Calm af­ter the storm

Ge­or­gia's do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal scene in the run-up to par­lia­men­tary elec­tions

The Ukrainian Week - - NEIGHBOURS - In­ter­viewed by Anna Kor­but

Ge­or­gia will hold its par­lia­men­tary elec­tions on 8 Oc­to­ber. At the pre­vi­ous ones in 2012, Mikheil Saakashvili's in­cum­bent party lost by over 10% to the re­cently formed Ge­or­gian Dream (GD), founded by bil­lion­aire Bidz­ina Ivan­ishvili. Its sup­port has re­cently plum­meted, although Ge­or­gian voters are in no hurry to bring back its pre­de­ces­sors ei­ther. An April 2016 poll con­ducted by the In­ter­na­tional Repub­li­can In­sti­tute showed that 20% of re­spon­dents would vote for Ge­or­gian Dream and 19% for the pre­vi­ous party of gov­ern­ment – the United Na­tional Move­ment (UNM). In 2014, ac­cord­ing to var­i­ous es­ti­mates, the GD-led coali­tion gov­ern­ment was sup­ported by about 50% of voters, whereas about 22% would have voted for UNM.

What is the bal­ance of power in Ge­or­gian pol­i­tics to­day? How is Saakashvili the politi­cian dif­fer­ent from Ivan­ishvili the politi­cian? How have the Ge­or­gian state and so­ci­ety changed over the years when they and their po­lit­i­cal par­ties were in power? Ghia No­dia, Chair­man of the Cau­ca­sus In­sti­tute for Peace, Democ­racy and De­vel­op­ment, speaks to The Ukrainian Week.

On the Saakashvili phe­nom­e­non and the Ivan­ishvili phe­nom­e­non. The Saakashvili phe­nom­e­non is a rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion. He is a trans­for­ma­tional, revo­lu­tion­ary politi­cian. Mikheil came to power in the wake of the Rose Rev­o­lu­tion, when peo­ple wanted something new and fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent – they were dis­ap­pointed by the com­plete in­ef­fec­tive­ness of the pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ment and its in­abil­ity to achieve any re­sults. It would be safe to say that Saakashvili created mod­ern Ge­or­gian state­hood, a new type of coun­try. In this re­spect, he is a his­tor­i­cal fig­ure for Ge­or­gia. But these trans­for­ma­tions were ob­vi­ously painful for many peo­ple. In ad­di­tion, he made sev­eral mis­takes and mis­cal­cu­la­tions. All this put to­gether even­tu­ally led to his de­feat in 2012.

Bidz­ina Ivan­ishvili rode the wave of weari­ness and ha­tred to­wards Saakashvili. Plus, be­ing a su­per-rich man, he in­spired in his coun­try­men hope for manna from heaven, i.e. a so­lu­tion to all so­cial prob­lems. This, of course, did not hap­pen. In eco­nomic terms, peo­ple do not feel any progress, and many rather see re­gres­sion. The sense of perspective that the coun­try is go­ing some­where has been lost. So­ci­ety is largely dis­ap­pointed in the gov­ern­ment, believing that it has no con­crete achieve­ments and is un­able to solve their prob­lems.

How­ever, this dis­sat­is­fac­tion has not yet reached a crit­i­cal point. Peo­ple are dis­sat­is­fied, but you can't say that they're out­raged. The idea of returning to the rule of Saakashvili or the United Na­tional Move­ment is also un­pop­u­lar. One pos­si­ble ex­pla­na­tion: life is calmer un­der Ivan­ishvili. While Saakashvili con­stantly stirred up so­ci­ety, Ivan­ishvili com­forts it. Many peo­ple as­so­ci­ate Mikheil's re­turn with po­ten­tial up­heavals, but it's sure that no one wants another rev­o­lu­tion. The gov­ern­ment uses this fear, and does so with quite some suc­cess.

