Time for Change

Some people thrive on political drama and some nations manage to provide it on a regular basis. One of my favourite subjects during my undergraduate degree was Italian politics, which probably reveals my general disposition towards exciting, if disjointed politics. In recognising that revolution and upheaval are the more interesting political events, it is important to remember that there comes a time when what any country needs is political stability and normality. In this light recent political protests in Georgia lend little to improving the country’s prospects; but the situation should speak volumes about the failures of the regime, and point to some fast responses required for the next few years.

Georgia is no stranger to discord. Protests have become something of a regular occurrence. As Eurasianet’s Giorgi Lomsadze observed, “each year, the same politicians with the same controversial pasts make the same demands at the same locations.” This year, the usual threats and rhetoric from Burjanadze, promise of a revolutionary end to the current administration and plans for a day of rage ended abruptly with police scattering protesters on May 26th with teargas and water cannons, quickly drawing criticism from Human Rights Watch for being excessive and a call for an investigation from the US Ambassador.

The heavy-handed style with which the protests were broken up is typical of the Saakashvili administration; indeed, a Veterans protest was broken up in similar style in January this year. There have been a number of blundering mistakes in recent years, from clumsily shutting down opposition TV stations, allowing pro-government ones to run a mock invasion broadcast, to (rather obviously) allowing the country to be drawn into a war with a coiled and waiting Russian military. There is a worryingly cynical undercurrent to Georgian politics; after the protests were broken up, pro-government Rustavi 2 published alleged phone conversations between Burjanadze and her son discussing the possibility for revolution and closer relations with Russia. Without any justification as to why a leading opposition figure might be legally phone-tapped, or seeming compunction about releasing such sensitive data to the country at large, this has become the standard operating procedure of the Georgian government. As has Saakashvili’s other favourite pastime, blaming the Russians.

It is this sort of behaviour that tragically undermines the political progress of Georgia. Saakashvili’s early flair for reforms and direct take on power allowed admirable progress initially, but it does not lend itself well to consolidation in the long term. Moreover, the incessant blaming of Russia serves only the purpose of offering a catch all excuse for the administration’s problems, and, whilst the Kremlin are probably enjoying his discomfort greatly, rhetoric isn’t an answer as much as an attempt to justify harsh methods domestically. The elections of 2008 marred Georgia’s democratic record only for the August war that year to permanently stain Saakashvili’s international reputation just in time for the country’s economy to really start to lurch in the international economic downturn.

For all those negative points, there is a legacy to build on in Georgia. The initial progress, which garnered Georgia positive headlines in the West, was due in no small part to the radical thinking from that same small group that swept to power in the rose revolution. It is still to the credit of this regime that Georgia has improved in many areas: fewer people reported paying a bribe in Georgia than did in the USA in Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer 2010 (3% vs. 5%).  Whilst high-level anti-corruption efforts are riddled with holes, the average Georgian on the street in Tbilisi is much less likely to need to pay a bribe than anywhere else in the region. Despite Saakashvili’s occasional distaste for opposition media Freedom House have described Georgia’s media landscape as “…one of the most developed in the South Caucasus.” There is something to build on in the current situation.

There is also a lot to improve. Many areas have ground to a halt. The same FH report shows declines in national democratic governance, the judicial framework and the vibrancy of civil society. Using the law to help the government out of paying what it owes probably isn’t helping these scores improve, or the Georgian business climate.  As his final term wears on though, the big challenge to tackle for the President is a clear, honest, open exchange of power. Nothing will tarnish Georgia’s reputation more than democratic backsliding into a non-competitve authoritarian regime, to steal a phrase; and as the President has learned since 2008, American administrations can quickly change their view on who their friends are.

There is reason to think that leaving office might be difficult for Saakashvili to stomach; he is known for his “hands on approach,” to put it politely. Post Soviet Georgia has never seen a peaceful change of administration via the ballot box, and that change will be a measure of it’s credentials. Moreover, it will be a measure of the ability of the whole political ensemble in Georgia to carry forward the positives and progress to the next stage of reform, which, whether Saaksashvili wants to admit it or not, clearly need a fresh pair of hands. To change regime without backsliding, recriminations or revolutionary upset requires an opposition which is on board with the fundamental “rules of the game” (i.e. happy with the electoral set up and willing to enter a fair fight). This will require a certain level of trust  a stable legal framework, and political consensus among the population. Time is tight and the opposition is disorganised; but the clock is ticking and another term like this one (since Spring ’08) just isn’t on.

It is not too late for these things to be achieved in Georgia. Elections are due to be held in 2012/2013. There is time to at least begin to correct the problems with the electoral system. It isn’t hard for the government to stop certain malpractices evident last time around: ballot box stuffing, overt campaigning by public officials etc, but it must see this reform as important, and be prepared to accept defeat at the ballot box if defeat is what the nation deals it. The scare-mongering needs to be stepped down, and Saakashvili should step aside from top-level politics and be prepared to open the way for someone new to take over. Fear that with the strengthening of a PM’s post, Saakashvili could “do a Putin” and manipulate the constitution to keep serving are concerning, although any attempt to at least utilize a constitutional change of government would be welcome progress in the South Caucasus. Still, hardly a perfect result.

Georgia has been a dramatic little country in the last couple of decades. It has the potential to set new standards for the region, but it is not unusual for a strong leader to find it hard to release power. Yet a continuation of Saakashvili ‘s presence beyond his welcome can only possibly engender one ending; a gradual loss of the remaining democratic kudos which Georgia has tried to build, and a potentially destabilizing transition of the country when he finally leaves office. The domination of a country by one man, especially a strong personality like Saaksahvili, can hamper the development of new talent and a more cabinet based government. What must be remembered is that reform is a step-by-step process, but the hardest thing in a relatively newly independent country isn’t taking the steps, so much as building the step-ladder. True stability comes with the structure, consensus and an established legal framework. There is still time to build this.

Meanwhile, the Georgians are suffering from “protest fatigue”. In tough economic straits, what the people of Georgia need is not a counter-revolution, but a stable transition of power that proves that their democracy works. For all the shouting on the streets, ‘leaders’, and I use the term loosely, like Burjanadze, will not win Georgians over at the ballot box without offering something more than criticism, especially if they can’t coalesce around one personality and stop criticising each other. Georgia is not a resource rich country, there isn’t the sort of wealth to spend that the Azeris enjoy, or the slack in the budget for sweeping programmes which might be tempting to promise. In this might be the current regimes greatest saving grace; the opposition doesn’t have a coherent, attractive and united proposition for the population.For this, despite some of the disasters, it might be able to make a reasonable job of a fair election, but botch it this time, and peaceful regime change may seem too distant a prospect for some to wait for. Now is the time, not for protests, but for those with the wherewithal and power to move up and make the only decision that is guaranteed to be written into the history books: constitutional, peaceful change of leadership.

Step to it, Misha.

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