No America in the Caucasus

No America in the Caucasus

The False Promise of Westernization in Georgia

Thomas de Waal
December 5, 2012
Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili on election day. (David
Mdzinarishvili / Courtesy Reuters)

A leader comes to power in Georgia as the country is in economic
turmoil and its citizens are in a state of despair. The people
overwhelmingly welcome him as a messiah. Gradually, he mobilizes a
group of talented officials and puts the country back on track.
Although his task is complicated by a poisonous relationship with
Russia, he has many friends in Washington and receives extensive U.S.
aid and political support. Over time, however, he loses touch with the
Georgian public and grows increasingly remote. Many members of his
administration accuse him of autocratic tendencies and defect to the
opposition. Eventually, an election is held, and the popular vote goes
against him. Neither an instinctive democrat nor a bloodthirsty
tyrant, he concedes defeat — if only to protect his reputation in the

Curiously, this story has played out not once in modern Georgia but
twice. It is the trajectory, most recently, of Mikheil Saakashvili,
who surged to power in the peaceful Rose Revolution of 2003.
Saakashvili lost decisively in parliamentary elections this October to
Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia’s richest man, who is now the country’s
prime minister and is set to become its most powerful politician when
the constitution changes next year. (Saakashvili, however, will remain
president until his term expires in October 2013.) But it is also the
story of the man Saakashvili defeated in 2003, Eduard Shevardnadze. In
1992, Shevardnadze — a Western favorite for his stint as Soviet
foreign minister, in which he played a major role in ending the Cold
War — inherited a Georgia wracked by civil strife and dominated by
warlords. He initially brought progress to his native land on several
fronts, but after a few years he lost his way, allowing the country to
slide into corruption and inertia. Finally, the Rose Revolution
toppled him.

Although it fell far short of European democratic standards, Georgia’s
parliamentary election in October was a breath of fresh air in a
generally autocratic neighborhood. The governing party lost and its
leader peacefully conceded defeat. The opposition party described its
victory as a triumph of the people over a budding dictatorship;
Saakashvili and his supporters, meanwhile, portrayed their loss as a
step in the wrong direction for the country, a reversal of the ideals
of the Rose Revolution, and a covert victory for Moscow. Both
narratives are flawed: the recent election is best understood as a
major step on a zigzagging but ultimately forward path for a country
that has some distance to go before it reaches democracy.

Despite frequent political upheavals, Georgia has evolved, however
unsteadily, since 1989, and it is still progressing. Some of its
twists and turns, particularly those under Zviad Gamsakhurdia, its
first post-Soviet leader, in 1990 and 1991, proved disastrous, but its
wrong turns have more often than not been corrected. The Georgian
people have proved strong enough to challenge their leaders’ missteps,
while the political system, if not fully democratic, has been
competitive enough to allow for a change of course.


Saakashvili and his supporters have presented the 2003 Rose Revolution
as a Year Zero for Georgia, the catalyst for a “social, moral, and
mental transformation” of the country. But eventually, history will
probably record that this claim was overblown. The Rose Revolution
generally moved the country forward and tackled many problems, most
notably bureaucratic corruption and organized crime. Georgian society,
however, has shown increasing signs of fatigue with the former
government’s high-handed policies.

A different Georgia, both more conservative and more democratic, has
stubbornly persisted beneath the surface. Consider, for example, how
Saakashvili’s policy of economic liberalization ignored and indeed
hurt much of rural Georgia, which makes up half the country’s
population. Ivanishvili grasped this fact and emphasized the problems
of rural poverty and high unemployment rates throughout his campaign.
He was also more culturally in sync with the majority of Georgians,
whose social conservatism runs deeper than Saakashvili’s, and many of
whom harbor nationalist prejudices. It is hardly surprising that the
Georgian Orthodox Church, a bastion of conservative attitudes,
effectively made a silent nod toward Ivanishvili’s party, Georgian
Dream, despite its professions of neutrality. Meanwhile, urban Georgia
— centered in Tbilisi — also largely supported the opposition, as it
felt that Saakashvili and his flamboyant, top-down governing style
threatened democratic values such as freedom of speech and equality
before the law.

Saakashvili’s unusual political program has commonly been labeled
`liberal Bolshevism.’ It was liberal in the sense that, within just a
few years, the president and his inner circle dismantled the remnants
of the old, essentially Soviet system that they inherited, tackling
petty corruption and the Mafia, raising tax collection rates, and
overhauling the country’s decrepit infrastructure. Yet it also
resembled Bolshevism in its aggressive application, enforced in large
part by a highly repressive criminal justice system. Saakashvili often
accused his critics of being Russian sympathizers and irremediably
corrupt simply because many had held jobs under the previous regime,
and some officials in Washington accepted these claims too readily.
One U.S. diplomatic cable from April 2009, published by WikiLeaks,
loyally echoed Saakashvili’s assertion that his opponents were a
marginal, backward-looking bunch. `In large part,’ the missive reads,
`these are the people and institutions which lost positions, prestige
and power with President Shevardnadze’s resignation.’

