Knowns and unknowns in post-election Georgia (1).
At several meetings and conferences related to the Georgian parliamentary election results, my primary observation was that analysts and politicians in Washington, D.C., seem to be very calm, though they do have some concerns about Bidzina Ivanishvili, the leader of the victorious Georgian Dream coalition, whose foreign policy strategy remains something of an unknown quantity. The contrast to overtly pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili is striking. This sentiment has been expressed by some politicians and decision makers in the Caucasus with the traditional proverb "neither meat nor fish."
The Georgian parliamentary elections are significant beyond the South Caucasus region and across the entire post-Soviet area for two main reasons. The election marks the first time that Georgia has witnessed a genuinely peaceful transfer of power through a democratic vote since regaining independence in 1991. This signals the beginning of a new stage of political life in the country, leaving behind the euphoria that followed the Rose Revolution in 2003, and the turmoil that followed the 2008 war with Russia.
Secondly, the elections were the object of widespread interest, in part because some expected President Saakashvili to rig the elections, rather than pushing for a free and fair process. It is likely that some politicians would have been happy to see such a scenario, as it would have allowed them to cast the consequences of revolution in a negative light.
It should be noted that the election result does not mean "winner take all." Rather, the "winner is alone." Now that the election drama has died down, Georgian politics are no longer an endless battle of words between Ivanishvili and Saakashvili. Ivanishvili is now at a stage where he will encounter increasing pressure, both domestic and international.
Some former Georgian politicians are alarmed by a potential shift in Georgia's current strongly pro-Western foreign policy. They see signs that the Ivanishvili government may make certain compromises in an attempt to re-establish cordial relations with Russia. While it is no surprise that Ivanishvili's coalition is expected to cozy up to Russia, this could become a Ukrainian-type scenario. Moscow has managed to water down the Orange Revolution and to restore pro-Moscow candidates and a pro-Russian stance in the Ukrainian government.
This view on a potentially warmer relationship has been characterized by some as a dance with a stranger. As Georgia's former economic minister, businessman Kakha Bendukidze, said: "Haven't you ever danced with a woman you don't know? It happens not because it was planned, but because it just happens."
There are also different meanings to consider when people discuss the Georgian Dream coalition's possible rapprochement with Russia. For Western analysts, it is seen as a gradual shift of Tbilisi's foreign policy orientation away from the West. In Georgia, people are anxious to know how it might be possible to establish friendly relations with Moscow if South Ossetia and Abkhazia are under Russian occupation.
They fear that Russia is in control of the situation behind the scenes in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Georgia could suffer as a consequence. I spoke with a Georgian politician who insisted on remaining anonymous and who said: "Our fear is that the Ivanishvili government may make moves toward the separatists. Paata Zakareishvili [currently being considered for the post of state minister for reintegration] may push harder for the signing of the non-use of force treaty with the proxy regimes [South Ossetia and Abkhazia], thereby providing them with some legitimacy."
It is true that the Georgian Dream coalition will very likely try to open a dialogue with Russia and attempt to identify the areas of mutual interest. First of all, opening trade relations with Russia will open the Russian market for Georgian goods, especially agricultural products, though it is not clear what Moscow will ask in exchange. Indeed, the coalition candidate for minister of foreign affairs, Maya Panjikidze, stated that the aim of the Georgian Foreign Ministry is "to improve relations with Russia, thus re-establishing the territorial integrity of the country." In other words, there will be no restoration of diplomatic relations with Russia unless they renounce their recognition of the independence of the two breakaway republics, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
This would seem to be impossible under Putin and still highly unlikely even in the near term with a new Russian government. David Soumbadze, an analyst at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington, D.C., suggests that "the Georgian Dream coalition will soon realize (as many US administrations from Clinton to Bush to Obama have discovered) that the Russians are not very good at mutually beneficial concessions and have only a zero-sum mentality. This might well turn the Georgian Dream coalition into an anti-Russian force."
From my perspective, it doesn't seem quite true to say either that Saakashvili lost the election, or that the new government is pro-Russian. The new government will present itself for the president's approval next week. If it is accepted without any problems, then until next year's presidential election, Georgia will be suspended in a transition period. In a continuation of this column, I will address the regional ramifications of the election, and further explore the question of what and whom the new government will promote.
ZAUR SHIRIYEV (Cihan/Today's Zaman) CyHAN
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