FREE, FAIR, AND COMPETITIVE ELECTIONS IN THE REPUBLIC OF GEORGIA?
Freedom is never given to you – you must fight hard to get it and harder to keep it!
Tbilisi – “Georgia, the showcase of democracy, beacon of democracy, best democracy the “American People” could buy” – this is what the Western policy planners seem to have thought for a long time, as they were the ones puffing the country in this way. But since the 2003 Rose Revolution, which brought a US trained reformer Mikhael Saakashvili to office, this US funded experiment on the border of Russia has not lived up to this billing.
Georgian democracy is stillborn and the government is a self-selecting clan which preserves its power through various complex networks of patronage – or at least that is how things are panning out during the present period of transition, according to some pundits and policy experts.
In spite of all efforts to reform, and the introduction of new blood (sometimes by spilling the blood of other clan members), the government and the ruling National Party have successfully monopolized power and grabbed money flows. The influx of development money, designed to produce the opposite outcome, has merely bolstered the regime and its present character. Now few can challenge the existing political machinery since it can prove hazardous to their health and security if they do.
What went wrong?
Was this all that was ever really planned, notwithstanding the debacle of the 2008 Georgian- Russian war and the economic and political freefall it produced? Many questions remain, but for now the public focus is on the arrival of a new savior. Bidzina Ivanishvili, consistently branded "the oligarch" by government-controlled TV stations, has contrarily been featured on the front page of Forbes as a symbol of the next stage of democratic development. He has been presented as the man who can ensure that for the first time since it regained its independence from the Soviet Union, Georgia will achieve a peaceful transition of power.
However, the government’s response casts doubt on this optimistic assertion. No-one will be safe - all will be pawns in the great blame-game to be fought out on the streets of Tbilisi and possible remote Georgian regions.
Saving a Sinking Ship
Backed by the best PR money could buy, BGR-Garbara, LTD, Bidzina Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream Party, together with Irakli Alasania, leader of Our Georgia-Free Democrats and a few other opposition parties, are trying to spearhead a democratic takeover. The government is not going to roll over and die though. Alasania claimed on March 20 that he now has evidence to that President Saakashvili is setting up paramilitary groups in the Georgians regions, an allegation which was recently supported by Moscow. http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=24580
It is clear that the government will cling to power at any cost, even if this means risking the possibility that an angered US government will cut off all funding to Georgia – as recently proposed in a bill presented in Congress. Just think of how tempting the offer would be for a Georgian prisoner if given the opportunity for freedom on condition he or she join up with the paramilitaries.
The Ivanishvili-Alasania team has international backing, not only in the halls of Congress, the Republican Institute and some Cold War veterans in the US State Department, but even behind the walls of the Kremlin, if you listen to certain media sources. In response polls commissioned concerning the political future in Georgia, and run by the National Democratic Institute, NDI, continue to be leaked at the most ill-timed moments for the opposition. On March 27, the Georgian news agency, InterPressNews (IPN), reported segments of the NDI-commissioned survey dealing with political parties. http://www.civil.ge/eng/_print.php?id=2460
A European commentator recently pointed out in term a leaked poll, “I don't know, maybe the recent National Democratic Institute poll, funded by the Democratic Party in the US, is correct, nearly half (47 percent) still support the ruling United National Movement, and the ruling party does not have to do anything to retain power.” According to the leaked report nearly half of respondents claimed they would vote for the ruling National Movement party if the parliamentary elections were held tomorrow, followed by Ivanishvili-led opposition coalition with 10%. The same poll, also published by Civil.ge, nearly one quarter, 23% of respondents are undecided, 10% refused to answer and 5% said they would vote for none of the parties.
The propaganda is working. In the news, Bidzina is consistently called "the oligarch", as he is in the computer graphics on the studio walls at the government controlled TV stations.” But the polls do not ask what the people would do if Saakashvili resorted to violence to destroy any opposition, which is what seems to be being threatened at present.