If we talk about for­eign pol­icy, all Ge­or­gian gov­ern­ments since late years of Ed­uard She­vard­nadze’s rule have de­clared com­mit­ment to the Euro­pean and Euro-At­lantic line. But if it was a lynch­pin, state­ment of faith, and frame of ref­er­ence for the value sys­tem of Saakashvili's gov­ern­ment, then the cur­rent gov­ern­ment con­tin­ues this course more due to in­er­tia. The ma­jor­ity of the pop­u­la­tion sup­ports the focus on Europe, so the author­i­ties have to act ac­cord­ingly, and they do.

But if you look at many lead­ing per­son­al­i­ties and ac­tive sup­port­ers of Ge­or­gian Dream, they can hardly be called pro-Euro­pean fig­ures.

Pro-Euro­pean and pro-Rus­sian sen­ti­ments in pol­i­tics. GD, un­like UNM, does not have a pos­i­tive uni­fy­ing idea. It in­volves some peo­ple com­mit­ted to the Euro­pean choice. But many in the party are nos­tal­gic for the Soviet past. What unites them is, on the one hand, ha­tred for the UNM, and on the other hand – the aura of Ivan­ishvili's money.

On the whole, there are many peo­ple who have sim­ply not found their place in a Ge­or­gia mov­ing to­wards Europe. They are doomed to play sec­ond fid­dle in that sort of coun­try, so they need something else. Though they un­der­stand that life in gen­eral is bet­ter in Europe, its norms and in­sti­tu­tions are alien and in­com­pre­hen­si­ble to them. How­ever, it is dif­fi­cult for them to ar­tic­u­late what the al­ter­na­tive is. That's why they talk about na­tional tra­di­tions or Ortho­doxy, which Saakashvili allegedly fought against. There are many peo­ple like this, in­clud­ing among the younger gen­er­a­tion. Some of them sup­port GD, others – the openly anti-Western, pro-Rus­sian par­ties that sprung up rel­a­tively re­cently.

There are those who see Ge­or­gia as a Euro­pean-type state, but for whom Saakashvili and the UNM are fun­da­men­tally un­ac­cept­able for var­i­ous rea­sons. Some of them are also part of GD, but most call them­selves "shuashists" in Ge­or­gian or the "in-be­tween­ers" – they could sup­port a third force like Free Democrats1 or not vote at all.

On the pre- elec­tion bal­ance of power in Ge­or­gian pol­i­tics. Over­all, in the coun­try there is a cer­tain ap­a­thy to­wards the po­lit­i­cal class. About half of the elec­torate say they are go­ing to go to the polls, but do not know who to vote for. In other words, they don't like any­one. Given such high per­cent­ages of un­de­cided voters, any pre­dic­tions made now will be highly un­re­li­able. But at this stage we have no information apart from polls that give roughly equal num­bers.

GD and UNM are lead­ers among those who have made their minds up, with around 18-22% each. GM has 1-2% more, but there is ap­prox­i­mate par­ity be­tween them. Next are two other par­ties that are lead­ing the race to be­come the third force: the new State for the Peo­ple Move­ment created by opera singer Paata Burchu­ladze and Irakli Alasa­nia's Free Democrats. They dis­tance them­selves from both GD and the UNM. These forces are geared to­wards the "shuashists". Gen­er­ally, they sup­port a pro-Euro­pean Ge­or­gia, at least rhetor­i­cally, but we have more rea­son to be­lieve Alasa­nia’s com­mit­ment given his po­lit­i­cal bi­og­ra­phy.

Then there are three more par­ties that have a chance of over­com­ing the 5% thresh­old and get­ting into par­lia­ment, but this isn't guar­an­teed. They are the pop­ulist left-wing Labour Party and two openly anti-Western, pro-Rus­sian forces – David Tarkhan-Mouravi's Al­liance of Pa­tri­ots of Ge­or­gia and Nino Bur­janadze's Demo­cratic Move­ment2.

So if we look at the cur­rent data, no party will get more than 50% of seats in par­lia­ment. But GD is still bank­ing on a ma­jor­ity thanks to the ad­van­tages of in­cum­bency, which are most vis­i­ble in first-past-the-post con­stituen­cies, and could end up with al­most half of seats. It is quite likely that will be the case.


