Foreign Policy Blogs

Georgian Elections Again an International Affair

Georgian Elections Again an International Affair

President Mikheil Saakashvili and Jean-Paul Costa enter the European Court of Human Rights, 2008 (credit: Michel Christen / © Council of Europe)

Nestled among gorgeous mountains, blessed with exotic cuisine, and loved for its arts and outgoing people, Georgia has many suitors. Long courted by her northern Russian neighbor, she has in recent years been beset by foreign admirers, bearing gifts of “democracy” and “growth” that (they promise) will ensure she lives happily ever after.

With parliamentary elections coming October 1st, foreigners continue to fawn over her. In the last month, three international commissions have released Georgian election assessments. Whether she enjoys transparency, or is satisfied with voter turnout, remains to be seen; but it will certainly not be for lack of attention.

Since this longstanding courtship blossomed in the fall of 2003, when the 35-year-old Mikheil Saakashvili and supporting throngs forced then-President Shevardnadze out of office, Western patrons have been scrambling to pull Georgia out of the Russian shadow and into, or rather toward,  EU bliss. However impractical, due to its location and historic regional instability, Georgia became a diplomatic darling in foreign capitals and a project for liberal governance.

The romance has been rocky. Georgia seems to have a difficult time trusting herself and occasionally looks to others to choose her path. When she does, the foreign or “Russian” spectre is decried and she rushes back inside to the family she knows. (Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) has wielded this tool, charging that some opposition parties are actually Russian proxies.) Georgia also has had, in the nine years since that watershed Rose Revolution, to curb entrenched corruption by escorting powerbrokers out to pasture. Yet however chastened by Russia after its 2008 war cum slap-in-the-face, she remains on the market, and hands continue to be extended.

What are Georgia’s inner voices telling her? Saakashvili’s voice speaks loudest. Early on the golden boy due to his youth, Western law degree, and reformist platform, he was eventually accused of authoritarianism through crackdowns on protests and pressuring media outlets. However his police reform has earned rave reviews, and results. In July he nominated the widely admired former Interior Minister, Ivane Merabishvili, as Prime Minister, in a move said by many to secure UNM’s victory in October.

In 2011, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili strutted onto the political stage, after years of primarily Russian business experience, and declared himself a presidential candidate for 2014. His deep pockets, and new coalition, Georgia Dream, immediately threw the gantlet down to UNM. After being in the driver’s seat for so many years, UNM suddenly had a rival. When the election commission questioned Ivanishvili’s citizenship, articles appeared wondering how he earned his treasure, and legislation passed limiting individual campaign donations, few doubted UNM’s involvement. Initially labelled a Russian plant, Ivanishvili has welcomed a few substantial politicians into his fold and enjoys a solid following in the capital, Tbilisi.

Since Saakashvili’s time in office ends with the 2013 presidential election, this parliamentary vote is also an early referendum on that decision next year.

Tom de Waal, a veteran Caucasus analyst now with the Carnegie Endowment, recently commented that UNM and Georgia Dream (a six-party coalition) appear in a close contest, with UNM leading by most accounts. Other parties vying for seats include the Christian Democrats, New Rights, and Labor. To illustrate UNM’s recent dominance, the 2008 parliamentary election yielded a New Rights coalition only 17 seats to UNM’s 119 (out of a total 150).

Now back to the international love affair. Georgia’s physical and cultural charms got her the interview, and she has not stopped networking for the job. NATO membership may be a dream of its own, yet above many government buildings in Georgia flies the blue and gold-starred Council of Europe flag, in more ways than one showing which way the wind is blowing. Speaking from historic Kutaisi, the nation’s first capital, in front of a restored cathedral that once crowned sovereigns, President Saakashvili on Friday affirmed that “we cannot but be united by the Georgian nation’s multi-century aspiration toward Europe.”

Georgia’s flirtations with foreigners in another sphere show she is no less a political animal.  As Molly Corso of Eurasianet recounts, both UNM and Georgian Dream have enlisted Washington DC public relations firms, such as Patton Boggs, to craft pre-election messages with contracts exceeding $1 million. Candidates of many stripes, from France to Kazakhstan, have learned to hire the masters of spin for their own ends, yet Georgia’s inclusion in this circle has been surprising given her hitherto meager means.

And yet foreigners respond to her advances with tough love, through talk of the rule of law and elections accountability. In a 30-day period, the Washington DC-based National Democratic Institute (NDI), the Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe (PACE), and the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), visited Tbilisi to present (and/or released) their own pre-election assessments. The US State Department also sent an Interagency Mission, which highlighted “principles essential for a meaningful electoral process.”

Common themes among the reviews include noting the polarized election atmosphere, emphasis on Central Election Commission (CEC) rules, and the effects of recent legislation. The dizzying lists of responsibilities and single-mandate regulations (for those running individually rather than under a party), while far from dramatic, are clearly stated and evidence that substantial, multilateral organizations have an interest in cultivating a democratic, representative Georgia.

Do other developing nations with nascent electorates receive as much attention? The question is more practically asked, where can these organizations freely observe, and/or where would they be most effective. Elections observation is a developing sport that has not quite reached Olympic caliber. For example, in the post-Soviet sphere, Uzbekistan has banned the OSCE. In Turkmenistan, the OSCE so lacks faith in the process it does not even send a team. Ukraine hosts observers yet is quick to question criticism. The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a loose (and very weak) alliance of former Soviet states, now also sends observers, whose opinions often contradict those of the OSCE.

In sum, observers and foreign missions concerned with democratic processes seem to be only as effective as the host nation’s will to enforce those processes. Georgia, youthful and vibrant, seems to wholeheartedly embrace representative elections, with or without foreign mentors. Whatever the result October 1st, the foreigners will keep coming.



Jason Anderson

Jason has lived and worked for over five years in Russian-speaking countries. He spent April-May 2014 researching religious extremist groups in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. He has project experience in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. He previously served as a trainer for U.S. military and civilians working alongside counterparts in Afghanistan, and as a coordinator with Afghan ministerial advisors on National Priority Program (NPP) funding proposals. Jason speaks conversational Russian and holds a Master of International Affairs from Columbia University.