The problem with Georgia’s political brand
Georgian security officers might have been complicit in the abduction of Afgan Muktarli, an exiled Azerbaijani journalist, which took place on May 29th in Tbilisi. Later on, Mukhtarli was found in a Baku detention facility. Local opposition and non-governmental organisations argue that the country is retreating from its democratic path and that the ruling Georgian Dream is supporting the regime in Baku.
This event, just like the 2008 August War, the recent clashes during an anti-homophobia rally and various other events, reflects the existence of two parallel Georgias: Georgia as a political brand, created by the former president Mikhail Saakashvili, and Georgia as a political actor of international relations which has to maneuver in the global and regional political environment. The brand is slowly being dismantled, as the country is increasingly failing to hide the real political processes underway within its borders. This in turn, has led to a painful disillusionment on the part of the local population.
Georgia’s political brand
Mikhail Saakashvili’s time in office was full of hope, reforms, achievements and, of course, misdeeds. Whether or not one positively assesses his two terms, it is clear that he was a well-educated politician and a brilliant PR campaigner. While in power he started building a new political brand of the country, which evolved over the years, reflecting the attitudes of the governing elite. The more Saakashvili’s political team was falling into authoritarianism, the weaker the brand was becoming. By the end of the Rose Revolution government’s time in office, when a new political grouping – the Georgian Dream coalition, defeated the president’s party in the parliamentary and presidential elections in 2012-2013, the brand began to lose its appeal.
There are several reasons for this loss. First, the brand was based on the perception that the country is a beacon of democracy in the South Caucasus surrounded by close friends and strategic allies (Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan) and oppressed by its northern neighbour, the Russian Federation. Moreover, it was meant to be protected by the red line that Russia supposedly could not cross, drawn by the former US president George W. Bush. Second, Saakashvili managed not only to build a well-structured political brand but also to persuade the majority of local actors that it reflects the reality. In practice, however, this was only an illusion used by the Georgian elite, both governmental and non-governmental, to keep society misinformed and to attract foreign political and financial resources.
What has been beneath the perception is a harsh political, social and economic reality where Georgia is a relatively democratic state in a very complex environment and a geopolitically sensitive region. All the neighbouring countries are falling into authoritarianism, often trying to further their own national interests with the help of Tbilisi. Finally, in their actions, the ruling elite has to take into consideration the existing regional tendencies and political climate. Georgia, as a political actor, does not possess any significant political, economic or military power and, so far, is highly dependent on its Western strategic allies, especially the US.
The harsh reality
Despite the well-organised and structured nature of Georgia’s political brand, the country is unable to hide the political processes taking place on the ground. The harsh reality often resurfaces and causes sincere astonishment and uproar. Probably the most painful disillusionment came when society realised that there have been no red lines in the South Caucasus and that Russia is capable of crossing any border. George W. Bush’s statement was just a part of his PR campaign in the wake of the growing dissatisfaction of American electorate with his presidency.
The 2008 August War reflected Tbilisi’s deep vulnerability to Russian military force. It also painfully showed that NATO’s was unable to provide support that Georgians had hoped for, that is military units on the ground fighting along Tbilisi against the aggressor. Furthermore, the recognition of Georgia’s separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states by Moscow once again proved that the country has been as vulnerable as ever. Georgia might be politically and morally supported by the West, but it is still defenceless in the face of military and other challenges that global and regional processes may unleash.
Finally, Georgia’s allegedly established democracy is a myth. After coming to power, the pro-Western post-revolutionary government assured its strategic partners that it would put the country on a democratic track. The Western allies (especially, the US under George W. Bush) immediately began to praise Tbilisi’s democratic transition. Both governmental and non-governmental organisations were working hard to create the image of Georgia as a beacon of democracy in the South Caucasus.
Yet, a peaceful meeting of the LGBT community in the capital on May 17th 2013 to celebrate the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia turned into a violent confrontation. Thousands of conservative ultra-Orthodox demonstrators broke through police cordons, clashing with gay rights activists. Georgia’s civil society reacted by gathering signatures under a petition calling the government to punish religious figures involved in the incident. But the newly elected Georgian Dream Coalition turned a blind eye, which showed that while the country may be democratic in comparison with its neighborhood, it is still far from the type of democracy it aspires to be.
Allies and enemies
The political dichotomy of Georgia’s allies and enemies built by Saakashvili is slowly vanishing too. In this scenario, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan are presented as the country’s close allies and strategic partners, while Russia as the only threat to Tbilisi’s sovereignty, democracy and institutional stability. In reality, however, the dichotomy reflects rather the political correctness of Georgia’s elite and their attempts to avoid further escalation of the political situation in the region. The state is surrounded by authoritarian regimes that are trying to use Tbilisi to further their own national interests.
Istanbul, for instance, is pushing its neighbour to close all schools and organisations connected to the exiled Turkish politician, Fethullah Gülen. Following Turkey’s request, the Georgian government detained the manager of the private Turkish Demirel College. Moreover, at Turkey’s request, the authorities halted discussions in the Georgian parliament on making Didgoroba – the celebration of the 1121th anniversary of the victory of the Kingdom of Georgia over the Great Seljuk Empire, a public holiday. According to official sources, the Embassy of Turkey in Georgia asked that the parliament stops the proceedings over the legislative proposal because the day marks a great defeat for Turks.
The case of Afgan Mukhtarli’s, an exiled Azerbaijani journalist who was abducted by members of Georgian and Azerbaijani security forces and sent to a detention facility in Baku, is another great example of Tbilisi’s vulnerability. Human rights activists argue that the Georgian government collaborated with Azerbaijan due to the pressure from SOCAR gas and oil company. It is not a secret that Saakashvili’s early attempts to free the country from Russia’s Gazprom leverage led to a dramatic dependence on Azerbaijan’s energy resources.
Finally, Armenia with its Russian military base located in Gyumri, constitutes another veritable Damocles’ sword hanging over Tbilisi.
All in all, while Georgia needs a brand that would help to promote its national interests, the local elite should not get deluded. The country is on the path to democracy, but one that is still far from the Western definition. Moreover, the situation in the region is fragile and Tbilisi must realise that an existing dichotomy of allies and enemies is no longer relevant. The neighbouring countries will continue to put pressure on Georgia to defend their authoritarian ends. This becomes clear, when the brand faces a reality check.
Archil Sikharulidze is a co-founder of the Center for Systemic Political Research (CSPR), a Tbilisi-based research institute, and an editor of the Georgian Journal of Systemic Politics (GJSP). He is also a lecturer at Tbilisi State University.