If it is not, then we can ex­pect dif­fi­cult coali­tion talks af­ter the elec­tion. I think Plan B for Bidz­ina Ivan­ishvili is as fol­lows: if he isn't able to buy the pop­u­la­tion, he can buy some of the par­ties that pass the thresh­old to make a rul­ing coali­tion with them. Con­versely, the UNM hope that GD will not win the elec­tions, which could swing the mo­men­tum and make an op­po­si­tion coali­tion headed by the UNM the more le­git­i­mate op­tion.

On the po­lit­i­cal evo­lu­tion of Ge­or­gian so­ci­ety. Saakashvili largely man­aged to over­come large- scale cor­rup­tion. No­body wants it back. But fight­ing this neg­a­tive phe­nom­e­non in­volves weak­en­ing per­sonal con­nec­tions that are based on ex­chang­ing var­i­ous ben­e­fits in cir­cum­ven­tion of the law. When Saakashvili's re­forms had just started (I'm giv­ing an ex­am­ple of changes in the univer­sity sys­tem), stu­dents came out against the ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter be­cause he wanted to stamp out the "in­sti­tu­tion of cousins". If ev­ery­thing is done ac­cord­ing to the law and con­nec­tions are not nec­es­sary, then why do you even need rel­a­tives, many peo­ple think? The tra­di­tional struc­ture of so­ci­ety

that Ge­or­gians are used to can be summed up by the prin­ci­ple "I scratch your back, you scratch mine – we're all friends and help each other". But this hap­pens to the detri­ment of the law, state and for­mal rules. So Saakashvili's re­forms were of­ten per­ceived as cul­tural vi­o­lence against the es­tab­lished be­liefs and tra­di­tions of so­ci­ety. In part, this is what created the im­pres­sion of his au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism, although those ac­cu­sa­tions also have some real grounds.

On the point of no re­turn on the path to­wards a mod­ern state. To some ex­tent, Ge­or­gian so­ci­ety might have al­ready passed this point. For ex­am­ple, Saakashvili pre­dicted that with­out him we would re­turn to She­vard­nadze- era cor­rup­tion. In­deed, one could ar­gue that some el­e­ments of nepo­tism have reared their heads. Ap­point­ments in many re­gions or state in­sti­tu­tions are of­ten based on per­sonal, fam­ily or friendly ties. But we haven't seen mas­sive cor­rup­tion. No mat­ter how tough GD's rhetoric is against the pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ment, in prac­tice they recog­nise Saakashvili's re­forms and try to pre­serve his achieve­ments. The party mem­bers know that if, for ex­am­ple, the po­lice start to take bribes again, a lot more peo­ple will de­mand the re­turn of Mikheil. So for now it is pos­si­ble to talk about the sta­bil­ity of the re­forms un­der­taken while the UNM were in power.

On the emer­gence of Ivan­ishvili in pol­i­tics. He re­turned to Ge­or­gia at the be­gin­ning of the 2000s, be­fore the Rose Rev­o­lu­tion. He has not been back to Rus­sia since then. Perhaps he had prob­lems with Putin, when Rus­sia started to put pres­sure on the oli­garchs, so he thought life at home would be calmer.

Ivan­ishvili is a very pri­vate, non-pub­lic per­son. He never ap­peared at crowded meet­ings, but qui­etly car­ried out char­ity work, pri­mar­ily in two ar­eas: sup­port­ing in­tel­lec­tu­als and the church. The big­gest church in Tbil­isi was built thanks to him. His ar­rival in pol­i­tics was a com­plete sur­prise.

De­spite his great aloof­ness, it turned out that Ivan­ishvili has some quite se­ri­ous in­tel­lec­tual am­bi­tions. Now he has got a taste for pub­lic de­bates, so con­stantly stresses that his "ca­pac­ity for anal­y­sis" is par­tic­u­larly well de­vel­oped. Ob­vi­ously, at one point, when Saakashvili started to lose his pop­u­lar­ity, but no fig­ure had emerged to coun­ter­bal­ance him, Ivan­ishvili de­cided that he could do this with his bil­lions. He was right: he promised that would be­come prime min­is­ter and did it, then re­signed a year later (which he also promised, though some­what ear­lier).

