On the evening of October 1st, only a few minutes after the polls closed for the parliamentary elections, Tbilisi and other Georgian cities were the sites of widespread celebrations of the type usually reserved for major political upheavals and victories over Russia in soccer or rugby. Cars honked their horns while waving the blue-and-gold flag of the Georgian Dream party; thousands of people clogging the streets were yelling enthusiastically. Georgian Dream was already staging a large victory rally on Tbilisi’s Freedom Square on the basis of an exit poll done by a major American polling firm that showed their candidates leading those of the government’s United National Movement (UNM) party by a margin of roughly two to one, which meant that President Mikheil Saakashvili had been defeated at the polls and that a major change had come to Georgia.
The defeat of Saakashvili, who was not on the ballot but was very much at the center of this election campaign, appeared to come as a surprise to many in the West who still stubbornly clung to the view that “Misha” was a democrat and popular in his own country, despite years of evidence to the contrary on the second point and ample polling and anecdotal evidence suggesting the first assumption was also off the mark. Saakashvili was defeated by a broad coalition that was led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, largely unknown in the West but, like Misha, at the center of this election.
Ivanishvili, one of the two hundred richest men in the world, used a small fraction of his fortune to galvanize a coalition and build a campaign operation that could effectively compete with a UNM that relied heavily on state resources, domestic and foreign, and may have actually outspent the billionaire Ivanishvili in the campaign. The coalition Ivanishvili put together to defeat the larger-than-life Saakashvili and his increasingly authoritarian government included both disillusioned Rose Revolutionaries and elements from the regime of the previous Georgian president, Eduard Shevardnadze. Its triumph changed everything but also nothing, as Georgia is still a country in desperate need of reenergizing its struggling economy, and where democratic institutions remain weak and vulnerable. While technically perhaps a defeat for the Rose Revolution, which took Shevardnadze out of power in 2003, Ivanishvili’s victory was even more a reminder that the Rose Revolution was not what many in the West thought it was.
Until a year before the election, Saakashvili’s government was poised to score a huge victory over what was then a bedraggled and scattered opposition whose odds were made worse by the absence of meaningful freedoms of press and assembly in Georgia. Had the election gone this way, the cheers of Saakashvili’s supporters in the US and Europe would have drowned out a few isolated voices in the West trying to publicize the lack of freedom and mid-level election fraud that have characterized all recent elections in Georgia.
But then, in October 2011, Bidzina Ivanishvili, to the surprise of almost everybody in Georgia, as well as the scholars, pundits, bloggers, and journalists who follow Georgian politics, announced that he was forming an opposition movement. Ivanishvili’s sudden entrance into political life in Georgia was first greeted by curiosity largely because until then he was almost as well known for his penchant for secrecy as his wealth, which was estimated at more than six billion dollars.
When Ivanishvili made his announcement, Georgia had already fallen off course from the initial promises of the Rose Revolution. President Bush’s 2005 description of the country as a “beacon of democracy” had become a bitter reminder of what might have been. True, the petty corruption that Saakashvili had wiped out during his first years in office had not yet returned, street crime remained very low, and much of the state’s infrastructure had been strengthened. However, these accomplishments only told part of the story. By 2010, the economy was characterized by crony capitalism and dominated by a few families and Saakashvili associates. There were severe limits on media freedom, with state-run television having a crushing monopoly outside Tbilisi. The government monitored opposition groups and political parties, occasionally relying on violence to disperse opposition rallies. And the price the Georgian people paid for reduced crime was a police force that acted with impunity, a justice system in which more than ninety-nine percent of all indictments ended in a conviction, and one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world.
Despite the disillusionment the developments caused, in late September 2011, the Georgian regime seemed relatively strong. Ample foreign assistance from the US and low-interest loans from elsewhere insulated the government from the worst impacts of the stagnant economy. Shiny new buildings around the country and a cadre of fluent English speakers in the higher levels of the government made it possible for the government to present its case well to foreign visitors as well as in Washington and European capitals. These leaders were supported by millions of taxpayer dollars that the Georgian government used to promote itself and its ruling party through a network of European lobbyists and public relations specialists.
The specter of Russian invasion, which played upon the real threat represented by Russia, but ignored the reality that Russia had already defeated Georgia in a war in 2008 and had little incentive to actually invade again, was adroitly kept alive by the government, making it very easy to attack any critic or opponent, domestic or foreign, as a Russian agent. The Russia card was also played to explain away any democratic shortcomings as necessary security measures. These explanations (which a Georgian friend of mine described as “McCarthyashvilism”) were all too easily accepted in the West, most notably on the right wing of American and European politics and throughout the defense sector.
