On 28th of October 2018 Georgia will hold the last direct presidential elections. Currently ongoing pre-election campaign once more proves that the most effective and widely-used political narrative deals with the so-called pro-Russian forces working on the Kremling to undermine Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. This political mechanism of mutual libeling, discrediting and stigmatization is a part of securitisation process of Russia in Georgia. The article examines basic principles of securitisaion theory and its appliance to Georgian political culture.
The campaign of Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia (two consecutive terms from January 2004 to November 2013) and the ex-governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region (2015-2016), against Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko reached its apex and now it is close to the end.
On Dec. 17, Saakashvili’s supporters made an attempt to seize the building of the October palace in Kiev: the campaigners broke the entrance doors, got through the National Guard into the building, but the police stopped them with fire-extinguishers. As a result of the failed seizure more than 30 police officers and protesters got injured. The Ukrainian authorities imposed criminal charges against those who tried to seize the palace, while Saakashvili described this incident as the orchestrated provocation.
The relations between Saakashvili and the Ukrainian president sharply declined in July 2017, when he was forcefully resigned from the position of the governor of the Odessa region. On Sept. 10, the former Georgian president illegally crossed the borders of Ukraine through Poland to bring together the Ukrainian opposition against President Petro Poroshenko. This is how the Georgian-Ukrainian saga has been developing. After Saakashvili’s direct calls for overthrowing the current regime in Ukraine, the Ukrainian authorities have no choice, but keep him at bay from the domestic policymaking.
Amidst this background increasing number of experts are concerned with the repetition of the events of 2014 — a new revolution or the Saakashvili-initiated Maidan. However, many forget about the fact that numerous foreign politicians, including the Georgian ones, have been involved into Ukraine’s internal policymaking for years.
The Georgian trace in Kiev: A new old story
The very fact that Saakashvili has been participating in the Ukrainian political life since 2003 (and he makes no bones about it) is remarkable in its nature. It was the time when Georgian professional revolutionaries from the organization “Kmara” (in Georgian it means enough) trained their Ukrainian counterparts from the group “It is Time!” how to conduct protests and oust undesirable governments.
“Kmara” was very active during the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia, which toppled the government of President Eduard Shevarnadze. After these events a new government under Saakashvili actively supported political changes in Kiev both on grassroots and governmental levels.
It is not secret that the representatives of the organization “It is Time” used the same methods, which they learned from their Georgian colleagues. Moreover, Saakashvili personally knew ex-Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, who got power as a result of the so-called Orange Revolution in 2004, and was an ardent supporter of the latter’s government.
One could also remember the scandal between Tbilisi and Kiev in 2010, when almost 2,000 people were sent to monitor the presidential election in Ukraine as unofficial observers. Yet Ukraine’s central electoral commission denied them in registration: Viktor Yunukovich’s Party of Regions accused then-Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko of using the Georgian observers to destabilize the situation in Ukraine. At the same time, the Georgian opposition accused Saakashvili’s government of attempting to interfere in the election of the friendly country, which could result in the crisis in the Georgian-Ukrainian relations.
The second wave of the Georgian interference in the domestic affairs of Ukraine started in 2014, with the Euromaidan movement: in the beginning of the protests the Saakashvili coalition, which lost both the parliamentary and presidential elections in 2012-2013, was actively engaged in the internal policy of Ukraine. The former Georgian president regularly took the floor before the protesters, with his calls for overthrowing the Yanukovich regime.
After the Euromaidan protests, his colleagues were appointed to the key positions in the post-revolutionary government of Ukraine. Saakashvili himself was promoted to the position of the governor of the Odessa region. But he failed to implement his reforms and apply the Georgian experience in Ukraine, because he could not come up with a compromise with the Ukrainian government.
Because Georgia required the extradition of Saakashvili, a political refugee, who faced criminal charges in his home country, the diplomatic ties between Tbilisi and Kiev were in decline.
Moreover, the deterioration in the Georgian-Ukrainian relations could be also explained with Kiev’s rhetoric: Ukrainian politicians accused the Georgian Dream, a new ruling party, and its leader Bidzina Ivanishvili of having close ties with Kremlin.
Will Saakashvili bring together the opposition for a new Maidan?
Despite Saakashvili’s perseverance, he and his supporters are hardly likely to orchestrate a new revolution. There is no reason to expect another Maidan so far.
