ALACO DISPATCHES: Doubts raised over Georgia’s pro-Western course

ALACO DISPATCHES: Doubts raised over Georgia’s pro-Western course
Georgia's capital of Tbilisi.
By Jonathan Melliss of Alaco November 11, 2016

The poor performance of Georgia’s small liberal parties and the relative success of expressly anti-European factions in October’s elections have introduced uncertainty about Georgia’s long-standing European ambitions, despite the ruling pro-EU Georgian Dream Party’s landslide victory.

The new 150-seat parliament will contain representatives of fewer parties than ever before: Georgian Dream secured 115 seats, the United National Movement took 27, the anti-EU Alliance of Georgian Patriots, which entered the assembly for the first time, won six, with the Industrialist Party of beer magnate Gogi Topadze and the independent candidate Salome Zurabishvili gaining one a piece.

The elections themselves, which involved two rounds of voting on October 8 and 30, were widely praised as the country’s best organised and administered ever, in spite of sporadic outbursts of violence during the campaign.

Given Georgian Dream’s overwhelming parliamentary majority, the entry of an expressly Georgian nationalist party is unlikely to have much legislative influence. However, the Alliance of Georgian Patriots’ parochial rhetoric may prompt the government to adopt socially conservative policies – especially if, as seems likely, Georgian populism begins to gain ground. This would run against the grain of the more broadly liberal social values previous administrations have sought to promote.

Moreover, there will not be much resistance to such a conservative lurch from liberal members of the opposition, as two of the country’s most unabashedly pro-European parties – former defence minister’s Irakli Alasania’s Free Democrats and their one-time allies the Republican Party of Georgia, one of Georgia’s oldest political forces – won no seats in the parliament. In the aftermath, key figures in both, including Alasania and former parliamentary speaker Davit Usupashvili, left their respective parties, raising questions over their political future. With the main figures of Georgian liberalism no longer in parliament, it is difficult to see what genuine influence, if any, they could wield.

The election was dominated by the Punch-and-Judy-style politics of two of Georgia’s most well-known figures: the increasingly erratic ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili, the former leader of the United National Movement; and ex-prime minister and the country’s richest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who founded Georgian Dream. While neither of these political heavyweights had any formal role in the election, it appears that a large percentage of the electorate perceived the vote as a choice between one or the other.

This personalisation of Georgian politics has been evident since the 2012 parliamentary elections, which saw the creation of the then loose Georgian Dream coalition comprising a wide range of political figures opposed to Saakashvili, who stood accused of increasing authoritarianism. The governor of Odessa Region in southern Ukraine until his resignation this week, Saakashvili repeatedly promised to return to Georgia – where several warrants are out for his arrest – to take part in the election. But the promise of a homecoming appears only to have contributed to Georgian Dream’s success.

Saakashvili has frequently sought to portray Ivanishvili as “the Russian oligarch” in an attempt to play on both the Georgian electorate’s sensitivity to political dependence on Russia and parties seen as representing pro-Russian interests. The Russo-Georgian War, just eight years ago, remains fresh in many people’s minds, while Russia’s continued support for the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia deters any overt backing of Russian policy in the region. However, notwithstanding the depth of feeling about Russia, Saakashvili’s ploy fell on deaf ears.

Saakashvili’s poor standing may partly explain that, but another factor is that growing numbers of Georgians, particularly outside Tbilisi, have become receptive to the increasing confidence of nationalist movements and the alleged influence of more subtle forms of Russian propaganda that appear to buttress Georgian nationalism. Instead of advocating a pro-Russian line that is unlikely to be successful in Georgia, Moscow is said to be promoting so-called traditional values – based around the primacy of the Georgian Orthodox Church, suspicion of the West and social conservativism – designed to raise questions over the country’s stated pro-Western direction. The tactic appears to be working.

Georgian Dream, to its credit, has so far resisted the Russia’s populist urgings, but there are signs that it may succumb if support for the Alliance of Patriots grows. In March Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili proposed enshrining the principal of heterosexual marriage in the country’s constitution, which is at odds with steps taken in recent years by governments on both left and right across Europe. Similarly, earlier this month Defence Minister Levan Izoria announced that he was reversing his predecessor’s decision to end compulsory military service, a move that reportedly conflicts with Nato advice.

Social conservatism

The growth of social conservatism in Georgia raises questions about the pro-Western course the country has taken since the Rose Revolution. Groups likes the Alliance of Georgian Patriots have railed against the EU’s liberal policies and sought to make political capital from the slow pace of efforts to integrate Georgia into Euro-Atlantic structures, for example describing the EU’s anti-discrimination legislation as a “disaster” and Georgia’s stalled bid for Nato membership as an “insult” and ultimately fruitless.

With pro-EU parties taking at least over 75% of the vote, no one is suggesting that Georgia is turning its back on the West. But even with a supermajority in the new parliament, the government’s enthusiasm for further integration may wane if Georgian populism continues to grow.

The question for Georgian Dream will then be what exactly Georgia is looking to the West for – merely a military alliance, a free trade agreement or a full entry into the European order with all the attendant values that requires?

Jonathan Melliss is a Senior Analyst at Alaco. Alaco Dispatches is the business intelligence consultancy’s take on events and developments shaping the CIS region.