Last October, the Georgian Dream (GD) coalition won a surprising election victory over President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) in the last parliamentary elections before a new Constitution takes effect in 2013. Over the past few months, the actions taken by the Georgian Dream government in domestic and foreign politics also point to a quite different reality than many outsiders predicted. In domestic politics, the peaceful transition of power has been complicated by charges of political retribution aimed at former UNM officials. Likewise, Georgian Dream’s foreign policy course aims to improve relations with Russia while continuing the path of Euro-Atlantic integration pursued by Saakashvili. U.S. and European desires to support democracy and good governance in Georgia cause these two trajectories to be intimately linked.
The most pressing issue for the new Georgian Dream government remains its relationship with the opposition UNM party, including sitting MPs as well as former ministry officials. In spite of a smooth initial transfer of power, the earliest actions of the new government appear to signal a desire for vengeance and retribution—or justice, depending on one’s perspective. Since November, no fewer than thirty former officials from the defense and interior ministries, the most powerful in the country have been arrested on charges such as abuse of power, torture, illegal surveillance of political rivals, and illegal confinement. Insufficient attention has been paid to the validity of these charges, which remains the most important consideration when evaluating whether the new government is pursuing a “witch hunt,” as UNM representatives have claimed, or belatedly bringing real criminals to justice. In addition to eliciting concern from American and European officials, Freedom House qualified its 2013 ranking of Georgia (which had improved from “partly free” in 2012) to add a warning against the potential for politically motivated arrests. Meanwhile, Parliament granted amnesty to 190 persons recognized as political prisoners and released them from prison in January, while additional releases and suspended sentences were planned for thousands more.
Although last year’s election campaign focused overwhelmingly on domestic issues such as pensions, utility fees, and unemployment, these topics seem to have taken a backseat to questions of retributive justice or political vendettas. As this situation unfolds, the U.S. should continue to insist that Georgian judicial institutions uphold the rule of law as investigations and trials progress. Viewed in the longer term of recent Georgian politics, the most recent wave of arrests fits within a spectrum of judicial and parliamentary maneuvering that was frequently employed by Saakashvili, whether against his predecessor and subsequent challengers after the Rose Revolution, or against Ivanishvili himself in the run-up to the 2012 elections.
By comparison, Georgian Dream has exhibited a greater departure on the foreign policy front, particularly with regard to bilateral relations with Russia. The 2008 war is still fresh in the minds of many Georgians, yet that does not preclude a pragmatic desire to begin to mend the Russian relationship. One of Ivanishvili’s first acts as Prime Minister was to create a special representative to manage affairs with Russia. While Russia’s response was less enthusiastic than Ivanishvili had hoped, moving beyond the post-2008 relationship breakdown should be a positive sign for all interested parties as long as Moscow proves willing to contribute to rebuilding the relationship. At the same time, Ivanishvili made clear that Georgia would not reestablish a diplomatic presence in Moscow until Russian embassies in Sokhumi, Abkhazia, and Tskhinvali, South Ossetia, are removed—a condition likely supported by much of Georgia’s population.
Managing these two trajectories will require Georgian Dream to strike a delicate balance, as Russia is unlikely to respond to the demand to remove its embassies in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. However, Russia’s newly-acquired WTO membership and its attendant requirements provide a potential opportunity for Georgia to at least work toward rebuilding the elusive Russo-Georgian trade relationship that has been troubled since the war. This would provide tangible economic benefits, which dominate Georgians’ concerns for their country, and should therefore be the main goal of the Georgian special representative to Russia in the short term. The U.S. and EU should welcome these efforts on the part of the new government as well, provided Georgia continues to prioritize political and economic Euro-Atlantic integration beyond the Saakashvili era.
Neither preliminary overtures to Russia nor what may appear to be a politically motivated wave of arrests should deter U.S. interests in the country. Rather, these developments further emphasize the necessity of U.S. involvement in Georgia, contrary to those who feel that the U.S.-Georgia relationship and Georgian democracy are already a lost cause under Ivanishvili. In Tbilisi, residents were quick to show support for the new leadership by flying Georgian Dream flags from their balconies and donning the now-ubiquitous Georgian Dream logo t-shirt. While these shows of support remain strong, the euphoria of the election’s immediate aftermath has dissipated as the new powers face the sobering reality of governance.