But why does he need power? Why did he leave as soon as he got it? What is the essence of his po­lit­i­cal project? This is the sub­ject of spec­u­la­tion. Ivan­ishvili clearly does not like to man­age the daily op­er­a­tions of the gov­ern­ment and be re­spon­si­ble for spe­cific pol­icy de­ci­sions. But he wants the gov­ern­ment to be loyal to him. Ac­cord­ing to var­i­ous es­ti­mates, his per­sonal wealth is about $7 bil­lion, and in Ge­or­gia no one else even has one bil­lion. So why not trans­late eco­nomic power into po­lit­i­cal power? He needed to find a for­mula: no mat­ter who is in gov­ern­ment, they should be his peo­ple.

Ob­vi­ously, in this case Ivan­ishvili cal­cu­lated ev­ery­thing likea busi­ness­man: he pur­chased Ge­or­gia as a po­lit­i­cal en­ter­prise and wants to keep a fig­u­ra­tive 51% stake in its lead­er­ship. The prime min­is­ters who fol­lowed him are just man­agers, ap­pointed to lead his new com­pany. While del­e­gat­ing some pow­ers to them, he can in­ter­vene in any­thing when­ever he sees fit. This al­lows Bidz­ina to live com­fort­ably in a coun­try that ba­si­cally be­longs to him, so he hopes to main­tain this sit­u­a­tion for a long time.

On the bal­ance be­tween the inf lu­ence of in­di­vid­u­als and in­sti­tu­tions in Ge­or­gian pol­i­tics and the state. A stan­dard ma­ture so­ci­ety should de­pend on in­sti­tu­tions. But un­til now we have been more de­pen­dent on per­son­al­i­ties and great men such as Gam­sakhur­dia, She­vard­nadze, Saakashvili... The lat­ter at­tempted to cre-


ate in­sti­tu­tions and was rea­son­ably suc­cess­ful. But while he was in power, it was thought that their sta­bil­ity rested on his per­sonal qual­i­ties. So far, we have not reached the point where the coun­try is more de­pen­dent on in­sti­tu­tions than a sin­gleper­son.

Perhaps Ivan­ishvili also thinks that he is as­sist­ing the de­vel­op­ment of in­sti­tu­tions. But he must con­tinue to per­son­ally guar­an­tee that the pro­cesses are oc­cur­ring cor­rectly. For him, the ref­er­ence point is 2030: he con­stantly re­peats that ev­ery­thing will be how it should by then... It's hard to es­cape the con­clu­sion that he hopes to keep a con­trol­ling stake in "Ge­or­gia Inc." un­til at least that time. But then he will just be turn­ing 74 and he leads a very healthy lifestyle, so we can only guess what he will want to do in the fu­ture.

On the fu­ture of Ge­or­gia in the next 5-10 years. Much de­pends on the re­sults of the elec­tions in Oc­to­ber, so it's dif­fi­cult to pre­dict. Even if Ivan­ishvili does keep power now, it is un­likely that he will re­tain his sta­ble ex­is­tence: the dis­sat­is­fac­tion in so­ci­ety will not go any­where. But if there is another gov­ern­ment that is not sub­or­di­nate to him, we shouldn't ex­pect peace and quiet ei­ther. So it is dif­fi­cult to make any pre­dic­tions for the next 5-10 years, although they could de­fine many as­pects of the coun­try's long-term de­vel­op­ment. We must re­mem­ber the in­sta­bil­ity around us: in Turkey, Ar­me­nia, Azer­bai­jan with its oil, Rus­sia, Ukraine, Europe... When ev­ery­thing is so un­cer­tain within the coun­try and around us, it is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine Ge­or­gia as an is­land of sta­bil­ity.

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