Georgia may even be turning into a US presidential primary election issue. The Democratic Party in the US in the US have not forgotten the Georgians for McCain lobby, high ranking ministers visiting IDP camps with “McCain 1” license plate numbers on their SUVs, and how the advisors of the Georgian president and the United National Movement were running the PR for McCain, and the inconvenient situation Saakashvili put the US Administration in thanks to his ill-timed and poorly executed attempt in August 2008 to retake South Ossetia from separatists, if that that the intention in the first place. The result was a war that boosted the chances of John McCain in his failed bid for president.
The war did serve its function, covering up a multitude of sins involving “gun runners” and connections to a former FBI director who had to arrive to Tbilisi to clear up the damage behind close door meeting, and the fallout over Georgia being used as a logistical base for proxy wars in Africa and a gun show which would put the infamous “fast and furious” weapons walking program to shame. It brought also an influx of new development money for poor IDPs and others affected by the war, which merely kept the government members’ feeding frenzy going. The interesting question will be how much of this is seen as a good thing by the various US presidential aspirants, and who will feel they have more to gain by opposing it.
God only knows
One way or another, things are starting to heat up. Last week’s allegations of armed groups being formed in Western Georgia, and now the controversy over McDermott's Democracy in Georgia bill, indicate that calculated pressure is being exerted by the US authorities on their ally, the current Georgian regime, ahead of the anticipated reinstatement of Ivanishvili's citizenship, which he will need in order to run in Georgia's parliamentary election, scheduled for this October. McDermott’s bill should get some traction, and spur public debate on important issues.
It is about time that the US tied foreign aid to the level of democracy in recipient countries anyway. US presidential elections are coming up (just a month after Georgia’s parliamentary elections) and it is unlikely that the Obama administration wants to see the situation in Georgia descend into complete chaos in the event that the government loses its grip. Think back to August 2008, when the Russian army invaded Georgia and McCain jumped on the opportunity to present his hawkish and resolute foreign policy credentials – even though he thus demonstrated he was a product of a bygone era and senile.
Furthermore, Georgian Dream has also secured new and better media equipment, currently en route to Georgia, which includes up to 12 absolutely state-of-the-art cameras with live external streaming devices. No longer can the government rely on an effective propaganda monopoly. This vector of opposing forces is one the Georgian government cannot ignore, and Saakashvili, a smart political operator who used those skills to take power in the first place, knows this very well.
Signs are growing that the Georgian authorities will use whatever means they can to stop Bidzina Ivanishvili in his tracks. Whether by fair play or foul they simply have too much to lose by simply restoring his citizenship and letting him participate in the closest thing to a free and fair election that Georgia ever could muster. Given past history in Georgia, the likelihood is that as the pressure mounts, Misha is likely to do increasingly crazy things to try and discredit the opposition.
He could paint Ivanishvili and his partners as Russian backed revolutionaries or simply distract the population by focusing on some concocted external or internal threat, such as the Khurcha incident on the day of the May 2008 Georgian parliamentary elections (in which the government shot at its own citizens and pretend it was a separatist attack designed to disrupt the poll), the phony “live news reports” of a Russian invasion broadcast on Imedia TV, a well-crafted media hoax designed to scare the population, etc.
The government knows it is being watched, and as explained by the US Ambassador to Georgia, Richard Norland and who was recently confirmed by the US Senate. It is clear from recent testimony to the Senate, they would be pretty foolish to try anything that the US disapproves of, given the new bill being presented to Congress, which ties US military and development assistance for fiscal year 2013 to the conduct and competitiveness of Georgia’s elections in October. http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=24584
One bad move on the part of the government and the show could be over. But what does the Georgian government thinks it can get away with, and what is it willing to risk? Too many people in Misha's circle have blood on their hands and will not give up the power which is their main or only source of livelihood; even it is the family business with some, without more blood being spilt. Many of them have demonstrated their willingness to kill before (for example, Culture Minister Nika Rurua was once exiled from the country for his long involvement with murderous gangsters only to be rehabilitated by Saakashvili without any renunciation of his crimes), and "Bacho" Akhalaia, the current Minister of Defense that once worked in the prison system and tortured prisoners for the fun of it, causing riots which resulted in prisoners being gunned down.