For a long time, there was no coordinated opposition to Saakashvili.
This did not so much reflect a lack of discontent in society as it did
the difficulty of shepherding the resources to mount a legitimate
challenge to the system. The same story has played out in other
post-Soviet states — it is as true in Vladimir Putin’s Russia today
as it was in Saakashvili’s Georgia. Saakashvili was genuinely popular
during his first term. During his second term, however, he began to
lose legitimacy. This was the result not only of the disastrous war
with Russia in August 2008 but of a deeper problem: the lack of checks
and balances in Georgia’s political system, which began to warp its
leaders’ perspectives. For example, without consulting anyone,
Saakashvili unveiled plans to build a whole new city of half a million
people on the Black Sea. The security forces increasingly took the law
into their own hands — institutionalizing, among other things,
horrific abuses in the prison system. Saakashvili’s strange club of
foreign friends expanded to include the Belarusian president,
Aleksandr Lukashenko, who has been called `the last dictator in
Europe’; the populist and semi-autocratic Hungarian prime minister,
Viktor Orban; and the ostentatious American businessman Donald Trump.

It was in this context that Saakashvili fought, lost, and conceded the
October election. His strategy had been to hold an election that was
basically free on polling day but heavily weighted beforehand in favor
of his party. Even though Saakashvili already benefited from de facto
control of Georgia’s two main television stations and an electoral law
that was written to his advantage, his government attempted to crush
the challenger, Ivanishvili, by stripping him of his Georgian
citizenship and penalizing him with heavy fines. In the last two
months of the campaign season, the government eased the pressure,
allowing the opposition more freedom to promote its message, and
Saakashvili invited in a horde of foreign observers to put a
democratic seal on his anticipated victory.

Indeed, as the polls closed, Saakashvili declared that his party would
win a plurality of seats. But as the results rolled in, it became
clear that his plan had backfired: he had been defeated in the full
glare of the international media and Western observers. Saakashvili
may not be a true democrat, but he has always valued his image as one,
so he accepted his loss and made a gracious concession speech. What
was born that night was a kind of democracy by accident.


Georgian politics favors big personalities who command patronage and
loyalty: it is more a winner-take-all clash between feudal lords than
a contest of ideologically coherent parties. And so the opposition
could not have wished for a better standard-bearer than Ivanishvili.
As Georgia’s richest man — worth $6.4 billion, according to Forbes’
latest estimate — Ivanishvili could afford to buck the government’s
rules. He had a sterling reputation with the public, having for years
funded churches, schools, and prominent cultural figures.
Ivanishvili’s lofty status provided an umbrella under which Georgia’s
disparate discontented could take cover.

Understandably, Ivanishvili’s position on Russia has been the focus of
much speculation. Critics argue that Georgia’s new prime minister has
unseemly ties to Moscow, given that he amassed his fortune in Russia;
so far, Ivanishvili has fiercely rebutted these charges. He left
Russia in 2002 and has recently sold all his assets there, and he
currently surrounds himself with a team of pro-Western advisers. Until
any evidence emerges to the contrary, the most convincing explanation
for why Ivanishvili, like many of his post-Soviet counterparts, chose
to make his fortune in Russia is the same reason that Willie Sutton
chose to rob banks: because that’s where the money is. Besides,
regardless of Ivanishvili’s sentiments, Tbilisi is incapable of fully
normalizing relations with Russia as long as Moscow continues to
recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. Trade
between Russia and Georgia may well resume, but the political
relationship will almost certainly stay frozen. In fact, the
nationalist, xenophobic wing of Georgian Dream, which is largely
anti-Russian, presents a greater threat to the stability of Georgia’s
foreign relations than do Ivanishvili’s alleged ties to Moscow.

A more immediate problem is that Ivanishvili and Saakashvili, mortal
political enemies, now have to cohabit Georgia’s political space until
October 2013, when Saakashvili’s second presidential term will end.
Even then, Saakashvili, still Georgia’s most talented politician, will
be only 45 years old, and he will face the near-impossible task of
planning for a future in which he is young but out of power. The fear,
of course, is that the pendulum could simply swing in the other
direction, with Ivanishvili using the punitive system he has inherited
from Saakashvili to destroy his rival once and for all. In this
scenario, Ivanishvili would merely become the new dominant personality
in a Georgia that still lacks strong independent institutions. And
considering that he is the richest man in the country, Ivanishvili
will be able to finance projects promoting his new vision of Georgia
with personal funds.