First, the revolutionary potential of the Ukrainian society is exhausted. One should remember that between the first revolution in 2004 and the second one in 2014 there were 10 peaceful years. So, the Ukrainians had enough time to weigh up all the pros and cons of the Orange revolution and prepare to a new one in 2014, which took place after ex-President Yanukovich didn’t sign the Association Agreement with the EU. Today the Ukrainian population is still recovering from the 2014 events and not ready to take to streets again. Moreover, the society cannot fight on two fronts — with its own authorities, on the one hand, and with Donbas, on the other hand. Now the Ukrainians are interested in maintaining the country’s territorial integrity, which could be easily undermined by another upheaval.
Second, the political diversity in Ukraine could prevent a new revolution: Today people interpret the domestic political events and the reasons of the revolutionary movement in different ways. Today there is no unifying idea, which could bring people together. During the Euromaidan people were inspired by the idea of the common European path, today there is no such trend. The rhetoric of Saakashvili, who seeks to organize another coup d’état, is too radical for most Ukrainians, who are fed up with these calls for overthrowing Ukraine’s current government. After all, any upheaval goes beyond the well-established democratic frames and might be met with criticism in the West.
The fight with corruption could not be an option as well: this campaign can’t bring people together and reinvigorate the revolutionary movement. Thus, Saakashvili’s unilateral attempts, supported by Yulia Timoshenko, produce the impression that we are witnessing nothing but another political rivalry within the country.
Finally, the possibility of a new revolution is very dim, because the Ukrainian government learned how to deal with emerging protests, became more sustainable and has a sort of immunity against a new upheaval. And the experience of the Euromaidan is helpful in this regard. Poroshenko takes into account the experience of his predecessor and is reforming the country’s law enforcement forces to be able to withstand any social unrest in future.
Foreign factors are also not in favor of the Saakashvili-led Maidan in Ukraine. Yes, the former Georgian president enjoys the support of some representatives from the Western countries, for example, in the U.S. Yet today he does get a free ride from his Western patrons. Yes, he could get some financial support and guarantees to launch the political activity in Ukraine, but it is the West that determines the limits of the allowable, and Saakashvili should know this.
That’s why his opportunities today are very limited. Both Ukraine and the West are fed up with the perennial instability and internal conflicts. All this means that the Saakashvili-led revolution is hardly likely to take place. The question of his political activity will be resolved depending on the level of his radicalism.
Yet if he is removed from the political rivalry, this will mark the end of the Georgian political influence on the Ukrainian policymaking. It will also raise the question about the future of the Georgian troops in eastern Ukraine, which are loyal to the ideals of the Saakashvili government.
Yes, Saakashvili contributed a lot to the post-Soviet space, but many stakeholders are tired with him and want his show to come to an end.
*In the Russian version, the author used the term “Mikhomaidan” which consists of two words — the first name of former Georgian President “Mikheil” and “Maidan”. This neologism means the capability of Saakashvili to organize a new revolution in Ukraine. The Russian headlines reads: “The Georgian crusade against Kiev: Is “Mikhomaidan” possible?
On October 8th, Georgia hosted a parliamentary election. The ruling Georgian Dream party supported by local tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili, received 48.68 per cent of the vote, while the leading oppositional force the United National Movement received 27.11 per cent. The third party entering the parliament is the Patriotic Alliance, with 5.01 per cent of the vote. On October 30th, in some districts, the second round of votes will take place to elect majoritarian MPs.
Some hoped that the election will lead to the development of a multiparty system. Even though it seems to have happened, the results caught the majority of Georgians by surprise. Instead of having a few relatively equal and mutually dependent pro-Western parties, there is a strong sense of dominance of the Georgian Dream over the UNM. Moreover, liberal parties such as the Republican Party and Free Democrats, supported by the country’s strategic partners, did not manage to break the 5 per cent threshold and enter the parliament. At the same time, the Patriotic Alliance, known for its nationalistic and aggressive rhetoric and frequently seen as a pro-Russian force, will be represented in the main legislative body.
The outcome reflects a few interesting dilemmas that Georgian democracy is facing – a possible constitutional majority of the Georgian Dream, transformation of UNM into democracy guarantor and the increased popularity of nationalistic rhetoric.
