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Europe Briefing N°69 18 Dec 2012, crisisgroup
Georgia’s peaceful change of government after the October 2012 parliamentary elections was an encouraging and rare example of a democratic post-Soviet power transfer. President Mikheil Saakashvili and the new Prime Minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, each received well-deserved praise – Saakashvili for quickly accepting the defeat of his United National Movement (UNM), and Ivanishvili, who led his Georgian Dream (GD) coalition to victory after a bitter campaign, for saying he was ready to work with his arch-rival during a delicate year-long “cohabitation”. The new government now needs to use the ten months before the 2013 presidential elections to prioritise reforms that strengthen the independence and accountability of state institutions.
Saakashvili, who is term-limited from standing again, is due to remain in office until October 2013, when presidential elections will be held and a new constitution will come into force. During this period, he should continue to honour his pledge to refrain from exercising the extensive powers still legally available to him under the old constitution, lest that lead, as it almost inevitably would, to a confrontation with unpredictable consequences. Given Georgia’s chronic, often violent disorder especially during its first decade of independence in the 1990s, any destabilisation of this still delicate situation could entail serious risks.
The new Ivanishvili government has an opportunity to win broader trust by demonstrating that it is concentrating on critical governance issues, not political score-settling. This is a key to managing the extremely high expectations among those who voted for Georgian Dream. Many of his supporters – whether due to campaign promises, or as a consequence of his immense personal wealth – anticipate an unrealistically quick improvement in living standards. It is vital that the reform agenda be communicated regularly to the public, for instance through cabinet meetings whose deliberations are reported in all media outlets. Regular, publicised meetings between the president and prime minister, however distasteful both may consider them, would boost stability.
Tensions have been growing between the new and old government due to the arrest of former and current officials with ties to the UNM on charges ranging from abuse of office to torture. While past abuses should be investigated, it is vital that arrests not be perceived as selective, victors’ justice, and so detract from the need to build support for institutional reform. Investigations should prioritise severe crimes; a criminal cases review commission and amnesties and compensation should be considered, so as to ensure that the still fragile judiciary is not stretched to the breaking point addressing complaints related to the past government’s behaviour. President Saakashvili’s legacy and that of his UNM party would also suffer if he and his closest allies were to attempt to portray every examination into possible misdoings as politically motivated.
The immediate priority of the new government should be to build trust in the judiciary, the penal service and the powerful interior ministry. The courts, as well as prosecutors, must be given real independence from political pressures. Without viable recourse to a legal system enjoying broad public acceptance, other state institutions will not be able to develop properly, and politicisation will continue to affect the entire governing system. Business and investor confidence, vital to economic stability and growth, requires an unbiased legal system that provides protection and guarantees against harassment from the authorities. Encouragingly, the Ivanishvili team has already prepared far-reaching legislation aimed at de-politicising the judiciary, including the High Council of Justice.
Georgia has an ethnically mixed population. Some 15 per cent are minorities, including 12 per cent who are ethnic Azeris or Armenians, so the Ivanishvili government also needs to take bold steps to make clear that inter-ethnic or inter-confessional confrontations or xenophobic manifestations – largely dormant in recent years – will not be tolerated and will be prosecuted under statutes outlawing hate crimes.
During the campaign, many Georgian Dream officials had promised to quickly improve relations with Russia, but the new government has already indicated it will not significantly change its Euro-Atlanticist foreign policy focus. It flatly rules out a full resumption of diplomatic ties with Russia while Moscow maintains “embassies” and a large military presence in breakaway South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Rather than attempt to tackle these difficult issues first, the new government is pragmatically seeking common ground in less controversial spheres. This includes boosting the Georgian economy through the full resumption of normal trade relations. The appointment of a special representative and offer to engage in unconditional dialogue with Russia was a positive initial step.
If Georgia’s leaders succeed in overcoming the challenges of the next ten months with vigilance and patience, the country will be able to serve proudly as a true development model for the region. Compromise, considerable restraint and hands-on diplomacy are necessary to prevent squandering of fragile democratic gains or, worse yet, re-ignition of the often violent instability that marked the first decade of independence. More specifically, it will be important to:
The EU, U.S. and international organisations should help to mitigate tensions during the cohabitation period by:
Tbilisi/Istanbul/Brussels, 18 December 2012