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Parliamentary elections in post-Soviet Georgia on October 1, 2012 dramatically changed the political landscape of the country. Yet, because of numerous constraints ingrained into the country’s geopolitical positioning and political culture, Georgia is set to remain remarkably constant in its foreign policy orientation, Western alignment.
A loose coalition led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire-cum-politician, issued a resounding defeat over Saakashvili’s party in the parliamentary elections in post-Soviet Georgia on October 1. Even more astounding is that the incumbent President of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, promptly conceded defeat.
The question on everyone’s tongue is whether and, if so, how the new coalition will revise the radical reforms and pro-Western policies of the last eight years. Many expect Ivanishvili’s coalition to warm up to Russia. Just as in the Ukraine, where Moscow has managed to water-down the Orange Revolution, and to restore pro-Moscow candidates to power in 2006, some fear that Georgia is on the brink of the same democratic counter-revolution that would push the country back into Moscow’s bosom, and away from the West.
To understand why there’s little to fear, it’s helpful to go back before Marx to Hegel. In his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel tells a story of how the Master, by virtue of his dependence on the Slave for recognition as the Master, ultimately becomes the Slave. This dialectic is a story that the leadership of Russia and Georgia, along with all those who care about the fate of this part of the world, should re-read more closely. Although clearly the regional heavyweight, most observers have failed to notice that Russia depends on small Georgia—in this dialectic sense—to recognize Russia as the regional hegemon. In the 1990s, when Georgia was essentially a failed state, Russia was never fully able to control it. It is much less likely for Georgia to come under Russia’s thumb now, when the country has introduced robust institutions and political order. Saakashvili’s quick electoral concession only underscores this new reality.
Who should fear whom?
The peaceful transition of political power in Georgia on October 1 has been hailed as a remarkable achievement. This extraordinary domestic event has equally important international and regional ramifications. First is the example this sets for neighboring Armenia and Azerbaijan, which are considerably behind Georgia in terms of their democratic evolution. Then there is Russia to the north, where Vladimir Putin appears to have embarked on a lifelong presidential term. Over time, Russia has become so invested into Georgian affairs that it cannot simply ignore developments in the neighboring country. Despite the Russian government’s dismissive approach to Georgian reforms, the Russian public still receives large amounts of information about Georgia, and watches its democratization with curiosity and some degree of envy.
To maintain its position as the Master in the relationship with Georgia, the Russian government needs to cast Ivanishvili’s victory as the Kremlin’s victory—the installation of a new, quasi-pro-Russian regime in Georgia. The elections in Georgia have shown that, in fact, the Kremlin may have more to fear from Georgia’s example, which could spread south and north, than Georgia may have to fear from the spread of Russia’s example, which is increasingly seen as a reactionary and outdated model of political and social order in Georgia.
Since the Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s, many have opined that Ivanishvili will be inclined to establish cozier relations with Russia that would undermine Georgia’s sovereignty. This sort of forecasting is chock full of dubious assumptions and fails to account for important constraints that the new Georgian leader will face. First, the winning coalition is made up by several parties that were united by little apart from their aversion for Mikheil Saakashvili’s regime. Second, even though Saakashvili’s second presidential term ends in January 2013, he is free to stay in office until the end of next year, due to the recent constitutional changes. While the Georgian president stays in power for another year, if he so chooses, the loose coalition might begin to crumble, or at least to start fraying at the edges.
Second, we should not assume Ivanishvili’s dependence on Russia to be greater than Eduard Shevardnadze’s dependence on Russia. An old school Soviet Communist party functionary, Shevardnadze nonetheless managed to steer Georgia clear of getting completely consumed by its political heavyweight neighbor, Russia, from 1995 to 2003. Even when the former Soviet Foreign Minister was in charge of Georgia, Shevardnadze’s relations with Russia were never rosy. In fact, Moscow unilaterally imposed a visa regime on Georgia in 2000 in an apparent attempt to strangle the country into greater submission. Instead, the enforced separation of Georgia from Russia “practically created the Georgian state,” in the words of one Georgian journalist, by cutting the umbilical cord that connected it to the imperial center.
