Georgia stood out among its neighbours this week for holding free elections – and despite its remaining problems Europe and the US have a major stake in seeing it become a mature democracy
Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili promptly conceded defeat for his party in the parliamentary elections in Georgia on October 1. The number of parliamentary seats won by each of the two parties still remains to be announced, but it is now clear that the Georgian Dream, the coalition led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, will form the new government.
International observers recorded this as a free and fair election. As such, Georgia's achievement stands out in its neighbourhood, since opposition parties face long and tough roads to victory in the states of the former Soviet Union. Georgia's electoral success notwithstanding, this event is just the first step toward a stable and democratic political system. Hopes are high that it will lead to a strong and functional parliament, cohesive administration of the country, and open governance. But the jury is still out.
Georgian politics have been highly factionalised almost from the moment of independence in 1991, but in the years since Bidzina Ivanishvili announced his entry into politics, acute polarisation has been the norm. Saakashvili, president for one more year, and Ivanishvili, now set to become prime minister, will be challenged to find ways to work together in the next 12 months.
The betting in much of Georgia is that this will be impossible given their conflicting views on most issues and their volcanic tempers. Further complicating matters, over the following 12 months, Georgia's political system will transform from presidential to parliamentary, with the effect of stripping the office of president of most powers, while transferring them to the prime minister. Parliament is thus slated to play a more vigorous role than it has in the past.
New policies follow new governments just about everywhere. In the European Union and the United States, new parties in power usually provoke, at most, incremental change. But they seldom alter the fundamentals of the state, the essential vector of its development, or its geopolitical orientation. By contrast, in the new countries of the former Soviet Union, changes of governments frequently shake the foundations of the state mightily, and course corrections that reverse the status quo are common.
Will Georgia face the threat of radical change, or will the new government opt for a more nuanced incremental approach to governing? The winning coalition has asserted their Euro-Atlantic orientation, and it contains young leaders who have been among the most dynamic proponents of democracy and transparency. But Ivanishvili remains a relative unknown. One could be forgiven for remembering that just over two years ago, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych – then a candidate for office – made similar promises and assurances, only to have his policies tell a very different tale.
Now more than ever, Europe and the US have a stake in seeing Georgia become a mature democracy and fulfilling its Euro-Atlantic ambitions. These elections suggest that, indeed, Georgia is maturing. In a neighbourhood where opposition figures are prosecuted or even imprisoned, for example Ukraine or Armenia, the little island of democratic behaviour that Georgia represents needs to be protected and nurtured.
Against this, Russia lurks in the face of Georgian aspirations. Its militarisation of the Black and Caspian Sea regions underlines the critical importance of Georgia integrating quickly and solidly into the Euro-Atlantic values and institutions, and the salutary efforts the Georgian government has so far taken in this direction President Saakashvili deserves praise for the organisation of the elections and the smooth transfer of power to the winner.
Ivanishvili is now Georgia's dominant politician. As such, he needs to raise his game to prove that he can take the country forward, dissolve political stalemates and quiet Georgia's turbulent political waters. This is the only path that would fulfill the Georgian dream.
Alina Inayeh is the director of the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation. This article was first published by the German Marshall Fund think-tank as part of its Transatlantic Take series