The phantom menace
The Georgian Dream is hoping to achieve a constitutional majority. According to existing practices the Georgian parliament has 150 members, 77 of which are elected on the basis of proportional representation and 73 through a single-mandate system representing their constituencies. Constitutional majority requires 113 seats. In the first round of the election, the Georgian Dream have received 67 seats (23 – majoritarian, 44 – proportional), the UNM 27 seats (0 majoritarian , 27 proportional) and the Patriotic Alliance 6 seats (0 majoritarian, 6 proportional). In the second round, the parties will be competing for 50 majoritarian mandates. At the moment, the ruling party needs an additional 44 seats to achieve a constitutional majority, and it is likely that it will reach its goal.
The option that one party will hold a full carte-blanche is widely feared. There already have been calls from oppositional forces and civil society not to let the Georgian Dream win the constitutional majority. This is due both to the experiences of the recent past as well as the party’s controversial initiatives.
The last government that held a constitutional majority was the United National Movement between 2004 and 2012. This period was particularly complex as far as Georgia’s political party system is concerned. Mikhail Saakashvili managed to consolidate the power vertical around himself, and the legislative body completely lost its role. Unbalanced by other state institutions, both Saakashvili and the UNM made a number of serious mistakes that pushed the country on an authoritarian path. It is therefore argued that the Georgian Dream also will not have enough political will to resist the temptation of unilateral rule.
The second issue is related to the controversial initiatives that the Georgian Dream will most likely try to implement. In particular, there are a few extremely sensitive amendments to the constitution that the ruling government would like to make – namely the definition of the family and regulations related to the election of the President.
In the wake of debates regarding the LGBT minority in Georgia, some members of the Georgian Dream have called for a constitutional amendment to the definition of family that would automatically ban same-sex marriages. The initiative has been highly criticised not only by human rights groups but also by some members of the Georgian Dream. The ruling party, unable to make changes in the absence of a constitutional majority, promised to implement the initiative if it gets enough seats in the parliament.
The changes in the process of electing the President are another controversial idea. The Georgian Dream members argue that the next president of Georgia should be elected by the parliament rather than through direct vote. They insist that the body reflects the will of the people and thus there is no need for additional full-scale election. At the same time, oppositional forces argue in favour of keeping the existing system because of the high chances that the Georgian Dream will receive constitutional majority. In such a scenario, the party will control not only the executive and legislative bodies, but also the presidency.
Georgian society’s unwillingness to witness another constitutional majority rule has led to an astonishing consolidation of calls from oppositional political parties, NGOs and other institutions to vote for UNM.
The United National Movement has a controversial image. On the one hand, Saakashvili and his team have been famous for pushing outstanding reforms that transformed Georgia into a modern state. On the other hand, they are remembered for their aggressive politics and the establishment of an authoritarian regime. The former government is loved and hated simultaneously. But the last parliamentary election dramatically changed the role of the UNM and its followers.
Gia Khukhashvili, once a close ally and advisor of the Coalition Georgian Dream’s founder, Bidzina Ivanishvili, criticised the current government for pursuing a destructive pre-election campaign. Khukhasvili, an active opponent of Saakashvili and his political team, argued that the Georgian Dream intentionally discredited other political forces and managed to build another two-party parliamentary system, with the UNM playing a role of the guarantor of democracy. Moreover, Rustavi 2 Broadcasting Company, allegedly loyal to Saakashvili, will become the main oppositional TV channel and watchdog. According to Khukhashvili, instead of dismantling the UNM as a political force, the Georgian Dream contributed to its image as a crucial element of the democratic process.
The views of Khukhashvili are widely shared. David Berdzenishvili, former member of the Coalition Georgian Dream, urged the electorate to vote against the ruling party. Even local NGOs called on pro-Western parties and groups to to support the UNM in order to prevent the Georgian Dream from establishing a constitutional majority.
This is a perfect opportunity for the UNM to strengthen its position in Georgian politics once again. The party, which the majority of experts expected to disappear, not only managed to enter the parliament but also restored its role as a democracy guarantor.
The rise of pro-Russian forces
As soon as the preliminary results were published, the crucial question was whether the Patriotic Alliance will enter the parliament. It did. The information sparked a mass outrage all over social media. Members of Georgian civil society were shocked that the party was able to outmaneuver the liberal, pro-Western forces. The main problems with the Patriotic Alliance are their disdain for the UNM, ultra-conservative nationalistic ideology and allegations of being a pro-Russian force.
