Thursday

23rd Feb 2017

Opinion

Georgia elections to test pro-Europe credentials

  • An island of calm and stability in an unpredictable region, Georgia will continue to be important to NATO and the EU. (Photo: Thomas Depenbusch)

The attempted murder of an opposition MP in a car bombing in the centre of Tblisi shattered the unprecedented political calm since the 2012 elections that saw a rare peaceful transition of power in the post-Soviet from Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) to Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream (GD). Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili described the incident, not only as an act of sabotage against the state but also “a provocation plotted by Georgia's enemies to instigate instability ahead of the elections” on 8 October.

The elections will give an important check-up on the health of Georgian democracy, and a snapshot of Georgian public opinion on a number of important issues, including foreign policy.

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  • Mikheil Saakashvili remains a constant present in Georgian politics. (Photo: gov.ge)

Since the 2003 Rose Revolution, Georgia’s leaders have made Euro-Atlantic integration a priority, believing it to be the only way to guarantee the country’s security and statehood; the GD and UNM over the last four years maintained cross-party consensus on this issue. This aspiration has been strongly backed by society, which has made it easier to move ahead with important reforms.

NATO not convinced

Georgia has considerably strengthened ties with both NATO and the EU, yet the country has struggled to remain a key priority for both the US and the EU.

Georgia has been the third largest contributor to NATO operations in Afghanistan and has lent forces to other international missions. Indeed, Georgia contributes more to international operations than most existing NATO members. Yet, while the country arguably needs NATO for security purposes, many member of the alliance are unconvinced about potential benefits to NATO from Georgian membership.

Georgia has also become a front-runner in the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) and is now implementing an Association Agreement including a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA).

Georgia has also fulfilled all the criteria for obtaining visa liberalisation. Something still not been delivered, with delay after delay undermining the EU’s credibility and its commitment to a “more for more” approach. At a time when Georgia is moving closer to the EU, the EU is in deep crisis, with many member state governments becoming increasingly populist in response to the rise of far right groups across Europe.

Georgia is a good example of how this unfortunate state of affairs can impact EU foreign policy in a negative way.

At the same time Russia strives to strengthen its foothold in Georgia, through the instruments of “hybrid war” and “soft power” including employing the narrative of Russia as sole bastion of traditional Christian-conservative values. While good relations between Tbilisi and Moscow remain desirable, the threat from Russia has not receded. And yet some Georgians are starting to conclude that, in the face of perceived Western ambivalence, they should accommodate Russian demands to avoid another clash with Moscow.

NATO and EU should not let Georgia down

An island of comparative stability in a particularly volatile and unpredictable region, NATO and the EU should not let Georgia down. While NATO needs to demonstrate that Russia does not have veto on its enlargement, the EU needs to demonstrate that despite being engulfed by crises it is able to offer Georgia the same level of commitment that Georgia is making in terms of steps to strengthen democracy and good governance.

While the EU is presently not in a position to offer Georgia a membership perspective, it needs to deliver on commitments already made – first and foremost on visa liberalisation. Beyond this, Georgia will need to be patient, work hard to put its own house in order and align itself with the EU’s acquis communautaire to transform itself into a country ready become an EU member.

On foreign policy the fault-lines are clear, when it comes to domestic policy the differences between the political parties become more nuanced. What divides the parties more acutely is their overall approach to governing.

GD came to power on the back of a backlash against the governing style of Saakashvili. GD, as a result, remains sensitive to individual rights. It has implemented important reforms in the field of justice and the rule of law, and overhauled the penitentiary system, eradicating the abuse of prisoners that was giving many Georgians cause for serious concern. GD is, in essence, a centrist, business friendly party, but is often criticised for not delivering on some of the social policies promised prior to the last election.

Though a comprehensive health scheme giving Georgians free health care is one of their flagship achievement, unemployment remains a serious issue and is likely to cost GD votes.

The past haunts the present in Georgian politics

UNM was the main opposition party in the outgoing parliament. Saakashvili presides over it from a distance. While Saakashvili remains a controversial and divisive figure in Georgian politics he has loyal support in some areas outside Tbilisi.

Without Saakashvili, the UNM could have offered a credible challenge to the incumbent government. Yet his shadow weighs heavily on the party.

Dozens of other parties are also contesting the elections, of which only four or five are credible political forces. The Republican Party and Irakli Alasania’s Free Democrats are pro-Western parties with support among the middle class, but limited nationwide appeal. The Georgian parliament will be the poorer without them, but their ability to overcome the 5% threshold to enter the parliament is far from certain.

By contrast, the Labour Party is a populist party led by Shalva Natelashvili, with an anti-Western orientation, a stance shared by the party of former parliamentary speaker Nino Burjanadze. Both hold high hopes of being in the new Parliament.

Meanwhile, a new party has appeared on the Georgian political scene since 2012, and may cause the biggest surprise of the election. The Union of Georgian Patriots has support among the most conservative elements of Georgian society, espousing family values and Georgian traditions. Their policies often have anti foreign undertones, and they have some support from the more conservative elements within the influential Orthodox Church.

The party’s foreign policy is ambivalent – they claim to share Georgia’s European and Atlanticist aspirations, but on the other hand are quite critical of the policies necessary to achieve these aspirations.

Trust of election results key

Overall there are some reasons for optimism. One is the robustness of the electoral process and the professionalism of the Central Elections Commission (CEC). Ahead of these parliamentary elections the CEC has been credited with producing the most accurate voters list ever – a bone of contention in previous Georgian elections. It has, so far, worked transparently and garnered the trust of the electorate. This factor should not be underestimated.

In a situation where opinion polls and exit polls are of limited accuracy, much depends on the performance of the electoral administration.

Grievances with the election process in 2003 were so strongly felt as to trigger the ‘Rose Revolution’. The conditions do not exist for a repeat of this in 2016, even if the Government says that Saakashvili is actively planning for this from his haven in Odessa.

Amanda Paul is senior policy analyst at the European Policy Centre and Dennis Sammut is director of LINKS and member of EPC’s strategic council.

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