Georgia’s Surprising New Normal
For the first time in recent memory, Georgia's presidential race isn't about the big names.
On October 27, Georgians will go to the polls to choose their country’s next president. And, by all accounts, they will do exactly that. Unlike last year’s parliamentary elections, the 2013 presidential elections lack intrigue, lack scandal, lack magnetic, newsworthy personalities — and that’s exactly what makes them so interesting. Last year’s elections marked the first time that Georgia saw a peaceful, constitutional transfer of power in its modern history. Now, Georgia’s presidential elections will mark the country’s next major step towards political maturity and democratic consolidation: rational, undramatic predictability.
While most are dwelling over the widely discussed narrative of Georgia’s bitter political feuding, the real significance of the elections is not even the outcome of the race. This year, there is a universal expectation that the election will be conducted freely and fairly, and will offer voters realistic options — which seemed a lot to ask even a year ago. Barring a shocking political upset, a victory by either of the top two candidates should preserve Georgia’s political continuity. Though we’re in the early days yet, what makes this election so exciting is the prospect that democratic practices are finally beginning to take root. Considering the flawed elections in neighboring Armenia earlier this year, or more recently in Azerbaijan — and not to mention Russia’s time-honored proclivity for autocratic rule — this is no small feat.
Since gaining independence, Georgian politics have been all about the big personalities of its political titans, rather than their differing policy platforms. Georgia’s ultra-nationalist president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, led the country into civil war. He was then replaced by former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze, who managed to cobble together the rudiments of a state with a combination of foreign aid, graft, and a bit of duct tape. Then Shevardnadze was toppled by his old allies — including Mikheil Saakashvili, his former justice minister — in the Rose Revolution. Saakashvili and his United National Movement’s (UNM) tenure saw the development of a modern state, although not a particularly democratic one. It took yet another big personality, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream (GD) coalition, to unseat him. Yet by early 2014, Georgia is likely to have a technocratic president, prime minister, and a vibrant, competitive parliament. Not too long ago, this kind of scenario would have been virtually unthinkable.
Candidates do still matter, of course — just not quite in the way they used to. The slate of major presidential candidates underscores the relative openness of the race. True, most analysts expect the win to go to the ruling GD coalition’s candidate, former university rector turned education minister Giorgi Margvelashvili. Yet the second- and third-place candidates — the opposition UNM candidate Davit Bakradze and onetime parliamentary speaker Nino "Nine lives" Burjanadze — seem to have overcome the odds to give Margvelashvili some competition.
What’s more, the candidates seem to have been successful because of their rational, policy-driven approach to the election, not in spite of it. With little popular name recognition nor an independent party apparatus behind him, Margvelashvili was chosen at least partially because he does not fit into the classic Georgian political archetype of a dominating personality. Likewise, Bakradze, for his part, has a reputation for moderation and collegiality. Even Burjanadze, who comes from an old Soviet nomenklatura family, is the exception that proves the new rule. Unlike Margvelashvili and Bakradze, she represents the old guard of patroni politics where the client-patron exchange far outweighs actual policy positions. Yet in this election, she has positioned herself as a candidate for anti-UNM voters rebelling against the GD’s "soft touch": "allowing" ex-Interior Minister Bacho Akhalaia to be acquitted on some charges, punishing violence against minorities, and pursuing a pro-West foreign policy. Interestingly, Burjanadze has been able to win the little support she has not because she may be an able source for patronage, but because she represents a wholly distinctive political platform.
On top of this, whoever wins will inherit a vastly reduced presidency compared to the powers currently wielded by President Saakashvili, who is barred from running again by term limits. Constitutional changes made well ahead of last year’s parliamentary elections will shift significant powers to the prime minister’s office after the next presidential inauguration, a move widely interpreted as a convenient egress for Saakashvili to slide into the newly empowered premiership. However, fate did not cooperate with Saakashvili’s plans. In the October 2012 parliamentary election, Ivanishvili’s GD coalition was able to win premiership in a convincing and unexpected victory. Gone were the days of Saakashvili and his tight circle of allies dictating grandiose projects, policies, and economic winners on a whim.
As for Ivanishvili, he has announced — in keeping with a longstanding pledge — his intention to resign before the new year. The most popular man in Georgian politics, Ivanishvili has said that his only reason for entering politics in the first place was to spearhead course corrections. According to Ivanishvili, his stepping down is also an opportunity to help rid the country of its largely personality-driven politics. While GD’s pick for Ivanishvili’s successor is still unknown (though the prime minister says he already has someone in mind), the next prime minister is likely going to be someone in the same mold as presidential candidate Margvelashvili: accomplished and respected, but not a major force of personality.
Not only have the deck chairs been thrown overboard, but Georgia also appears to be making genuine progress towards democratic development and the rule of law. Contrary to some expressions of unease, most observers tend to agree that Georgia is moving in the right direction. A widely-anticipated report from the European Union’s special representative to Georgia, Thomas Hammarberg, gave strong marks to the GD government’s reforms, particularly in developing an independent judiciary and tackling elite corruption.
Still, much work remains. Georgia’s institutional checks and balances need to be strengthened, major decentralization reforms are long overdue, Georgia’s 300,000 or so internally displaced persons remain largely in limbo, and broad-based economic development remains very much a work in progress. Meanwhile, skeptics note that Ivanishvili still retains considerable power in Georgia’s political system by virtue of his outsized fortune and economic interests. Saakashvili’s critics point out that the ex-president will still exercise great influence through his UNM political machine.
Externally, other challenges persist. Despite the new government’s cautious outreach to Russia, Moscow continues to violate Georgia’s territorial integrity as well as the points of French-brokered ceasefire agreement that ended the 2008 invasion. While Georgia looks set to initial an Association Agreement with the European Union this November in Vilnius (with a potential signing as early as next spring), Russia is applying significant pressure in an effort to scuttle Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations. Pressure from Moscow has already torpedoed Armenia’s westward drift.
These not-inconsiderable issues aside, however, Georgia continues to move forward. If last year’s elections were a test on the country’s potential for a Western, democratic future, this year’s should show that it was no fluke. Any gradual shift from what political scientist Ilia Roubanis once referred to as Georgia’s "pluralistic feudalism" to politics focused on ideas is a major step forward for democratization. This allows voters to have a realistic say in the sometimes messy sausage-making of modern parliamentary politics. Georgia’s government may not be perfectly efficient or well-calibrated to Western sensibilities, but it will be a more representative and durable reflection of Georgian society.
Georgia’s famous partisan infighting will continue to be a feature of its political landscape even after Ivanishvili and Saakashvili depart the scene, but it will do so on the steadier ground of an increasingly consolidated democratic apparatus and culture. Of course, Ivanishvili can count on the influence of his personality — and wealth — to extend beyond his term as prime minister. Likewise, much of Saakashvili’s party-driven economic influence remains intact. Ivanishvili and Saakashvili will remain political forces for awhile yet, but there is no question that era of parade of ruling personalities will take a big hit with their departures. Whatever the outcome, this year’s presidential elections in Georgia are certain to matter, not because everything is on the line, but because for the first time in living memory, perhaps nothing is.