The Patriotic Alliance was founded in 2013 and originates in the Resistance Movement. Its main aim was to fight the United National Movement as an underground force. It refuses any cooperation with the party and demands from the current government to prosecute all members of the UNM who were involved in criminal activities during Saakashvili’s time in office. So far, it has been perceived as a group with radical views.
The radicalism is reflected in their approach to Georgia’s domestic and foreign affairs. The Patriotic Alliance opposes the mainstream liberal narrative and Georgia’s aspirations to join NATO, and promotes conservative ideas such as the increasing role of Georgian Orthodox Church, family values and so on. The group’s election advertisement was removed by Rustavi 2 Broadcasting Company and modified by Georgian Public Broadcaster due to its anti-Turkish character.
Finally, it has been labelled by pro-Western groups as a pro-Russian party. It is no secret that Georgian society is extremely sensitive to the issue of Russia and its presence in Georgia. For years, Saakashvili’s government was using Russia as an iconic enemy to marginalise and oppress its opponents. But the members of Coalition Georgian Dream share the tendency to manipulate the voters using the Russian card.Hence, the election to parliament of a political movement that is, according to some, financed and steered by Russia is considered as a threat to national security and democracy in general.
It seems that there is more trouble to come for Georgia. On the one hand, the country’s ruling party seeks to gain a constitutional majority, which is feared by almost everyone. On the other hand, we are witnessing the transformation of the United National Movement from a controversial political force to a democracy guarantor in the future parliament. Finally, we are facing the rise of an aggressive nationalistic movement. The election of the Patriotic Alliance to parliament will further deepen the paranoia related to pro-Russian forces invading Georgia and leading the country astray from Western values.
Parliamentary elections are coming to Georgia. This Saturday, Georgia’s electorate will go to the polls to define the country’s future for the next four years. While Georgian and foreign officials have been mostly positive in their assessments of the election environment (“the most democratic elections ever”), the tone and content of the election campaign makes it clear that there is something fundamentally wrong with Georgian politics.
This year, it is the absence of a “Messiah figure” who will “save the country”, as well as the obvious crisis of the country’s political party system. For years, Georgian society has been consolidated around the prospect of finding a “saviour”, which, in turn, has undermined the role of parliament, and left the country’s party system underdeveloped. Indeed, Georgia’s voters are used to choosing political figures rather than political blocs.
Nowadays, when Georgia’s “Messiah era” has come to an end and it is up to political parties to lead the state, the political establishment has nothing new to persuade voters that the old promises are still achievable. The electorate is confused. And this leads to an election campaign organised around mutual accusations, absurd initiatives, conspiracy theories and dangerous incidents.
A short history of Messiahs
The unexpected break-up of the Soviet Union left Georgia in dire need of re-shaping its domestic political culture. While there were attempts to make the transition to a “western political system”, political memory, in combination with the political, social and economic instability of the 1990s, led to the formation of a Messiah-centered presidential system.
Georgian society sought a “firm hand” from within the political establishment who would rescue the state from its deep political, social and economic crisis. In this situation, the main purpose of elections in Georgia was to consolidate society and find the “chosen one” who would oppose the existing repressive regime and rebuild the state.
Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Georgia’s first post-independence president, is a classic example. In May 1991, Gamsakhurdia, an ultra-nationalist dissident, was elected by 87% of votes after campaigning on the grand goal of leading the nation. When he failed to meet his promises, Gamsakhurdia was overthrown by militants. The country was on the edge of a full-scaled civil war.
Soon enough, Georgian society found a new “saviour” — Eduard Shevardnadze, a representative of the Soviet nomenklatura, who was elected in 1992 with 77% of the vote. Later on, in September 1993, when rumors began to emerge that Shevardnadze was planning to leave, protesters gathered outside the parliament, kneeled and begged him to stay in power. Ilia II, Patriarch of All Georgia (and the most trusted person in the country), personally called Shevardnadze a “nation leader”. He was re-elected in 2000 by 79% of votes.
