Who will benefit from developments in Georgia?

The parliamentary elections held this month in Georgia represent adaptation to the changing circumstances and democratic developments in Caucasia, and it appears that they will lead to some changes in the region, as well.

In the lead-up to election, the successes and failures of Mikhail Saakashvili, who pioneered the process of Westernization in the country, were the subjects of extensive debate. Within this debate, we can point to many factors in the growth of popular support for groups in opposition to Saakashvili.

The Georgian Dream coalition, which garnered 55 percent of the vote in defeating Saakashvili’s United National Movement, is made up of liberal factions and some center-right groups. Businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili, the leader of the coalition who only recently got into politics, has already gained recognition and fame around the world for his party’s victory in the election.

Some of the politicians in the coalition had earlier sided with Saakashvili during the Rose Revolution of 2003, which resulted in his presidency. But these politicians parted ways with the president soon after and joined the opposition against Saakashvili in the protests held against him in 2007 and 2009, giving support to Levan Gachechiladze in the presidential election held in 2008. The political struggle ultimately resulted in the victory of another businessman, Bidzina Ivanishvili, this month.

The influence of the businessman in political administration remains controversial in the post-Soviet era in light of a lack of democratic progress in countries under the influence of oligarchs so far. There are some concerns about the decline of President Saakashvili, who introduced remarkable democratic reforms over the past years in Georgia, and the potential impacts of this decline in the near future. Undoubtedly, Saakashvili has made many mistakes in the implementation of his policies based on Western values. In addition to the nationalist approach towards the territorial disputes involving Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the repression of Muslims in Ajaria and torture in prisons have affected Georgians’ views on the leader. However, the primary reason for Saakashvili’s defeat in the parliamentary elections is the deterioration in the economy and the strong interference in the Soviet-style administration mechanism. The Georgian case shows that the adaptation of the people in former Soviet states to reform and their readiness and willingness to embrace the process of change has great importance. In a country like Georgia where ethnic and religious diversity is visible, it is hard for Saakashvili to promote reformist policies among the people and make them sustainable.

Concerns over the deterioration in the economy

Most people hold positive views on the progress secured over the last decade; however, they are also visibly concerned about the deterioration in the economy, including inflation and growing unemployment, as well as troubles associated with Russia’s harsh and strong policies in the aftermath of the South Ossetia crisis in 2008.

In his speech after losing the election this year, Saakashvili noted that he does not endorse the policies of the Georgian Dream Coalition but respects the election results for the sake of democratic progress in Georgia. There are now some discussions and controversies on the potential policies of the new administration, given that Saakashvili has aimed for Westernization in his policies and has eliminated bribery and renewed the bureaucracy. The Georgian Dream Coalition has no experience in politics and is a diverse and loose coalition that includes figures from different political backgrounds. For this reason, there are some questions in Georgian minds about its ability to perform as a political entity. Analysts suggest that serious disagreements are on the horizon within the coalition on how to approach the country’s thorny issues, something that may lead to political crises. Today, the wisest policy that the new government can pursue is reliance on reason and wisdom in all major issues that have weakened Georgia and deteriorated its economy.

For his own part, Ivanishvili vowed after his victory to bring Georgia into NATO as a full member. However, it will be incumbent on him to improve relations with Russia at the same time. The new government’s political efficacy and policy vis-à-vis Abkhazia and South Ossetia is also a matter of curiosity; the government has to embrace ethnic and religious groups that have been repressed in the country. Ivanishvili remarked during the election campaign that he did not understand why Armenians live in Georgia because “they have a country of their own.” The comment was scorned by Armenians in the predominantly Armenian Javakheti region, which gave strong support to Saakashvili in the elections. This statement was interpreted with lenience in Armenia, where authorities expressed their hope that Tbilisi would seek to improve its bilateral relations. Likewise, statements by Abkhaz officials emphasize the need for the new government to pursue and implement intelligent policies. It is not difficult to predict the roadmap and polices of Georgia that would improve its ties with neighboring countries including Turkey and Azerbaijan in an effort to boost its economy.

The dramatic reforms that Georgia has introduced so far towards becoming a Western state, and the economic progress it has made accordingly, is a great opportunity for bordering nations. However, given the pro-Russian wind change in Ukraine and the suggestions that Ivanishvili is a pro-Russian oligarch, some changes may be expected in policies coming from Tbilisi. The US and European states viewed Georgia’s presidential elections as fair and democratic and congratulated its politicians, but Western powers have concerns about the new era that Georgia is stepping into. To them, the interests of dominant powers in the region are as important as the national interests of Georgia.

Mehmet Fatih ÖZTARSU

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