Questions for Saakashvili, questions for Georgia's EU future
The first transfer of power through free and fair elections in 2012 ushered in a new era in Georgian politics. But as the Georgian Dream Coalition consolidates its position, questions over its commitment to Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration refuse to go away.
While the majority of Georgian voters still overwhelmingly support a European future, some members of the current coalition, as well as influential players in a wider political and public arena, seem to have a different vision.
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The recent decision by the government to summon former president Mikheil Saakashvili for questioning is a move that could jeopardise Georgia-EU relations on the issue of selective justice.
It seems the EU and member states have learned some important lessons in Ukraine: in order to counter Russia’s attempts to derail Georgia and Moldova’s EU integration, Brussels recently advanced the date of signature of the Association Agreements with these countries from August to June.
Whatever concerns Europe might have had over the political retributions of the Georgian Dream against its main rival, Saakashvili’s United National Movement, the EU decided not to hold the country’s European future hostage because of them, as it did with Ukraine’s former PM Yulia Tymoshenko.
But at the same time, the decision by Georgia’s prosecutor’s office to summon Saakashvili for questioning – a decision made a day after the EU announced the June signature – did not go unnoticed.
Neighbourhood commissioner Stefan Fuele tweeted that he is concerned about the developments. The US state department said that while no one is above the law, launching multiple simultaneous investigations involving a former President raises legitimate worries.
Saakashvili has been living abroad since leaving his post in November and is unlikely to appear in the prosecutor’s office by 1pm local time today, as requested.
In a TV interview recorded in Kiev earlier this week, he revealed that a number of high level Western officials have warned him of the new government’s plan to prosecute him and advised him to stay out of his home country. His arrest, they told him, could cause a freeze in EU-Georgia ties.
No one is above the law
Nobody disputes the idea that people in high office should be held accountable to the law. But the timing and the political context of Georgia’s decision makes one wonder whether the law has anything to do with its motivation.
In the run-up to the EU signature date, apart from the Saakashvili summons, the authorities have questioned some 15 former ministers, dozens of officials and literally thousands of UNM members.
Meanwhile, the most popular independent TV station in the country has been threatened with reforms designed to cut its advertising revenues. The government is also tampering with the selection process of the governing board of Georgia’s public broadcaster in order to get power over content.
The allegiance of Georgian voters is easy to lose for any political force.
The Georgian Dream Coalition, with its increasingly incoherent internal dynamics, unrealistic electoral promises, and the high expectations created by the personal wealth of the man behind the party, billionaire financier Bidzina Ivanishvili, is no exception.
As the country moves toward local elections in June, the Dream coalition clearly feels the need to increase its power. Exerting pressure on its main political opponent and narrowing the space for public debate is one way of doing so.
Its belief that the recent setbacks in Ukraine and Armenia have made the EU willing to turn a blind eye, makes it think it can get away with these manoeuvres.
If this turns out to be a miscalculation and the moves backfire, slowing down Georgia’s advancement towards EU and Nato, some people in the Dream group will not be disappointed.
Some of the coalition’s members appear to be genuinely committed to Georgia’s EU path. But others have made dubious foreign policy choices.
Since no individual Dream member is a strong, independent player in Georgian politics, the question of Georgia’s future now hangs on the ideas of the man behind the coalition, the current warden of Georgian politics, the man in the glass palace overlooking Tbilisi – Ivanishvili.
Both the current President and the Prime-Minister of Georgia are political novices, proposed for the posts by Ivanishvili, who occasionally gives his opinion about their performance to the Georgian public. In his new role as the head of an NGO called “Citizen”, he occasionally gives lengthy interviews covering all areas of public and political life.
When he recently lashed out at President Girogi Margvelashvili, several ministers followed suit. They openly declared that Ivanishvili’s approval is their main criterion for self-assessment.
While it is very difficult to pin down a constitutional definition for his role in Georgian politics, we can safely assume that any decision of consequence, including the Saakashvili summons, is not made without his prior blessing.
Russia’s invasion of Crimea has made Ivanishvili’s previous narrative – that Saakashvili is responsible for starting the 2008 war with Russia – all-but irrelevant. The Ukraine crisis has also made it clear that his foreign policy model, of advancing to the EU while normalising relations with Russia, is a fable.
Stakes get higher
Ukraine has made Saakashvili and the UNM into a bigger threat. The stakes are getting higher.
Given how long it has taken for Georgia to score its modest successes on Euro-Atlantic integration, the anti-Western elements in the governing coalition also had a long-term strategy: as the Georgian public gets tired of unfulfilled Euro-Atlantic aspirations, openly and covertly pro-Russian forces, both inside and outside the Dream coalition, would start pushing their agenda.
The EU’s decision to accelerate the association treaty signature has put the cat among the pigeons.
Undermining Western faith in Georgian democracy as a way of freezing the association process now looks like the easiest and shortest path to their goal.
Ivanishvili – the man who best understands the real nature of these power-games – appears undecided on what would best serve his private interests.
For the moment, he has chosen to empower those in his coalition who argue for consolidation of political power. He is gambling on the Western reaction, waiting to see how the EU and the US handle Russia’s action in Ukraine, before taking further steps.
So how should the EU react to these developments in Georgia?
By finalizing the association agreement in June as planned. By clearly telling the Georgian government that it is playing with fire and by investing in the people of Georgia by mobilising massive assistance in support of democracy and in support of pro-EU public opinion.
This will send the strongest message to those who want to make 2012 the first, but also the last time, that the government of Georgia is changed through a free vote.
Salome Samadashvili is a visiting fellow at the Centre for European Studies (CES), a Brussels-based think tank, and a former Georgian ambassador to the EU