Pain and grief in Georgia
Modernisation is one thing, democracy another. Georgia faces a dangerously polarised election
Sep 29th 2012 | TBILISI | from the print edition
THE parliamentary election on October 1st will be Georgia’s most important since the 2003 Rose Revolution, when President Mikheil Saakashvili and a bunch of mostly young, English-speaking followers came to power. Now their United National Movement (UNM) faces the biggest challenge yet from Georgian Dream, a coalition headed by Bidzina Ivanishvili (pictured above), an enigmatic tycoon who made his fortune in Russia.
A new constitution comes into force next year, when Mr Saakashvili’s final term in office ends. Many of his powers will go to the prime minister, chosen by the new parliament. The election is also a referendum on the past eight years. Economic and administrative reforms have turned the country into an ex-Soviet showcase. Petty corruption has all but vanished. But modernisation has outstripped democratisation. State media and the judiciary hew to the official line. Complaints abound about arbitrary and venal tax inspections. Big business and the ruling elite are closely linked. Irakli Alasania, a former ambassador to the UN and one of many luminaries of the Saakashvili team now with the opposition, cites a “culture of non-accountability.”
Rhetoric on all sides is heated, if not hateful. In the western city of Zugdidi, Mr Ivanishvili told cheering crowds: “The days of Saakashvili’s criminal regime are numbered”; the election would be a day of “real responsibility”. His camp says the Rose Revolution has decayed into authoritarian greed to which the West turns a blind eye. The opposition has spent a fortune trying to persuade foreign opinion of this.
A shocking example of misrule came with the release on September 19th of videos showing rape and beatings in prisons. Mr Saakashvili promised an investigation, fired several senior officials and put a human-rights ombudsman in charge of the prisons. The authorities say the videos were contrived by the opposition and leaked to coincide with the election. Bad prison conditions are a long-standing problem and a symptom of a weak opposition’s failure to scrutinise the regime. Georgian Dream’s candidates say the scandal reveals the regime’s true face.
Mr Ivanishvili used to be a reclusive figure who raised penguins on his Black Sea estate and doled out money to dozens of Georgian poets and actors. Few even knew what he looked like. His sudden declaration in October last year that he would seek to become prime minister was as mysterious as it was explosive. Until then, the UNM had counted on an easy victory.
Georgian Dream comprises six parties, including denizens of previously moribund opposition groups. They include free-market liberals, xenophobic nationalists, and those who hanker for the era before 2003. Mr Ivanishvili’s cash and personality unite them, for now (he says he will stay prime minister for only two years, if he wins). David Usupashvili, head of the liberal Republican Party, says his party would gain no more than 2% running alone. Georgian Dream was the “only realistic, pragmatic choice”, but the coalition is “not eternal”.
Aside from better relations with Russia (Mr Saakashvili’s have been dire since the disastrous war of 2008), the coalition’s platform is vague. Words and deeds suggest it is less interested in winning the election than in preparing for a fight afterward.
Mr Ivanishvili refused to take part in debates (he said he would debate only with Mr Saakashvili). He has given conflicting signals about whether he will recognise the election result if Georgian Dream loses but international observers judge them free and fair. A European diplomat says the strategy is not about winning elections, but “delegitimising” them. Another observer in Tbilisi agrees: “Either they’ve run the worst campaign ever or it was never their intent to compete.”
Chiora Taktakishvili of the UNM admits the party may have been “too focused on results at the expense of compromise and dialogue.” But many in the UNM see Mr Ivanishvili and Georgian Dream as representing the poisonous politics of the past and threatening Mr Saakashvili’s achievements since 2003.
Whatever the result, the election is unlikely to end the country’s dangerous polarisation. Geographic and ethnic tensions may only grow. The opposition thinks it is fighting a dictatorship that will stop at nothing to keep its power. On election day, each side may release its own exit polls and declare victory. The loser will feel not only disappointed but also dispossessed. For a volatile country in a bad neighbourhood, that is a dangerous brew.
from the print edition | Europe