Georgia has a much complicated and debatable history of intense geopolitical instability. Two regions – South Ossetia and Abkhazia – comprise around 20% of Georgia’s total territory and are de facto out of Tbilisi’s control. They function as entirely independent countries, with all institutions relevant to that of a full-fledged state. These breakaway regions enjoy full Russian military and economic support and are seen by pro-Georgians as entirely puppeted states dancing around to the Kremlin’s music.
Enmity towards central Georgian control in those regions have been high since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1990s, when the refusal to join the newly-emergent Georgian state caused a series of violent conflicts and atrocious war crimes. Back then, the Russians aided the separatist movements with military and economic means, and by the war’s end they stepped in as a ‘peace-keeping’ force in the regions to avoid further destabilizations. This sort of military policy guaranteed huge leverage over Georgia that, amongst other newly-independent countries of the post-Soviet space, was perceived by the Kremlin as a zone of Russian influence.
The Rose Revolution of 2004 and West-friendly policy
Mikheil Saakashvili came to power at the head of a bloodless revolution in 2004. Replacing the unpopular and deeply corrupted Soviet-styled regime the U.S.-educated Saakashvili enjoyed regard from Western circles, as well as significant dough flow to foster his revolutionary claims. Immediate steps following the regime swap was a radical and extremely effective policy towards reshaping the fundamentally Soviet-style police force. Red tape was brought to a minimum: modern, transparent and fast civil service replaced the old corrupt system.
To fulfill such much in a short span of time, radical measures were needed. The police force in its entirety was dismissed from service. The bureaucratic machinery was dumbed down, centralizing civil services in a single agency. As a crackdown on crime, a zero-tolerance policy was introduced. As once emotionally declared by Saakashvili: ‘No bails or plea bargains – any perpetrator of crime to jail!’
The noticeable modernization progress of Georgia has grabbed the attention of the White House, labeling Saakashvili’s ‘new’ state as its favorite in the somewhat volatile region of South Caucasus. NATO and the EU are sighted as long-term priorities in Georgia, and Atlanticism has been a guiding doctrine since Saakashvili stepped onto the political scene.
Angry Bullying Neighbor from the North
The transformation of the Georgian foreign policy towards the West has come with a cost, however. The arrival of the energetic Saakashvili sparked Russian fears that the region as a whole might have followed Georgia’s example of driving itself towards Western institutions. After a series of diplomatic rows between Georgia and Russia, tensions mounted to the maximum in August 2008. The leverage seeded back in the 1990s was sown to its fullest on the eve of the Beijing Olympics.
In August 2008, Georgian villages near the border with South Ossetia were under continuous fire and after series of failed attempts to quell the attacks, the Georgian President announced of a full-fledged military entry into the breakaway region. In a matter of days the Georgian military took over of nearly the entire region and pushed back the rebel forces. Triumphant and victorious as it seemed, the initial public announcements were patriotic and jubilant. It seemed that Russia wouldn’t get involved in the conflict.
Nonetheless, here comes the main criticism of Saakashvili’s government – that he heavily miscalculated and underestimated the possible scope of Russian involvement. Not only did Kremlin send in its regiments into the breakaway regions and drive back the Georgian military, but also penetrate undisputed Georgian territories. This was, as Saakashvili’s critics insist, a deliberately planned provocation that Georgia walked into by engaging its forces into the breakaway region.
In any case, the war provided a pretext for Russia to recognize the independence of the two breakaway regions. Moreover, it demonstrated that it won’t hesitate to employ military force to deter its neighbors from embarking on a Western course. This was a significant political gesture. It not only reinforced Russia’s perception of its strongman status on the international arena long faded during Yeltsin’s lax rule, but shattered the fallacy that U.S/EU-sponsored states would enjoy at least the slightest immunity from aggressive external advances. It also clearly indicated that NATO growth could be thwarted by a non-Member by the direct application of force, and all it could offer in return was expression of concern and a temporary break-off of relations with Russia.
In spite of the bitter military defeat, Saakashvili and his ruling party successfully garnered public support around nationalistic lines, portraying Russia as the ultimate aggressor and the Georgian state as the victim that managed to soldier on in an unfair war. This and the virtual nonexistence of a consistent opposition and pluralism – which is debatable in itself as the somewhat fresh Christian Democratic Party is seen by some as a viable opposition, by most as an extension of the ruling party – enabled an even wider rhetoric for Saakashvili in his constant charm and unite tactic, albeit with decreased political love-making from the West.
From 2012 and beyond
Saakashvili’s and his ruling party’s luck had gone backwards from 2012. With plummeting public approval ratings and viral scandals within his inner circle, Saakashvili’s party lost the Parliamentary Elections of 2012 with a landslide, garnering only 65 out of 150 seats (down from 135 and 119 seats in 2004 and 2008, respectively). The winning opposition coalition – the Georgian Dream – was forged by billionare-turned-politician Bidzina Ivanshivili, securing 83 seats in the state legislature. Moreover this was the first instance in the history of Georgia that a peaceful transition of power was made through elections (note: prior to the revolution in 2004, Georgia was governed by Eduard Shevardnadze, whose reelections into office have been smeared by fraud allegations).
Ivanishvili based his electoral message amongst populist lines, largely vowing for the eradication of corruption in elite circles, increased independence of the judiciary, as well as the reforms of the labor code and introduction of more welfare packages. To this day little tangible effects may be seen as to the progress of these promises. As observed by Ivanishvili himself, very little time has passed for his team to amend and fill in the gaps and errors of the previous government. Rightfully so, it has not even been an year since the handover of power, and Rome was certainly not built in a day. Neither can the institutions of Georgia be re-built to higher standards in a blink of an eye.
Nevertheless, it is not the economic or political promises that have been a subject of discussions in Georgia. If there are gossips floating around in Georgia, it probably has something to do with the detention of representatives of the previous government. Most recently the Secretary General of the United National Movement and former Interior Minister (2004-2012) Merabishvili was detained on allegations of corruption and embezzlement of funds. The arrest untimely coincided with Saakashvili’s party’s plans to hold an internal primary, the purpose of which is to select a candidate for the Presidential elections in October 2013. Earlier in November 2012, Bacho Akhalaia, the former interior and defence minister, and a close ally of President Mikheil Saakashvili, was also detained on charges of abuse of power. Two others were also held, including the military chief of staff.
While these arrests have been welcomed by majority at the domestic scene, the international community has been quick to highlight concern over the potential political motivations behind the arrests. In any case, the choice of action is tricky: on one hand, in order to avoid international criticism, the new government must apply selective justice and not prosecute Saakashvili’s allies, on another hand, they prosecute them but risk deterioration of their international relations. As of now, Ivanishvili’s team has pursued the second option. And rightfully or not, is probably a matter of perspective.