Tuesday, 27 December 2011

The Caspian in 2012 - Georgia

From now until the end of the year, I will be running a series of posts offering some (guarded) predictions for 2012.

Like Armenia, Georgia has parliamentary elections in 2012 (in October) preceding a presidential vote the following year. Like Armenia, the vote pits an entrenched but tainted government against a controversial opposition.

President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement still dominates Georgia, in politics and in media. UNM offices are central to local politics, often doubling as the seat of the local government. Most of the opposition is divided, under-funded, and in some cases presumed to be backed by either Moscow or the government.

Elite corruption remains entrenched; democracy remains largely a paper concept. “Parliament is kind of a joke”, says an anti-corruption campaigner. The government’s grandiloquent schemes indicate President Saakashvli’s taste for the grand gesture rather than addressing the country’s poverty and lack of democracy. Although there has been a very limited demarche with Russia recently, relations remain tense; the 2008 war, and the country’s democratic shortcomings, have stalled Euro-Atlantic integration.

Against this backdrop, the country’s political scene has been shaken up by the entry into politics of Bidzina Ivanishvili, the reclusive billionaire and philanthropist. Speaking in late November in his business centre overlooking Tbilisi, he exhibited a remarkable confidence that he could reshape Georgian politics (I have a longer piece coming out on Ivanishvili for the Foreign Policy Centre soon).

Ivanishvili has formed a public movement, Georgian Dream, as a prelude to forming a political party. His plans to do so have been set back by a court’s decision to strip him of his citizenship, which is required to set up a political party (he insists, quite reasonably, that the decision is political in nature). Expect him to put one of his family members at the head of the party, which will undercut his image and sense of purpose somewhat.

Ivanishvili is working with Irakli Alasania’s Free Democrats and Davit Usupashvili’s Republicans, two of the more moderate, pragmatic opposition groups. However, Ivanishvili’s ambition and financial resources may marginalise his coalition partners and reduce Georgian Dream’s appeal as a broad movement based around policies rather than – as so often in Georgia – outsized personalities.

The big question is: can the coalition win a majority? It seems extremely unlikely at present. Polling, even commissioned by a think-tank funded by Ivanishvili, puts his movement four points behind the UNM: once the initial excitement has worn off, and once the government begins leaning on its administrative resources, this is likely to dip.

What will happen if the election is rigged? The government is under serious international pressure to hold a clean vote and, as in Armenia, it has more to gain by doing so. But, as in Armenia, old habits die hard. Both Ivanishvili and Alasania distance themselves from the ‘radical opposition’ which seeks to change the status quo through street protests, but insist they stand firm against fraud: “if the election was blatantly fraudulent, we would not legitimise this”. What this means in practice isn’t clear, but it suggests that street rallies aren’t entirely off the table.

Prior to the election, expect the government to set out some big policy initiatives: reorganising parliament, new economic schemes, new diplomatic initiatives, and so on. Saakashvili is likely to retain significant power after the election, thanks to a controversial new constitution, despite leaving the presidential palace. There will also be a scramble to anoint his successor – current bets are on Vano Merabishvili, the powerful Interior Minister.

The run-up to the vote might also see a recurrence of the mysterious terror plots and bomb blasts which have periodically rattled Georgia since the war. The government insists they are orchestrated by Russia in a bid to destabilise the country (the new National Security Concept emphasises this); the opposition claims that they are false flag operations to spook the populace into voting for the UNM. The truth is probably somewhere in between, and either way we are likely to see more of them in 2012.

Integration into the Euro-Atlantic area will remain slow. Negotiations with the EU on a free trade area began in December, but will take time. Political branches of Western institutions will be waiting to see how the elections pan out before giving Tbilisi more encouragement.

Relations with Russia will remain distant and fraught, especially with Vladimir Putin back at the helm, but will probably be stable. Talks on Russian withdrawal from Abkhazia and South Ossetia will go nowhere; if relations do improve, it will be in less political spheres – trade, flights, passports.

Next year’s elections mark a watershed in Georgia. With the relationship with Moscow frosty but steady, and the journey to the West redefined as much longer, the vote will mark the end of the August War era. Whatever the makeup of the new parliament, and whoever governs Georgia from 2013 onwards, the country’s leadership will no longer be able to keep referring back to 2008. 

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