The New Government’s New Russia Policy: why Georgia is not lost?
On October 1st the Georgian people went to the polls to elect their 150-seat supreme assembly. Georgian Dream, a coalition of multiple oppositional parties unified under the billionaire politician Bidzina Ivanishvili, captured a strong parliamentary majority. This much unexpected turnout of events opened up a discussion on the possible future of Georgian-Russian relations, which entered a long-lasting stand-off in August 2008 when the two neighbouring countries went to war. Anticipating Georgian withdrawal from its western ambitions and its gradual move under Russia’s sphere of influence is largely exaggerated; there are numerous reasons why a radical change in Russian-Georgian relations cannot and should not be expected with the new government in power.
A test for Georgian democracy
The 2012 parliamentary election in Georgia grabbed extraordinary foreign media coverage, and for a reason. Above all, many in Europe and the United States considered the election a potential remedy for Georgian democracy’s deteriorated image and a test of the country’s further democratic credentials. The fair and peaceful conduct of Election Day, thanks largely to the professionalism of the local electoral administration and its international supporters, combined with the triumph of the oppositional coalition and the subsequent peaceful transition of power, an unprecedented occasion for Georgia’s vicinity, doubled the international attention.
Furthermore, oppositional victory came as a big surprise for many as United National Movement and particularly its leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, was viewed as an ardent reformist, a reliable ally for the Americans in the region, and most importantly, the uncontested political personality. Saakashvili’s team of young western-educated mavericks came to power in 2004 with high public confidence and managed to modernise the country, eradicate corruption and drag the country from the verge of state failure.
Finally and most notably, United National Movement tried to depict the parliamentary election as a choice between them as the pro-Western political power and Georgian Dream, a Russia-oriented cluster of obsolete political figures, both nationally and internationally. The fact that Ivanishvili made his fortune in the Russian Federation added with promises to “normalise” relations with Russia and with his reluctance to openly criticise Vladimir Putin’s governance, became the primary arguments for his supposedly pro-Russian orientation. Georgian Dream’s constant reassurance in the pre-election campaign that the coalition prioritised North Atlantic and European integration went to no avail.
Therefore, when the opposition garnered a landslide majority in parliament, many Georgia-watchers in the foreign media hurried to conclude that the change in the Georgian government would play in favour of Russia’s interest in the Caucasus, and that Georgia’s western aspirations would be sacrificed in the name of democratic transition. While this consideration definitely deserves credit as there is much to be seen in the future, close examination of Georgian Dream coalition’s internal constitution and the general trend of Georgian-Russian relations leaves much room for scepticism.
Georgian Dream’s declared electoral promise was the continuation of Georgia’s European and North-Atlantic ideals, while striving to “normalise relations with Russia”. Although it is unclear how the new government could achieve these two seemingly conflicting objectives without conceding either of them, the coalition’s first steps as the country’s ruling party and their post-election rhetoric give no ground to doubt their intention of giving up the Euro-Atlantic objectives or moderating them in anticipation of pleasing their northern neighbour. Theoretically even if it was to happen, the factors described below would limit the autonomy of the newly appointed government in foreign policy decision-making and guarantee that Georgia stays on the chosen track.
The issue of territorial integrity
All things being equal, there is at least one major theme that Russia and Georgia could encounter a deadlock on: namely territorial integrity. The memory of the Russian invasion and Russia’s continuous support for Abkhaz and South Ossetian de facto administrations is so fresh and painful for Georgians that it is highly unlikely that any Georgian government would attempt to start up communicating with Russia from a blank page. Ceding on the issue of territorial integrity whatever the benefit behind it, is a free ticket to a political inferno in Georgian reality. And now that the practice of democratic regime change exists, the new government has to and most probably will be more cautious in their foreign policy decisions in order not to frustrate their electorate before upcoming elections.
One also needs to look at the internal political arrangement of the new government and the ruling party when assessing the future prospects of Georgian-Russian relations. To this end, it is noteworthy that the Georgian Dream coalition is not a monolithic entity. It is largely centred around Bidzina Ivanishvili but he is not the only one to set the pace and pull the strings; the two most influential member parties and strongest advocates of Georgia’s Western aspirations – the Free Democrats and the Republicans – occupy 21 parliamentary mandates and hypothetically, if things were to go wrong and Ivanishvili flirted with the Putin-Medvedev duo, these two parties could potentially serve as powerful king makers and balance out the parliamentary power difference between the United National Movement and Georgian Dream coalition.
Although politically in the lame duck position, constitutionally Mikheil Saakashvili will remain in power for one more year, before Georgia finally transforms into a semi-parliamentary state. Until then, the president will serve as chief addressee when it comes to the field of foreign policy, retain the distant but tangible right to cause government crisis, and even dismiss the Parliament of Georgia under extraordinary circumstances.
There are numerous reasons why the fundamental political change in Russian-Georgian relations cannot and should not be expected in the nearest future: the dichotomy of Georgian Dream’s foreign policy objectives coupled with the coalition’s inability to consolidate their supporters around a decisive Russia-oriented foreign policy, and the presence of a strong ex-ruling oppositional party, stands as a guarantee that under the newly sworn-in government, a radical Russian-Georgian political reset is hardly realistic.
Tornike Zurabashvili is an independent researcher based in Tbilisi, Georgia. He is a graduate of Tbilisi State University, Department of International Relations.