Much like his predecessor, however, Shevardnadze was unable to fulfill society’s aspirations and, by the end of 2003, Georgia was on the edge of collapse. State institutions were weak and corrupt. And this was the moment when another “saviour” appeared — Mikhail Saakashvili, who, backed by the US, initiated a new campaign to save Georgia. After pushing Shevardnadze to resign, Saakashvili was elected as president with 96% of the vote. Later on, his political team, the United National Movement, took a constitutional majority in Georgia’s parliament and he became the undisputed leader of the nation.
Saakashvili’s aggressive rhetoric and authoritarian nature pushed him to resign and set new presidential elections in 2008, which he won with a smaller majority. By 2012, Georgian society had come to a critical point, when United National Movement changed the constitution and turned the state towards a parliamentary system. This reform should have ended the era of Messianism in Georgia, but there were fears that Saakashvili was planning to continue governance by simply switching posts.
Once again, the electorate was looking for another leader to save Georgia’s fragile democracy. Bidzina Ivanishvili, a Georgian tycoon, appeared to be the last Messiah who managed to consolidate society once again, defeating Saakashvili’s government in the 2012 parliamentary elections.
The transformation of Georgia’s political system from presidential to parliamentary model and the defeat of Mikhail Saakashvili’s government reflected the end of a long-lasting culture of Messianism. It was time for the political party system to take the lead.
Big trouble in little Georgia
Assessing the pre-election process in September, US Ambassador to Georgia Ian Kelly noted: “I wish the election campaign to be as good in the United States as it is in Georgia”. Even though local government took the statement as a compliment, the election campaign that can hardly be called a success.
Indeed, the campaign started not with political debates or programmes, but a fistfight in Samegrelo. On 22 May, 2016, members of the United National Movement were attacked and brutally beaten by unidentified persons in the village of Kortskheli in western Georgia. While the participants were later detained, the UNM accused Georgian Dream of initiating the incident. The ruling party responded by publishing documents that verify close ties between the attackers and the UNM. The investigation is still in progress.
At the beginning of August, leaders of Georgia’s Centrist Party, Lado Bedukadze and Nikoloz Khachisvhili, hit the stage by offering “Russian pensions” (i.e. significantly higher payments) as an election promise to every pensioner in Georgia. Moreover, the party’s election campaign video footage promised to legalise the future presence of Russian troops in the country. Even though this initiative was absurd and unachievable, it got a wide-range reaction. The party was later expelled from the race.
An equally absurd initiative was proposed by David Usupashvili, a prominent Georgian politician who recently resigned from the position of parliamentary speaker. Usupashvili, leader of the Republican Party, promised to establish an “American base” in Georgia in the run-up to joining NATO. The idea contradicts the foreign policy that the coalition Georgian Dream government has pursued until recently. For years, Georgian Dream, in cooperation with US advisors, has tried to move Georgia-Russia relations out of the US-Russia relations context. The mere possibility that a US base would appear in the South Caucasus would definitely backfire and, of course, escalate the situation in the region.
By the beginning of September, the election campaign had come to entertain conspiracy theories, after an audio recording that allegedly reveals Saakashvili’s plan to overturn the election results was leaked to the press. The recording supposedly documents a conversation between the ex-president of Georgia and fellow members of UNM in which they plan for mass riots and political disturbances in the post-election period.
Moreover, Giga Bokeria, a prominent figures in the UNM and former secretary of the National Security Council, is allegedly heard to propose a “revolutionary scenario”, which is approved by Saakashvili. The security services have summoned the alleged participants for questioning, and an analysis of the tape’s authenticity is currently taking place.
The election campaign has now entered the stage of various local confrontations and serious incidents. On 2 October, three members of the youth wing of Georgian Dream were hospitalised after they were physically assaulted allegedly by UNM supporters (again in Samegrelo). The next day, shots were fired at a campaign meeting of Irakli Okruashvili, a past ally of Saakashvili, in Gori. While one of the former defence minister’s security team and a supporter were wounded as a result, Okruashvili claimed that responsibility for the attack lies with local Georgian Dream activists.
On 5 October, Georgia witnessed a terrorist attack. Givi Targamadze, a leading UNM official and former defense and security committee chairman, was lucky to survive a car bomb in Tbilisi. UNM leaders indirectly blamed the government. The ruling party immediately struck back. In an urgent address to the nation, prime minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili promised to punish the initiators, saying that “foreign citizenship” will not protect them. Thus, Kvirikashvili indirectly accused Saakashvili, who accepted Ukrainian citizenship to avoid criminal charges in Georgia, of an attempt to destabilise the state prior to the elections. Saakashvili, of course, then promised his victorious return from Ukraine after the election.
