became stifled. While Saakashvili is fluent in the rhetoric of libertarianism, the reality is that the state is heavily involved in the economy and Georgia is still one of the poorest nations in the world. The press is heavily controlled. This election breaks these politics of intimidation. Not because Ivanishvili is an angel or a good businessman. But because the people have reasserted themselves.
The issue of Ivanishvili’s personal money in the election is not unimportant but doesn’t diminish the political choice by voters in what was by all accounts a free and fair election. A political campaign independently funded by wealth outside the country was the only way any political change could have happened. Domestic political contributions are methodically punished in Georgia — with blackmail, tax inspections and frozen bank accounts.
If nothing else, Saakashvili, ever an astute politician, has got to realize by now that Ivanishvili’s antics could be the best thing that has happened to him in a long time. Having gotten his start when he abruptly broke out from under the wing of Shevardnadze, Saakashvili thrives as the opposition. And in the role of the opposition, he will have an opportunity to make up with some of the many political enemies he has made and burnish his endangered legacy.
In the meantime, the two leaders will have to find a way to coexist. But divided government is healthy and just what Georgia needs. Ironically, the constitutional changes Saakashvili enacted, which paved the way for him to assume new executive powers in the enhanced prime minister position when his second and final term as president expires next year, will now enhance Ivanishvili’s political influence. Deadlock is a possibility; but a negotiated settlement is more likely, as both are going to need to find ways to collaborate in order to get anything done.
This reassertion of democratic political will is also a victory for the United States. A peaceful transition in Georgia enhances regional stability and sets a valuable precedent. Neighboring autocracies have a lot to learn from Georgia. Democracy is indeed on the march — not through external intervention or revolution but through the patient development of political culture, a product of quiet but deliberate policies of building institutions and of monitoring human rights and elections.
Having squandered in the disastrous 2008 war with Russia the global prominence that Georgia enjoyed following Saakashvili’s Rose Revolution and the personal embrace of Saakashvili by President George W. Bush, Georgia could once again punch way above its weight in global affairs if it plays its cards well. The United States needs a stable independent democratic model to hold up, as it seeks to avoid the impression within Arab societies that its policies are designed to create new client states.
Finally, the Georgian Dream election is even a victory for the Russian people, if not for President Vladimir Putin. Without the useful foil of an impetuous Saakashvili as the sole face of Georgia, Putin will have a harder time making Georgia look like a font of postcolonial insolence and a menacing outpost of U.S. interference, and Russian domestic interest in normalization of relations is likely to grow.
Ivanishvili wants to normalize relations with Russia. That’s highly desirable; the two countries have to find a way to live together. While caricatured by Saakashvili as a “Russian stooge,” Ivanishvili exhibits no subservience to Russian influence and repeatedly emphasizes the need for continued Euro-Atlantic integration.
Obviously, things could still go badly. The international community needs to stay involved and try to curb Ivanishvili’s bad political instincts on talking about Saakashvili’s early resignation or on replicating the retribution that occurred in the immediate aftermath of the Rose Revolution.
It needs to be vigilant about outside intervention, but even more critically, it needs to push Georgia to continue to uphold a free and fair political environment. For example, the very positive media regulations that the government conceded to civil society activists angered by government control of the media in the pre-election period have now expired. These need to be extended if the vast majority of Georgians are to continue to have access to diverse sources of information.
But all in all, Georgia’s elections mark the advent of a welcome new period in Georgian politics and an outcome that is beneficial for all concerned.
Job C. Henning is a nonresident fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. Nino Japaridze is a lecturer in the Department of Global Affairs at George Mason University.