Such people have no place a democratic society, as confirmed by reports from the US Embassy and Human Rights organizations; they, including closely knit clans will likely not hesitate to kill and torture again. Ivanishvili will have to maneuver carefully to prevent his supporters and the masses he seeks to win over from being threatened or killed, while also looking out for his own life (example of the late Badri Patarkatsishvili, another man branded as “oligarch” in the same way, can be recalled here).
A further complication is that Putin's Russia still takes the moral high ground over the war in 2008. The Kremlin is eager to see Georgia’s elections held, but conducted in such a way that the words "NATO" and "integration" are erased from the vocabulary of Western diplomats and policy makers – in other words, in the way they always have been, without being recognized as such the official observers. Saakashvili, its ostensible enemy, is the man with the power to ensure this happens.
Russia will continue to enjoy considerable leverage in Georgia regardless of who is in power, largely because Saakashvili has sold many of the important former state industries to Russian companies even since the 2008 war, and in reality NATO expansion into what remains of Georgian territory is too provocative an idea for the West to promote too seriously. The US may want to bring in Ivanishvili sooner rather than later, but its chances of doing so without creating more problems than it is worth are decreasing by the day.
Some may consider that Georgia is in a pretty sorry state when its people have to resort to placing their hopes in the hands of a person worth 6.4 billion USD, but with no experience of elective office or any discernible program. This just goes to show the extent to which real democracy and rule of law is absent in Georgia. On the other hand, if someone with so much money can’t change the situation, who on Earth possibly could?
Ivanishvili’s wealth, and the fact that he is not Saakashvili, is his so-called competitive advantage, and among the cards that he can really play. However, Georgians do have the democratic right to elect someone for these reasons alone, if they so choose, but if the international community had accepted the democratic will of the Georgian people during the days of President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the first democratically elected president, who alienated everyone except the voters by doing what he told the voters he would do, we would not be facing the present problem.
All USAID, European donors have done, through their successive attempts to replace a democratically elected government with a “democracy” controlled by themselves, is create a band of leeches focused 100% on maintaining the money flow and a facade “Potemkin” democracy which they argue needs more money to be made to work because Georgians are too stupid to do anything on their own.
The intrinsic weakness of any such enterprise will always bring about such a result. Georgians who are entitled to vote in other countries aren’t incapable of democratic conduct and don’t rig elections – check crime statistics, if you will. The best way to help build democracy would be to cut all funding for the fake NGO "democracy" and instead establish a truth commission to prosecute the criminals/junta, starting from the assumption that as Georgia is puffed as a beacon of democracy, its politicians should obey the same standards accepted in the countries the Georgian people regard as democratic.
Time may soon prove that democracy cannot be bought by either side; it must be taken. As Jeffrey K. Silverman a Georgian human rights commentator who has lived in Georgia for 20 years recently pointed out, “If Georgians want to have democracy, they must take it, organize, and exercise their Constitutional rights. If they continue to accept the situation foisted on them and hope for miracles they will never have neither democracy nor independence.”
Ivanishvili is also a real threat but the US will not be able to install him without a fight which will do it more harm than good and supporting a genuine democracy in Georgia. The US will then have a loyal friend for life with the Georgian people. Since 2003 Georgians have fallen into a pattern of apathy and acceptance of networks of patronage, and the NGO community is not helping them but reinforcing the pattern.
The one positive element in this impending conflict is that if the US fails to remove Saakashvili peacefully, as may well turn out to be the case, it may be left with no alternative but to promote real democracy in Georgia, by taking the steps outlined above – demonstrating to the people that it is up to them to make their country work, and the US will help them fulfill their democratic responsibilities on principle. Only when the US accepts and applies its own principles will real progress be made in Georgia – and when the US has more to gain by accepting than denying this, a genuine alliance will be formed which will withstand any of the contrary winds of political fortune.
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