The whole election campaign and the events of the past week reveal that there is a big mess in little Georgia. These “Messiah-less” elections make it clear that Georgia’s mainstream political parties have more or less the same “ideology” and the same goals, while parties with opposite approaches lack necessary financial and human resources.
What remains to be seen is how this crisis will develop and how it will influence the post-election environment. Currently, there is only uncertainty.
On October 9, the Georgian Dream Coalition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili and the members of his political team met with president of Georgia Mikhail Saakashvili, marking the moment in which the Georgian Dream would take reins of power over the country, thus forcing the UNM (United National Movement) to step aside and become the parliamentary minority after governing the state for the last eight years.
The defeat of the ruling party in the parliamentary elections held on October 2 represented a drastic shift in the political, social and economic environment in Georgia, and at the same time it was the marked a precedent in the region when the ruling force recognized its defeat in the elections and allowed the political opposition an opportunity to lead the state.
Such dramatic events were considered by some domestic as well as foreign experts as an important step away from Georgia’s post-Soviet era towards democracy. This transition was symbolic of the positive changes occurring not only in Georgia itself, but in the whole region. Therefore, the worldwide media just couldn’t turn blind eye on the ongoing developments in Georgia. The BBC, CNN, RIA Novosti, Foreign Policy, The Times, Sunday Times – all these prominent magazines and newsmakers kept tabs on the vote itself, as well as the post-election events in the country.
Three main issues are under discussion in the international media: the reasons behind the UNM’s defeat, the incoming government, Georgia’s democratic transition and the country’s relationship with Russia.
What led to the loss?
“Indeed, defeat was the best thing that could have happened to him [Mikhail Saakashvili] and his country’s reputation,” notes James Nixey, Manager and Research Fellow, at the Russia and Eurasia Programme.
In his article ‘Georgia: Post-Election Analysis’ that Chatham House published on October 2, James Nixey concludes that the recognition of defeat was the only and the best way for Mikhail Saakashvili and his political team to “ensure that his [Mikhail Saakashvili] legacy is not entirely in tatters.” The reason behind total loss, according to him, lies in the “disappointing economic picture, the centralization of power and the small matter of partial responsibility for the August 2008 war.”
In the short paper published by the Georgian Journal on October 3, Mark Mullen, the former Director of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) Georgia from 1997 until 2004, emphasizes two fundamental reasons behind Misha and the UNM’s decreased popularity among citizens of Georgia: “the punishment of those in Shevardnadze’s government and the amendment of the constitution on 6 February 2004.”
Defining the first reason, Mullen notes that “so many great things happened: the administrative reforms, the end of petty corruption, fixing roads and in general creating a real state. But at the same time, a large part of [that] was based on punishment. On treating people as if they were a problem to be rolled over rather than a constituent group to be listened to.”
The international media as well as local experts agree that Mikhail Saakashvili definitely played a role on improving democracy in Georgia, but the main problem of his was “accusations of authoritarian behavior masked as democracy.”
In the article ‘Democracy wins as Rose Revolution admits defeat in parliament elections,’ published in The Times Europe, Roger Boyes exclaims that “Bidzina Ivanishvili’s victory in the parliamentary elections has astonished the region.” According to the journalist, it seems that Georgia is on its way to shaping real democracy in the region where before the Rose revolution, no one could even imagine such a possibility.
In another report, the BBC’s Damien McGuinnes notes that “it is [parliamentary elections] a momentous day for Georgia– a day which strengthens the country’s democratic credentials.”
In another article published by BBC, Georgia’s election is described as “a milestone for democracy in the ex-Soviet state.”
By and large, the peaceful transition of power was welcomed by the international media; this fact has demonstrated that a Soviet country can become a beacon of democracy in the post-Soviet space and particularly, in a strategically important region.
Russia or the West?
Doubts about Bidzina Ivanishvili’s political orientation– which included questions of whether Georgia will replace its pro-Western orientation with a pro-Russian approach, was prominent in the minds of many during the whole pre-election campaign. Considering the international reaction, the international community expects that the leader of the Georgian Dream Coalition will be loyal to the old pro-Western approach chosen by the former government of Mikhail Saakashvili.