Two months after the election, the Georgian political scene presents a
confusing and somewhat worrying picture. On the positive side, the new
government includes one of Georgia’s most respected Western-oriented
politicians, Irakli Alasania, as defense minister; a well-known human
rights lawyer, Tea Tsulukiani, as justice minister; and a respected
veteran of dialogue projects with the Abkhazians and Ossetians, Paata
Zakareishvili, as minister for the conflict regions. Such a government
cannot be accused of being regressive. Meanwhile, the political space
has opened up: the culture of routine surveillance fostered by the
previous administration has receded, the media is livelier, and
government has begun to listen to the opinions of nongovernmental

Nevertheless, the new government’s first month in office has been a
public relations disaster. Prime Minister Ivanishvili has made a
series of strange and erratic statements, including one that
disparaged Georgia’s Armenian minority (he later apologized), and he
has contradicted himself several times on his plans for cohabitation
with Saakashvili. Most troubling is a wave of prosecutions of public
servants who worked under the previous administration. Philip Gordon,
U.S. assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of European and
Eurasian Affairs, has cautioned that “it is essential to avoid any
perception or reality of selective prosecutions.” Yet this issue looks
somewhat different from the perspective of Georgians than it does from
that of Western officials. In Tbilisi, the Ivanishvili government
believes it has a popular mandate to correct past injustices. Some of
the arrests that have been made — such as that of Bacho Akhalaia, the
notorious former minister of defense and prisons — enjoy strong
public approval.

Still, all this is at least proof of great political immaturity, and
Saakashvili and his team look highly professional by contrast. But it
is too early to conclude whether it augurs anything more sinister. The
most intriguing plot thread is that Ivanishvili has said several times
that he intends to step down as prime minister in 2014, allowing the
government to carry on its work without him. He recently qualified
this pledge, however, by saying that he would stay “if we cannot
fulfill our promises.”


An unexpected beneficiary of this moment of democratic turbulence is
the United States, which has been accepted as a mediator by both
Ivanishvili’s and Saakashvili’s camps and thus continues to possess
considerable leverage in Georgia. To its credit, the Obama
administration has managed the situation skillfully. After President
George W. Bush’s too-close embrace of Saakashvili, Obama’s team placed
a much greater emphasis on institutional cooperation, creating a
series of commissions to work on long-term cooperation in defense and
other spheres. Thomas Melia, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state
in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, led an
interagency delegation to Georgia in September and put forth a
carefully nuanced statement, saying, `We do not favor any particular
party or candidate, and the United States government looks forward to
continued close cooperation with the leaders the Georgian people

U.S. influence also comes by default. Over the past 20 years, Moscow
has dealt with Georgia with such spectacular arrogance that it has
lost all leverage with Tbilisi. Moreover, the EU has underplayed its
hand in Georgia, even though its European Neighborhood Policy, which
seeks to foster closer relations between the EU and its neighbors, is
finally beginning to deliver some results, such as visa
liberalization. In the long run, the EU has a lot more to offer
Georgia than the United States does — the kind of slow, unglamorous
work that the EU excels at, from building infrastructure to upgrading
food standards, has brought benefits to Georgia — but, up until now,
it has been Washington, not Brussels, that has taken the lead on such
projects in the country.

In retrospect, the West’s support for the outgoing Georgian government
resembles the sometimes naive enthusiasm it once evinced for Russia’s
reforms of the early 1990s. Although it was justified at the
beginning, Western support for former Russian President Boris Yeltsin
and his political program continued thoughtlessly in a straight line.
Europe and the United States did not catch on early enough to the
perverse impacts of Yeltsin’s reforms, such as the way privatization
was being abused by greedy oligarchs for their own enrichment, and
they failed to reach out to those elements of Russian society who felt
disenfranchised. In the post-Yeltsin years, disillusionment with these
policies helped fuel an anti-Western backlash. In Georgia, a similar
backlash is much less likely, but a lot of diplomacy is required to
persuade Georgians that Western governments care about the wider
public interest and not just oil and gas pipelines or Georgia’s
contribution to the NATO mission in Afghanistan.

Imagining that Georgia could ever become an America in the Caucasus
was obviously a mistake. But it does have a chance to be a modern
state, with a government that reflects the will of the people,
cleaving to its traditions but restrained from nationalist instincts
by foreign advice. If that comes to pass, Georgia can still be a good
model for the other post-Soviet states. For this to happen,
Saakashvili and Ivanishvili will need to accept that they are not
messiahs; they have played a transitional role in facilitating
politics from below in Georgia. The best legacy they could leave would
be a demonstration to future Georgian politicians of how to get out of
the way.