Moscow’s wish-list for the new regime in Georgia is ambitious: “[N]o NATO whatsoever, no foreign bases, forget entirely supporting any separatist movements in the [Russian] North Caucasus; overall—abstain from helping the West to increase its influence in the region, including [implementation of] large economic projects” according to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, an influential Russian paper. Russia’s demands have remained remarkably unchanged for the past two decades, and yet none of the Georgian governments has ever fully complied with them.
Existential tension lines
The core of the problem is that Georgia’s existence as an independent (and, even worse, democratic) state on Russia’s rim is viewed as inherently dangerous in Russia. The more affluent and viable Georgia’s democracy, the more it will provide an enviable and infectious example to the volatile and multiethnic North Caucasus. It is understandable that such contagion is harmful to Russia’s regional ambitions. Yet if this unstable region, which is currently leaning toward Islamic radicalism, will instead follow the path implied by Georgia’s example, the region is likely to be considerably more peaceful, prosperous and safe, much to everybody’s interests. Moscow certainly has a few bargaining chips up in its sleeve to stymie Georgia’s influence and some incentives to influence Georgia’s new government. One is the vast Russian market for Georgian goods, especially Georgian wine, which is recognizable and prized in Russia and from which Georgia could profit.
But the most intensive political bargaining still awaits the two sides on the future of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway territories that Georgia considers “occupied” and Russia has recognized as “independent”. Scarcely had the election results become known when the Georgian Dream coalition announced that it was changing the approach to Abkhazia and South Ossetia to all-encompassing and catchy slogan—“Anything except recognition of independence.” While the details of the new Georgian policy toward the breakaway territories are still being hammered out, Ivanishvili’s aide and former Georgian government official, Georgy Volsky, stated that “anything” included a few important concessions. Tbilisi is set to engage in direct talks with the de-facto governments of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Previously, these governments were denounced as mere puppets of Moscow that Tbilisi could not afford to legitimize by the virtue of negotiating with them. The new Georgian leaders are also prepared to sign a non-aggression pact with the separatist leaders, something that Tbilisi had previously ruled out. All non-profits would be allowed to operate freely in Abkhazia and South Ossetia from their headquarters in the territory of Georgia proper. The governments-in-exile from the breakaway territories, which have long been treated as legitimate in Tbilisi, will be removed from bilateral negotiations.
Moscow has not yet signaled its willingness to bargain over the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In fact, on October 9, Russian Foreign Ministry Sergei Lavrov ruled out negotiations over the future of the Georgian breakaway territories since “the fate of these republics has been decided by their people.” However, Russia might well return to the negotiations if it feels the incoming Georgian government is drifting toward Russia and needs some stimuli. The view that Russia was the sole guarantor of Georgia’s territorial integrity and Georgia could incorporate Abkhazia and South Ossetia only when it was part of Russia itself has been very widespread among Russian observers. Russia may potentially push the two territories back into Georgia even against their will, thus in effect revoking its recognition, but apart from damage to its reputation, there is the very real risk that Georgia’s government will change again in near future and then Russia may lose out. So the only workable solution for Moscow would be a return to the pre-August 2008 situation—when the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was suspended and the two territories were best described as areas of “no war, no peace”. This situation would serve Russia’s interests, but not Georgia’s, because it would make this small country dependent on Russia’s whims again with no clear prospects of ever actually regaining control over the breakaway territories, but with some prospects of going to war with Russia in the future. In any case, the breakaway territories’ puzzle will keep Georgia and Russia engaged in rivalry. At this moment, the equation is very straightforward—either Georgia stays independent and has no access to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, or Georgia repossesses these two territories, but loses its own independence.
The return of multiparty competition to the Georgian parliament, which has been dominated by one party for a long time, is a positive sign—not only for Georgia and its people, but also for foreign audiences. In the highly asymmetric relationship of Georgia and Russia, the restoration of power to the people to elect the government they want is a mighty tool. This does not mean that Georgia will not need Western support and, conceivably expertise, anymore. Rather, respect for participatory democracy and abiding by the rule of law will strengthen the country beyond any harm that the incoming future authorities of Georgia might inflict on the country’s future.
Despite the perturbations in Georgia’s leadership over the past twenty years, which includes two civil wars, a coup d’etat, and a revolution, Georgia’s trajectory has been remarkably stable. The country’s new leadership and elections are important because they underline the consolidation of democratic rule in Georgia, and less because they represent a dramatic reorientation of the country’s public opinion, domestic development strategy or Western-oriented foreign policy.