Given the, perhaps inflated, public expectations of change in a country that has positioned itself as a successful reformer, the recent parliamentary elections in Georgia came as a surprise. The result was not just surprising to the Georgian public, but to outside observers as well.
In a country that has undergone a number of coups in its short history as an independent state, this is the first time that there has been a peaceful change of government through elections. Prior to the “prison scandal” , the general expectation was that the opposition stood little chance of winning. This certainty was attributed both to the use of administrative resources by the ruling party and to ideological splits within the opposition bloc headed by Bidzina Ivanishvili. The expectation was that the “Georgian Dream” would secure sufficient votes to avoid yet another revolution but insufficient votes to give it a defining role in the formation of a government.
However, the electoral scene was transformed by the prison scandal and the protests that spilled out onto the streets of Tbilisi against the Georgian administration’s repressive methods. By the eve of the elections, it was already hard to imagine that the Georgian Dream coalition would fail to gain at least a simple majority in parliament. Only the total falsification of the election results could have prevented Ivanishvili from winning, but this might also fuel further protest among the Georgian people. In what might have been a last-ditch attempt to keep parliament in the hands of the United National Movement (UNM), Mikheil Saakashvili issued a statement on the evening of the election that the ruling party had won the vote in the single mandate constituencies but lost in the party lists. Such a hasty acknowledgement of the Georgian Dream’s victory, even before the results had been officially announced, suggests that Saakashvili had received a stern warning from his external allies and the United States in particular. Even public statements by Western spokespersons that the elections should reflect the will of the Georgian people were unmistakeably clear-cut as never before. One more revolution would have destroyed the image of Georgia as a “beacon of democracy” and would have led to a destabilisation which would be highly undesirable both for Georgia itself and for the interests of its allies and patrons.
The authorities’ claims about its achievements in reforming law enforcement, education and health could not offset public dissatisfaction with the authoritarian style of governance, the corrupt legal system, unemployment and poverty.
It was no surprise that Saakashvili tried to trump the elections using the “enemy image” of Russia to mobilise his supporters in favour of Georgia’s “civilised” choice of NATO membership. However, the public’s reaction came as a surprise to many observers: first the applause by thousands of demonstrators in response to Ivanishvili’s promise to restore normal relations with Russia; and later the votes in support of the Georgian Dreamcoalition. It was clear that Georgian society was no longer willing to live in a state of constant tension. The electorate was not only protesting against the arbitrary actions of the president and his entourage; it was also expressing its weariness regarding Saakashvili’s constant attempts to use the “Russian threat” to divert attention from domestic problems.
Despite the president’s paradoxical statement that he would go into opposition – with his term continuing for another year into 2013 – it cannot be said that there has been a complete paradigm shift in Georgia’s domestic politics. With the Georgian Dream’s failure to gain a constitutional majority and questions over the ideological “compatibility” of the coalition – along with the fact that the UNM still has the greatest representation in parliament relative to the other parties – Saakashvili and his supporters still have substantial political leverage.
Opinions vary as to whether the farsighted amendments made to the Georgian constitution in 2010 on the initiative of the UNM were a genuine attempt to improve the country’s system of governance or rather an effort by the incumbent president to cling to power. The adoption of the amendments and the timing of their entry into force strongly suggest the latter. Meanwhile, as a result of the changes to the Georgian constitution, a system of dual power is now in place and this has given the losing team some room for manoeuvre. These and other factors suggest that Georgia’s political landscape is set to become more predictable. The current configuration of political forces will allow a system of checks and balances to operate. On the other hand, decision making will become more difficult and unwieldy, although certainly less open to adventurism. Many are counting on the new political dispensation to lead to a relaxation of civil liberties and to an end to repressive government methods and the suppression of dissent, as well as the cessation of police control over the political and economic lives of citizens. Already, many in Tbilisi are saying that for the first time in several years, they are not worried that their phone calls are being monitored by the Georgian security services.
Relations with Abkhazia
Many observers are currently asking what effect the recent events in Georgia might have on Tbilisi’s relations with Russia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Initial statements by Georgian Dream representatives have met with a variety of responses in Abkhazia. Some say with cautious optimism that Georgia might adopt a more constructive approach, particularly on the issue of a bilateral agreement on the non-use of force. This was the thrust of a statement by Stanislav Lakoba, the Chairman of Abkhazia’s Security Council. Others would have preferred the UNM to win, out of concern for a warming in relations between Russia and Georgia, and particularly the potential consequences for Abkhazia. However, the Georgian Dream’s victory is unlikely to mean that Georgia will swap its pro-Western vector for a pro-Russian one. Most likely, relations with Russia will improve, mainly in terms of economic links, while the strategic partnership with the US and the EU will be maintained. Ivanishvili cited the Baltic states as the example to follow, and some analysts are talking about the potential “Finlandisation” of Georgia.