On October 3, The Sunday Times published an article by Maria Antonova entitled ‘Georgian Dream to ease, not end Russia’s nightmare.’ In it, the expert noted that there won’t be drastic changes in the political attitude between representatives of two states; the only innovations that could appear may be an attempt to more or less place the Georgian-Russian relationship in the scope of the world’s widely accepted ‘game rules’; but there can’t be agreement on the main issues such as the fate of the separatist regions of Abkhazia and the so-called South Ossetia.
Bidzina v. Misha
It’s no secret that personal aspects are still important when it comes to political developments in any country.
“More than 20 years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the West has become familiar with a wide variety of leaders to emerge in this space — Soviet apparatchiks, fierce nationalists and K.G.B. trained strongmen. However, Bidzina Ivanishvili nominated Monday as Georgia’s next prime minister, does not resemble any of them, not even remotely,” writes Ellen Barry of the New York Times in the October 8 article ‘Georgian Leader Emerges as an Enigma.’
According to her, “Mr. Ivanishvili provides a contrast with Mr. Saakashvili, a cosmopolitan charmer who speaks fluent English and intuitively understands what the West expects.”
In order to portray Bidzina Ivanishvili, she cites Thomas de Waal, an expert on the Caucasus at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, as saying that the billionaire politician is a novice, and that has its pros and cons.
“The bad side is he is quite unpredictable and says some quite eccentric things. The good side is he is still learning and corrects himself. He is receptive to advice,” Thomas de Waal is quoted.
Hence, it is clear that the international media, as well as foreign experts, are in some kind of euphoria over the parliamentary elections and probable developments in the country.
And still, there are serious challenges for democracy in Georgia and the euphoria which exists in the West may further prompt opportunities for the crisis. Last time the West was in such excited state about the events in Georgia was during the 2003 Rose Revolution. Consequently, Georgia’s strategic partners overlooked some misdeeds of the former government which finally led to the crisis of democracy in the country.
By and large, Georgia expects that both the domestic and the international community will overcome its euphoric condition and begin a sober evaluation of the developments. It is up to the people to start pushing the new government to be loyal to democratic institutions and values.
According to the new survey commissioned by The National Democratic Institute (NDI), employment, healthcare and territorial integrity remain the most acute problems for Georgian society. At the same time, controversial issues related with Maestro TV, Global TV and the exorbitant fines imposed on the Georgian Dream coalition and– in particular, its billionaire leader Bidzina Ivanishvili concerns a major part of the respondents.
The survey, conducted through nationwide face-to-face interview with 2,038 respondents, has a margin of error of plus/ minus 3%. The survey was fielded by the Caucasus Research Resource Center (CRRC) for NDI on July 31-August 12 and was funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida).
Georgia Today interviewed NDI Director for Georgia, Luis Navarro, asking him to interpret the latest survey’s findings.
Q: Mr. Navarro, what are the main findings of NDI’s latest survey in your view?
A: The main findings were that jobs, healthcare and territorial integrity remain the top three concerns of Georgian citizens going into these elections. There is high interest in the elections; 77% of Georgians have indicated that they intend to vote in the elections. In addition, now, by a 42% to 40% margin, Georgians have a more positive assessment of democracy. However, by a nearly 2:1 margin those who are aware of the Global TV and Maestro controversies, disapprove of the actions taken by State Audit Agency and the Prosecutor’s Office.
Q: The previous survey was conducted in June. What makes this latest survey different from the June survey and the other surveys published previously this year?
A: Well obviously people were more positive about assessing democracy in this poll than may have been in the June poll. The number of respondents who say that Georgia is a democracy increased in the August poll slightly beyond the margin of error to 42% from 38% in June. Also, there was a slight decline outside of the margin of error among people who saw themselves as worse off economically.
Another thing that was different obviously is that this time we spent some time trying to assess the new governmental structure with (PM) Vano Merabishvili’s appointment and looked at how the ruling party’s plan compares to the plan of the Georgian Dream– not in terms of substance, but in terms of how the people perceive it. The biggest concern that we have is that only half of the population know about what the UNM is proposing; while only a quarter know what the Georgian Dream is proposing. So we are hoping that both parties will do a better job of communicating with the public on these issues.
Q: Which developments affected the results in your opinion?
