Max Boot believes the election result in Georgia is “dispiriting” for democracy promoters:
In Georgia, the recent parliamentary election was won by a party led by the enigmatic billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia under mysterious circumstances and is said to maintain close links to the Russian leadership. He was widely seen as the more pro-Russian candidate over the party led by the English-speaking, pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili.
This is representative of a lot of the worst commentary on Georgia and the recent election. By all informed accounts, half of these claims are false. The claims about Ivanishvili as “more pro-Russian” and having “close links” to Russian leaders are simply asserted without proof, which is probably because there doesn’t appear to be any proof. It is true that Ivanishvili is an enigmatic figure, and it’s true that he made his money in Russia. A recent profile of him characterizes him as enigmatic, and it seems to be a fair description, but otherwise Boot just asserts things for which there isn’t any evidence.
It would be far more accurate to say that Ivanishvili was the less intensely anti-Russian candidate, which is a far cry from being “pro-Russian.” Far from being closely tied to Ivanishvili, the Kremlin is rather puzzled about how to respond to Georgian Dream’s win, which they didn’t expect anymore than almost all Westerners. Meanwhile, the new Georgian cabinet includes many ministers drawn from the ranks of former Saakashvili supporters, all of whom continue to be interested in integrating Georgia with the West while reducing tensions with Russia. Instead of applauding these developments, some American hawks seem so attached to Saakashvili and his government that they insist on describing what looks like the first successful democratic transition in Georgia as “dispiriting,” and they do so mainly because they continue to misinterpret what Georgian Dream represents.
Boot’s reaction is instructive in several ways. First, it’s a useful reminder that many enthusiasts of the so-called “freedom agenda” weren’t ever terribly interested in a more democratic Georgia, which is why they continued to defend and cheer on Saakashvili even as his government became more illiberal and abusive. The response of so many of them to Georgia’s first genuinely competitive democratic election has been to echo the ruling party’s attacks against the opposition, and to lament the new government’s “pro-Russian” orientation when there is no proof that such a thing exists. It’s not news that a lot of Western support for the “freedom agenda” in the former Soviet Union was mostly, if not completely, driven by hostility to Russia. It is nonetheless remarkable that their understanding of political change in Georgia is so limited that it can’t account for an opposition movement that rejects Saakashvili without repudiating or weakening Georgia’s ties with Western nations. Such a possibility seems to be inconceivable to them. Interpreting the Georgian election as a “pro-Western” vs. “pro-Russian” contest is hopelessly misleading.
As Michael Cecire explained, this was the same trap that the ruling party fell into during the campaign:
But the UNM’s public-relations savvy may have contributed to their own downfall. Surrounded by an extensive strategic-communications infrastructure that sought to define the race as a stark geopolitical choice between the liberal West and pro-Moscow kleptocracy, the UNM and its advisers were blindsided by a referendum mostly based around domestic concerns.
Western misreadings of the election have suffered from the same flawed assumption that the two main competitors offered a “stark geopolitical choice” for Georgia, and were similarly oblivious to the realities of the political landscape.