Although Abkhaz society was not particularly expecting any sudden change in policy towards Abkhazia, the new leaders’ reference to “occupation” somewhat dashed whatever expectations there might have been. Their promises to end the policy of restricting access to Abkhazia for foreign citizens and organisations, as well as ending restrictions to the freedom of movement of Abkhaz citizens, were offset by their recognition of Abkhazia’s “occupation”. In this context, statements about ending sanctions are perceived merely as a more refined expression of the old idea of “de-occupation” and “reintegration”. The Abkhaz public is not interested in the new Georgian leaders’ need to reinforce their own legitimacy with their own public. Nor is it interested in their limitations in relation to “dual power” and the instability of the coalition itself, or in the differing notions within the coalition regarding the right approach to the conflict with Abkhazia. Recognising its “occupation” is not the right starting point for any dialogue in which Abkhazia can be expected to engage enthusiastically.
For the Abkhaz, independence is a fundamental defining issue that is not up for review under any circumstances. As a result, their only political interest in relations with Tbilisi is that Georgia recognises Abkhazia’s right to its own independent statehood. This is the only basis for developing good neighbourly relations between the two states. In this sense, the new Georgian leaders have nothing to offer their Abkhaz counterparts today. If any Georgian political force ever does decide on recognition, this is unlikely to happen anytime soon, if at all. Until then, the new authorities are likely to leave the question of Abkhazia’s “status” in the long grass and to restore relations through the gradual removal of restrictions in relation to Sukhum. Rescinding many restrictive provisions – such as requiring Abkhaz citizens to travel on Georgian “neutral” passports, the “modalities” restricting the activities of international organisations in Abkhazia, and the law making it a criminal offence for persons to visit Abkhazia via the Russian-Abkhaz border – will all certainly create a more open international environment, affording opportunities that will be important for Sukhum to take advantage of.
Statements already issued indicate that Georgia will also make some symbolic acts, such as the renaming of the Ministry for Reintegration. ‘Everything apart from recognition’, says Georgia’s new leader. Now that they have drawn their initial “red lines”, the new leaders may start to tone down their rhetoric and remove such terms as “occupation” and “reintegration” from their political discourse. However, the possibility that the bitter struggles within parliament may repeatedly lead to the resurrection of the “enemy image” of Russia cannot be ruled out, allowing the subject of “occupation” to continue to hinder the formation of new approaches to conflict resolution.
The signing of an agreement on the non-use of force will be a litmus test. If the Georgian and Abkhaz sides manage to come to this agreement, it will be an important confirmation not just of Georgia’s peaceful intentions. It will also confirm Georgia’s acknowledgement of Abkhazia as a fully authorised negotiating partner rather than an “occupied territory” ruled from outside. Such an agreement would certainly create a more favourable and constructive environment for relations between the two states, which have essentially been in a state of war for the last 20 years.
Liana Kvarchelia is Deputy Director of the Center for Humanitarian Programs in Abkhazia.
 ‘Videos of Inmates Abuse, Rape Emerge’, Civil Georgia, 19th September 2012. Available at http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=25220.
 ‘Saakashvili says UNM lost in Party-List Race, Won Majoritarian Contest’, Civil Georgia, 1st October 2012. Available at http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=25291.
 ‘Elections, Russia and Prison Scandal in Saakashvili’s UN Speech’, Civil Georgia, 26th September 2012. Available at http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=25259.
 ‘Key Points of Newly Adopted Constitution’, Civil Georgia, 15th October 2010. Available at http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=22757.
 ‘Абхазию не могут не интересовать события, происходящие в соседней Грузии – секретарь Совбеза Станислав Лакоба’ [Abkhazia cannot but be interested in events taking place in neighbouring Georgia – Secretary of the State Security Council, Stanislav Lakoba], Apsnypress, 4th October 2012. Available in Russian at http://apsnypress.info/news/7413.html.
 Interview with Inal Khashig on Ekho Kavkaza, 2nd October 2012. Available in Russian at http://www.ekhokavkaza.com/content/article/24725956.html.
 ‘Закареишвили обещает пересмотреть закон “Об оккупированных территориях”’ [Zakareishvili promises to review the law on ‘Occupied Territories’], Ekho Kavkaza, 9th October 2012. Available in Russian at http://www.ekhokavkaza.com/content/news/24733387.html.
Source: International Alert