A strange thing happened in Georgia last October. After an extremely contentious election season in which Bidzina Ivanishvili, the leader of the opposition, was stripped of his citizenship and fined millions of dollars, in which opposition activists were regularly harassed and arrested, and in which the media was dominated by the government, the opposition surprised many Western observers and governments by scoring a decisive victory and winning control of Parliament. Then an even stranger thing happened. The day after the election, the ruling party of Georgia, President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM), gracefully conceded defeat to the new Prime Minister Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream (GD) coalition.
Saakashvili’s decision may well have saved his country from serious civil strife. He will remain president until his term expires in October 2013. Because he handled this defeat so well, he was able, for the most part, to frame the post-election narrative in Georgia. Within hours, commentators somewhat euphorically, and inaccurately, hailed Georgia as the first post-Soviet country to have a peaceful electoral transition of power. Western and especially American policymakers who had strongly backed Saakashvili’s government embraced this narrative. Since the election, however, they have for the most part interpreted the arrest of a number of high-ranking officials from the previous regime—most notably former interior minister and prime minister Vano Merabishvili, a close confidant of Saakashvili—as a backsliding from the democracy exhibited by the election to the darker tradition of the politics of the former USSR.
This narrative of democracy affirmed and then betrayed is opposed by a counter-narrative that holds that by late 2012 Georgia was governed by a regime that had provoked and lost a war with Russia, let the economy deteriorate into widespread unemployment and stagnancy, attacked fledgling democratic institutions, and allowed its criminal justice system to degenerate into a nightmare in which fewer than one percent of those indicted were found innocent, and where there were widespread abuses in the prison system.
Despite efforts to commit election fraud following a year-long campaign of harassment against the opposition, this view holds, the Saakashvili regime was still unable to win the election. The presence of international monitors, a well-funded opposition that was able to hire its own consultants from the West, and huge, peaceful pre-election rallies that demonstrated the size and depth of support for the opposition led to the collapse of the UNM-led regime.
The core of this counter-narrative is that the UNM had gotten so far off the democratic rails that last October was not simply an electoral transition, but a democratic breakthrough comparable to the Rose Revolution of 2003, which brought the UNM to power in the first place.
Western, and particularly American, policy toward Saakashvili’s Georgia must be evaluated differently and considerably less charitably under the regime-collapse narrative. US support for Saakashvili did not encourage or facilitate democratic development in Georgia, but helped prop up an undemocratic regime filled with corruption and crony capitalism that had destroyed an independent judiciary and tried to destroy the opposition.
Narrative, storytelling, and spin have been part of Georgian politics since at least the Rose Revolution. Advancing dueling narratives about the Saakashvili years has attained some of the earmarks of a national pastime. It is tempting to argue that the truth lies somewhere in between, and that Western policy toward Georgia should reflect that ambiguity. But while that would be a neat and parsimonious solution, it would also be seeking a convenient, rather than accurate, analysis and would lead to bad policy.
The problem with splitting the difference is that, when looked at in a comparative context, it is clear that the regime-collapse narrative, while not perfect, fits the facts better. Because the election was competitive and hotly contested and the government lost, it is easy to make the corollary assumption that it was also free and fair. But in fact it was competitive only because it was neither of those two things. That the Georgia Dream party managed to win fifty-five to sixty percent of the party-list vote, given the enormous structural and administrative advantages of the UNM and its willingness to use its control over the media and the law to advance its cause, suggests that the GD victory was actually a landslide rather than a close call.
The West was not prepared for the GD victory not only because of its own wish-fulfilling fantasies but also because the Saakashvili government had created an effective public-relations megaphone, pumping its achievements and making dissent seem like anti-democratic treason. But from the Color Revolutions to the early days of the Arab Spring, a central lesson of regime transition is that when authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes are in power too long, or overplay their hand, they can collapse extremely quickly. Regimes that look solid and stable one day can be gone in a few weeks in a way that will appear to have been inevitable a few months after that. This is what happened in Georgia. The reason this is not widely appreciated is that there are still warm feelings towards the UNM regime and self-
protectiveness about the West’s support for it.
One of the primary reasons why the peaceful democratic transition narrative has been so strongly embraced is that there were no post-election disturbances, suggesting that Saakashvili conceded because he sought to do the right thing, not because he had to. But the real reason there was no push-back had to do with the impact of the massive pre-election demonstrations the GD assembled in the spring and summer of 2012. By turning out hundreds of thousands of people in numerous cities around Georgia, the party indicated the breadth of opposition to the UNM and the possibility of what might happen if Saakashvili refused to accept defeat, or tried to steal the election. This point was brought home by a huge demonstration in Tbilisi the day before the vote that was noticeably larger than the ones Saakashvili had rode to power in 2003. It was a warning that Saakashvili had no choice but to heed.
The hours after the last ballot was cast tell a similar story, and one that is more succinct. When exit polls and initial returns showed the UNM badly losing the popular vote, Saakashvili’s first inclination was not to concede, but to go on Georgian television and announce that while he had lost most of the proportional representative seats in Parliament, he had won enough of the single-member district seats to ensure that his party would retain control. More importantly, the UNM privately appealed to Washington, arguing that since it had demonstrably won these seats, the US should recognize its victory. The UNM was most likely preparing to steal those seats and testing to see how much support it could count on from the US.
Fortunately, for the people of Georgia, while the US had been very supportive of Saakashvili, this last-ditch appeal was a bridge too far. And once he had failed to convince his largest patron to continue to support him, Saakashvili had few options other than to concede defeat.
History will likely recognize Saakashvili’s government more for talking about than for actually creating democracy. The country that the Georgian Dream began governing late in 2012 had many of the hallmarks of a post-authoritarian country—filled with unresolved questions of transitional justice, revelations about the excesses of the old government, and the fragility of the governing coalition that could make it veer toward yet another one-party system.
In other words, the GD party inherited a political environment far more like Kyrgyzstan after Askar Akayev, or even the one that Saakashvili himself inherited after coming to power in 2003, than like that which, for example, President Obama received in 2009, after an electoral victory in a democratic country.
The election marked the end of a fascinating, controversial, and at times surreal period in Georgian history. Interpreting it tells much about the efforts of this country to emerge into the full light of modernity, but it also raises questions that have bearing on other countries. Transitions like the one in Georgia that, on close inspection, at first seem murky but then begin to look a little like democratic breakthroughs have occurred in other countries, not least Ukraine, and will likely become more common as hybrid and non-democratic regimes with some democratic characteristics become more common.
These elections will continue to test the ability of the West to see things clearly, as Matthew Arnold famously said, and see them whole. Currently the US and Europe have, to a large extent, chosen not to see the 2012 election as a potential democratic breakthrough in Georgia, out of loyalty to the old regime. This has compromised the credibility of the West and damaged its ability to influence the future course of democracy in Georgia, just as its unquestioning support of Saakashvili did in the years and months leading up to the GD victory.
The baseline lesson of this election for the West is that in the future it should be more tough-minded about what is actually happening in places where it makes a grand investment, and not merely focus on what it wishes were happening.
Lincoln Mitchell is an associate research scholar at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute. He was an informal adviser to the Georgian Dream coalition in the 2012 election.