Given this context, it is no wonder that Ivanishvili’s emergence on Georgia’s political scene was greeted, at least in the West, with curiosity and derision. Few diplomats knew Ivanishvili, whose cause was not helped by his lack of media savvy and an initial inability to present a compelling explanation for why he decided to get into politics, or even a clear vision for the Georgian future. Coverage of Ivanishvili following his announcement focused on his enormous modernistic home overlooking Tbilisi, his menagerie, which included penguins and zebras, and his extraordinary art collection. This coverage tended to present Ivanishvili as an oddity, rather than a political force capable of defeating a powerful, pro-West reformer like Saakashvili. It also overlooked Ivanishvili’s popularity, the result in large part of his philanthropic work in Georgia.
Gradually, Ivanishvili began to change this image in the United States and Europe. He brought together a coalition that included prominent diplomats well known in the West and several of the more reasonable opposition political parties. He also used his resources to assemble a team of Western consultants and lobbyists, making it possible to push back against the efforts of the Georgian government to portray Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream bloc as Russian stooges. For much of 2012, the two campaigns waged a heated battle in Georgia, attacking each other and trying to build domestic support, an effort repeated by their lobbyists and consultants in the West, who offered radically different visions of the state of Georgia’s democracy and the meaning of the Ivanishvili candidacy.
Before Ivanishvili became a political force, the election, which Saakashvili’s representatives in the West claimed was about the fate of Georgian democracy, was actually positioned to be largely about regime consolidation. A vote that delivered a resounding victory for the United National Movement and a seal of approval from the West in an increasingly authoritarian political environment with low- to mid-level election fraud would have solidified Georgia as a regime differing from most of its post-Soviet neighbors in appearance and degree, but not kind—an Azerbaijan with better English and better food.
But as Georgian Dream began to build support and momentum, it became clear that the election was no longer one of regime consolidation, but rather a referendum on the Saakashvili government and its stewardship of the Rose Revolution. Astute observers also began to see that the regime, when faced with a real and well-funded challenge, was considerably weaker than it had seemed. Massive turnout at Georgian Dream rallies substantiated the findings of polling by the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute, American NGOs working in Georgia, which indicated that the UNM, while still holding a substantial lead, was stuck in the low forties in hypothetical matchups with Georgian Dream. Popular dissatisfaction with Saakashvili’s government at home was clear, although an effective public relations campaign in the West portraying him as a democrat under siege had blinded observers to its depth and strength.
By the late spring of 2012, it was clear that the election was going to be competitive. The fragmented and dispirited opposition had been rejuvenated by Ivanishvili’s resources and increasing political savvy and strategic vision. Gradually hope emerged in large sectors of the public that this election would be somehow different from other recent Georgian elections. As it became clear that Georgian Dream (GD) would pose a serious threat to the UNM, the Saakashvili government accelerated its campaign of harassment and intimidation of the opposition.
As soon as Ivanishvili announced his intentions to become involved in politics, the Georgian government responded by stripping him of his citizenship, attacking him as a tool of Russia, and issuing inflammatory warnings that his victory would be the end of the modern Georgian state. By spring 2012, as Ivanishvili’s campaign began to gain traction, these personal attacks became a concerted offensive against Georgian Dream itself. Huge fines were imposed on the party; its activists were frequently detained for questioning and in some cases arrested; equipment intended for the use of non-government media was confiscated; and companies doing business with the GD faced fines and harassment.
Meanwhile, the wheels of election fraud began to turn, most obviously in the padding of the voter list with roughly eight hundred thousand names of people who were no longer in Georgia, providing an opportunity for the government to commit various forms of voter fraud related to multiple voting. It became clear that state resources from the national and local level were being used to help the UNM.
Saakashvili’s Georgia was never the democracy that its fans in the West thought it was, but it was also not the harsh authoritarian regime many of its detractors claimed. Instead it occupied a gray area between these two extremes where weak rule of law, little accountability, and complete domination by one political force were part of the political facts of life, although opposition parties were allowed to function, some non-governmental media existed, and it was possible, but neither cheap nor easy, to run a political campaign.
The Georgian Dream campaign took place inside this gray area. Although it faced harassment and unnecessary difficulties at every turn, GD was able to campaign more aggressively and openly than would have been possible in neighboring post-Soviet countries Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia.
In the week preceding the election, the two adjectives that seemed to pop up in every official international discussion of the election were “competitive” and “polarized.” These adjectives described the political situation imperfectly, or at least incompletely, but captured important aspects of official Western opinion of the election. The election was indeed competitive through mid-September. Both main parties were campaigning aggressively, and the outcome was in question. But the election was “competitive” not because of equally divided opinion, but primarily because Georgian Dream had been forced to campaign against significant, government-imposed obstacles without which it likely would have opened up a big lead by early fall.
