The Georgian Election and Ours
Lincoln Mitchell identifies the forthcoming Georgian election as a possible unwelcome “October surprise” for Obama. Mitchell imagines a plausible scenario involving a disputed election outcome that provokes political unrest:
Attempting to resolve the political crisis after the election would likely be the better approach for the Obama administration, but leaves the president vulnerable to charges from Romney and the Republican Party that he has betrayed a key ally. Saakashvili remains a darling of the right, where he, despite years of evidence to the contrary, is still viewed as a radical reformer and democrat [bold mine-DL]. If Obama distances himself from Saakashvili on the eve of the U.S. election, Romney would likely redouble his critique of Obama as not being sufficiently supportive of America’s friends.
Let me start by saying that the U.S. should be discouraging the ruling party in Georgia from abusing its power any further ahead of the Oct. 1 election. Credible reports of intimidation directed against supporters of Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition have been coming out of Georgia for months, and to some extent the damage to the integrity of the electoral process has already been done. The parliamentary election ought to be free and fair for Georgia’s sake, and if that means that the opposition coalition prevails then that result ought to be respected. The Georgian government should understand that its Western friends will run out of patience with it if it is a one-party state with rigged elections, which is what it has been becoming over the last decade.
That said, there isn’t much else that the U.S. can do at this late date. If there is evidence that the ruling party has rigged the outcome, the U.S. shouldn’t ignore that because of our domestic political calendar. The argument for “distancing” the U.S. from a Georgian ruling party implicated in vote-rigging and intimidation would be an easy one to make: the U.S. supports free and competitive elections in Georgia, not any particular leader or party.
If the scenario he describes happened eight years ago when Saakashvili still had credibility outside the confines of the Republican Party, Mitchell would have more reason to worry that our domestic politics might hamper an administration response. That isn’t an issue any longer. Thanks to Saakashvili’s record of abusive crackdowns on the opposition and more recent reports of prisoner abuse, there aren’t many people outside the usual Russophobic and hawkish circles that will be interested in defending him or his party. According to this report from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the prisoners subjected to torture were political enemies of the president:
Vladimer Bedukadze, the former official at Georgia’s Prison No. 8 who released videos purportedly showing guards abusing inmates, said the prisoners who were tortured were “ideological enemies” of mafia bosses and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Saakashvili does remain a “darling” of hawkish Republicans, but there is no advantage for them or Romney in drawing attention to their enthusiasm for him a few weeks before our election. Considering Romney’s strident anti-Russian rhetoric over the last few years, aligning himself with Saakashvili would be a reminder that his Russia policy really would be a throwback to the Bush era. Not only would most Americans be uninterested in such an obscure political dispute, but to the extent that they have any reaction it would more likely be one of puzzlement why the U.S. is providing aid to this government. If there are opposition protests over the election result, Republican democratists have painted themselves into a corner by constantly berating the administration for being too slow to support protest movements, so it wouldn’t be remotely credible for them to side with the ruling party in any event.
If hawkish Republicans wanted to trot out the “betrayed ally” line, they could do so, but it wouldn’t be accurate and most Americans wouldn’t care anyway. Making Georgia into a U.S. client has never been a project of any interest to the vast majority of voters, and the last time Georgia came up during an election year it did not help the more obviously “pro-Georgian” (really pro-Saakashvili) candidate in the race. Indeed, in spite of the August 2008 war Georgia held the attention of the public here for only a short time. A disputed election would barely register.
If a flailing Romney campaign really wanted to wade into a debate over a disputed election in the Caucasus, it would be another in a series of misjudgments by the challenger.
Tbilisi’s Prison No. 8 has a particularly bad reputation. It is there that 90 percent of the 144 deaths of prisoners recorded in 2011 took place.
As a result of the scandal, the Georgian Interior Minister has resigned:
Critics have long alleged that abuse of prisoners was promoted actively by Akhalaia during his administration of the penitentiary system from 2005 to 2008.