This analysis of tomorrow’s Georgian parliamentary election suffers from a number of flaws common to a lot of Western coverage of this contest. The article begins:
Tensions are mounting in Georgia ahead of parliamentary elections Monday, as violence and the arrests of opposition activists threaten to mar a key vote for the strategically important pro-Western nation that could undermine its near decade of democratic progress and lead to a change in orientation toward Russia.
Monday’s election is now expected to be a close call between President Mikheil Saakashvili’s pro-Western United National Movement (UNM) party and his upstart rival, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, founder of the opposition and pro-Russia Georgian Dream coalition formed last fall.
There are many things that the article reports correctly, but it unwittingly uses the framing of Georgian politics created by Saakashvili and his ruling party and it misrepresents the significance of the election in important ways. Like today’s New York Times editorial on the same subject, it promotes the idea that Ivanishvili and his coalition are “pro-Russian.” This is nothing more than repeating a standard Saakashvili accusation that is used against any critic or dissenter against the current party. The Georgian government is hardly alone in vilifying its political opposition as disloyal, and it is not the worst in this regard, but that is no reason to treat these accusations as if they had merit.
Why should Americans care what happens in Georgia? Georgia is a recipient of U.S. aid (on a per capita basis, it is one of the top five recipients of U.S. foreign aid), and there is still a bipartisan consensus in favor of Georgia’s admission into NATO. Most of the sympathy Americans have for Georgia is based on the belief that Saakashvili presides over an increasingly free and democratic country, so it should be of some concern to Americans that Georgia has become less free and more of an abusive one-party state over the last eight years.
As the poster child for Bush’s “freedom agenda” in the former Soviet Union, Saakashvili’s Georgia was praised for political liberalization that never happened. According to Freedom House’s rankings, Georgia is now less free in terms of protections for civil liberties and political rights than it was when Shevardnadze was in power. As Michael Cecire elaborated in a column last year:
Although Georgia’s Freedom House score improved slightly this year — mostly due to better positioning from an outmatched but increasingly savvy parliamentary opposition — its report card on political freedoms remains worse (.pdf) than during the waning days of former President Eduard Shevardnadze’s kleptocratic regime.
Saakashvili has not only fallen short of what his Western boosters hoped for, but he has also been making Georgia’s government more illiberal than it was when he took over. So it isn’t correct to refer to the “near decade of democratic progress.” The last eight years have already been marred by violent crackdowns on opposition protests, harassment of critical journalists, and a steady campaign of intimidation against supporters of Georgian Dream.
It is a mistake to see Ivanishvili or Georgian Dream as “pro-Russian” for two other reasons: there is no constituency in Georgia for a pro-Russian political movement or politician, and the victory of Georgian Dream in tomorrow’s election will not herald a major reorientation of Georgian foreign policy. Ivanishvili claims to be interested in repairing relations with Russia, but he rules out concessions on South Ossetia and Abkhazia. He professes a desire to keep Georgia on its track towards integration with Europe, and doesn’t propose any sudden change or new direction in Georgia’s relations with the West.
Tomorrow’s election represents a test of whether Georgia will become a more politically competitive and pluralistic country or not. Georgian Dream represents the first serious challenge to the growing one-party rule in Georgia since Saakashvili came to power, and it has come about in no small part because of the excesses and abuses of Saakashvili and his ministers. Because of the abuses in Georgia’s prison system that have recently come to light, the opposition could have a very decent showing in tomorrow’s vote, which would be one of the first healthy signs in Georgian politics in a long time.