The term “polarized” also became another catchword for the election, implying that the nastiness and legal violations were evenly divided between the opposition and the government, thus enabling the international actors to rationalize their failure to speak out more strongly about the undemocratic climate in which the process was taking place. But to the extent the country was polarized, it was at the elite level where the campaign was indeed divisive and heated; among ordinary Georgians there was a growing consensus that change was needed.
The public face of the election changed dramatically in the last ten days of the campaign when a number of videos were released showing horrific images of inmates being assaulted by guards in Georgia’s prisons. These images, which were particularly potent in Georgia due to the country’s high incarceration and conviction rates, put the quietus to the UNM regime. Support for the regime plummeted as undecided voters began to flock to the GD while UNM support was stripped to its base of hard-line ideologues and government employees the party could still intimidate.
As election day approached, the central question on the minds of Western observers was whether Georgian Dream would send its supporters to the streets to protest if it lost the election. Implicit in this question was the notion that the defeat would be legitimate rather than a result of a corrupted process. However, by the end of September, polling and other evidence suggested that the UNM could only win through election fraud and that the standoff to follow would be between the GD, with the majority of the Georgian people, and the Saakashvili government and its Western supporters.
The standoff never happened because, despite attempts by the UNM immediately after the polls closed to alter the counting and steal the seats necessary to maintain a parliamentary majority, the pressure from the West against such a fraudulent result was too strong. Additionally, the UNM had been defeated too soundly to muster much support for a post-election struggle for power. The governing party, despite an eleven-month campaign of intimidation and harassment of the opposition, and some election fraud on election day itself, only won forty percent of the vote. Accordingly, on Tuesday afternoon, following Monday’s election, President Saakashvili conceded defeat, bringing an end to the possibility of post-election violence. In the days following its victory, Georgian Dream rapidly consolidated its power. Saakashvili, despite still having constitutional control over the four most powerful ministries, gave Ivanishvili authority over the entire government.
The election destroyed a fantasy promoted by UNM propagandists, hard-line government supporters, and some inside the Washington beltway and the capitals of Europe that the Rose Revolution was alive and well. In fact, the promise of this revolution, although propped up abroad by an effective campaign of propaganda, had long since devolved into a hybrid regime characterized by a semi-authoritarian lack of freedom and increasingly hollow rhetoric about democratic values and kept afloat by a constant and costly effort to sway elite opinion in the West. Thus, this election did not end the Rose Revolution, because the Rose Revolution was already over. Rather, it defeated a regime that had used the imagery of the Rose Revolution to stay in power.
The election raised more questions than it answered regarding a range of things such as the role of money in Georgian politics, the role of US assistance in building democratic institutions, why the US continually misread the political environment in Georgia, and what the Georgian Dream victory means for the future of Georgian democracy. These subjects will be debated in the coming months and years by the small community of Georgia watchers and scholars who pay attention the country between elections.
Preliminarily, it seems clear that the triumph of Georgian Dream, like the Rose Revolution itself, is a democratic breakthrough, but, as was the case nine years ago, Georgia remains a long way from consolidating democracy as a way of government and a way of life. Within four or five years of the Rose Revolution, the movement toward democracy in Georgia had stagnated and even begun to reverse itself. The challenge now is to not repeat this pattern. At present, the country is in one of those rare times when it has a genuine multi-party system. The UNM, despite not being the ruling party anymore, controls the presidency and more than forty percent of Parliament. But in the past such moments have given way to the one-party systems that have dominated Georgian political life even after the fall of Communism. Despite the relatively close split in Parliament, it is understood in Georgia that not only did the GD win the election, but the UNM regime collapsed. Such perceptions could lead directly to the construction of another one-party system that would make this recent election just another iteration of a dysfunctional cycle, of which the Rose Revolution ultimately was part.
For Georgia to break out of one-party dominance, Georgian Dream must immediately reform how politics is done in Georgia. The first task it faces is to replace the culture of soft authoritarianism that has characterized Georgian political life in recent years. This includes disassembling the surveillance state, changing the mission of the police to protecting and serving the people rather than the top leaders, removing the vitriolic rhetoric from the political debate so that disagreement is no longer equated with treason, and facilitating a freer media. These are extraordinarily daunting tasks, especially in a country that also faces severe economic and foreign policy crises, but that is the test that lies ahead for the GD, and indeed for all of Georgia.
Lincoln Mitchell is an associate research scholar at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute and was an informal adviser to the Georgian Dream party in the recent Georgian election.