A: That is hard to say. Clearly, the fact that people continue to see the government as making changes that matter to them has to have some bearing on the fact that people say that the country is going in the right direction. They are different in terms of intensity on that issue, but in general, they say that they support the direction the country is going in. I assume also that because you saw a decline among people who describe themselves as economically worse off, also contributes to that.
Questions around democracy are always a little bit less clear, because obviously Georgians place a greater emphasis on freedom of speech, the media and hearing different views as the primary determinant. What has been changed in terms of democracy? We asked this question in two ways: The first was a yes or no question. The another was whether or not people agree with certain statements. Clearly, what happened here is that people not only had a more positive assessment on yes or no questions, but they also had a more positive assessment based on different statements: Either Georgia is a democracy already, but needs improvement or Georgia is not yet a democracy, but is heading in the right direction.
Q: Employment is an issue that concerns the majority of your respondents. According to the National Statistics Office of Georgia, only 15% of Georgian citizens are unemployed. How would you describe such a difference between your survey and the official statistics?
A: We ask the people how people perceive themselves. So, it is outside the context of what the state defines as unemployed. Secondly, what we find in our focus groups is the people who do not have a dress code, who do not get paid through a pay-check, or are not working in a job where they are trained or educated, these people have a tendency to see themselves as unemployed even if they are making income as a taxi driver, a farmer or as an owner of a store at a bazroba. If you are selling your product by the roadside instead of selling to the distributor, you tend not to see yourself as being employed. We qualify that by saying that there is a difference between people who say that they are employed and people who are actually looking for work; that’s why the number is only 33%. This is because people who are part of the non-active labor force like homemakers, students and pensioners – they are obviously not people who are looking for a job. So, when added all up in the end, the difference between our numbers and the state’s numbers are 2:1. But again, these are self-descriptions and we know that there are differences in the way people perceive themselves and their economic environment.
Q: According to the majority of respondents, Georgia is already a democratic state, but there is room for improvement. At the same time, democracy is perceived by the interviewers as freedom of speech, media and free and fair elections. Despite this, only a minority of the respondents are concerned with the lack of democratic freedoms. What is your explanation?
A: This is a question of how they define democracy. The way we ask them to qualify that is by asking: what does democracy mean to you? One thing that many Georgians can agree on (almost 60%), is that democracy for them means the ability to hear different views, freedom of speech/media. The next two values that are consistently in close proximity are equality before the law and protection of human rights. But clearly, people make a distinction between how they value those qualities versus the first issue. So, all we can say for certain is that the vast majority of Georgians agree on what the primary value is.
Q: The majority of the interviewed disapprove of government’s measures against Maestro TV, Ivanishvili and Global TV. Still, approximately 47% of them think that the country is going in the right direction and support the government. Doesn’t it seem illogical?
A: They think that the country is going in the right direction and they think that the government makes changes that matter to them… this is not necessarily support for the government; these are different identifications. So, in terms of Maestro and Global TV, what Maestro and Global TV says is that first we ask the question whether or not people are aware of these issues; then we ask the question whether they approve or disapprove. What is interesting to us is that by a 2:1 margin, the people who are aware of this issue, a large proportion disapprove of these actions.
But you see the large number of people in both of these issues say they don’t know; and I will argue that is a functional effect that being able to follow all of the details of these two issues requires some attention. So unless you are someone who is really following that issue closely, you may be aware that there is a problem or that there is a controversy, but you may not feel as if you have enough information in order to pass judgment. What we can say is that among those people who say that they are aware, they are decisively disapproving of this action, but it is also noteworthy that a large percentage of people say that they don’t know.
Q: The main Georgian oppositional force Georgian Dream Coalition has cast doubts on the objectivity of the surveys conducted by NDI by questioning the methodology. Your comment?
A: The difficulty we have is that we are the most transparent in terms of methodology of any of the publicly released polls. For example, we say who is funding our polls; it is the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida); we talk about the time period in which the polls took place; and we talk about what the margin of error is. We also mention how we go about conducting the poll in a much more comprehensive way that I believe any other entity does.
So, as a democracy promoting institute, we certainly feel obliged to transparency in that regard; but we would expect that anyone else who says they have a poll should face similar scrutiny, because too many times we find that whether or not someone likes a poll or whether or not they agree with its findings has no bearing on whether or not it has been methodologically conducted in an appropriate fashion.