These are important days in Georgia. The emerging story could be called "After the Titans."
Both of the two oversized personalities that have dominated the country, Mikheil Saakashvili and Bidzina Ivanishvili, retired from front-line politics within a week of one another. Now—as Georgia marks the tenth anniversary of the Rose Revolution that brought Saakashvili to power—the government has struck a historic deal with Europe, initialing an Association Agreement with the European Union in Vilnius.
Georgia's political path has been completely unlike that of its neighbors. The curse of most post-Soviet states is an entrenched elite that monopolizes both political and economic power and blocks reform. Georgians have now swept aside two elites that had become too deeply entrenched: Shevardnadze in 2003, and Saakashvili in 2012.
That is healthy for democracy but leaves the country with a political version of what Milan Kundera called the “unbearable lightness of being.”
Saakashvili had already renounced most of his powers after losing parliamentary elections in October 2012. His nemesis Ivanishvili, though retired, will presumably be providing copious advice from behind the scenes. But Ivanishvili has honored his promise to leave the post of prime minister and will no longer be the most visible man in Georgia.
So the Georgian public is in a growing-up phase and cannot look to a big patriarch to fix all its problems. Two relatively inexperienced men are occupying the two top offices of state. Former university rector Giorgi Margvelashvili is now president, with reduced powers under the new constitution. The new prime minister, Irakli Garibashvili, is just thirty-one and has only ever worked for his patron, Ivanishvili.
The worry is that these two green leaders could lead Georgia into a period where greater democracy is handicapped by weak government, poor economic management, and manipulation by special interests. A useful comparison is with countries like Bulgaria or Romania in the 1990s, and with the condition that Thomas Carothers famously called “feckless pluralism.”
The good news is that there is actually a lot more continuity than the two sides in Georgian politics admit. Most people in the governmental bureaucracy have kept their jobs—and it is one of the real achievements of the Saakashvili years that there is now a technocratic class that can deliver day-to-day government services in the country.
Moreover, the foreign ministry is essentially the same as before and foreign policy is set on the same pro-Western course. Saakashvili and his supporters have dropped the narrative they were expounding last year that Ivanishvili was ”an agent of the Kremlin” and that his coming to power would hand Georgia over to the Russians.
On the contrary. The only pro-Russian candidate in the recent presidential election, Nino Burjanadze, won about 10 percent of the vote. Whatever else can be said of the two new leaders, neither the former rector of the Western-oriented Georgian Institute of Public Affairs, Margvelashvili, nor the Sorbonne-educated Garibashvili are considered to have any significant ties to Russia and have reaffirmed Georgia's EU-leaning destiny.
Another success story of the last year is that the Georgian parliament, which was a mere rubberstamp under Saakashvili, has been strengthened as an institution. The speaker, David Usupashvili, is an impressive and consensual figure, who works with the parliamentary minority of the former ruling party, the United National Movement (UNM).
However, a more vocal parliament also brings home to Georgians’ television screens perhaps the biggest problem the country still faces: an extremely aggressive political culture and deep polarization between government and opposition. The wounds of a gruelling election campaign in 2012 have still not healed.
There were modest hopes that the latest transition of power would draw a line under this fight.
Ivanishvili had spent much of 2013 suggesting he wanted to see UNM disappear into history. Several UNM officials were arrested or are under investigation—although the government has invited international monitoring of what they say will be trials of very serious abuses.
To a large degree, the toxic tone was set by the two titans, now stepping down. After the election, Ivanishvili continued his war of words against the opposition, saying that the fact that the losing candidate in the election, the UNM's David Bakradze, got 22 percent of the vote was an indication that “we lack political culture.” And Saakashvili fluffed his role in the democratic transition by failing to show up for his successor’s inauguration.
The actual contenders in the election were generous. Bakradze set a good tone by congratulating the victor, Margvelashvili. Margvelashvili made a good speech, insisting that he was the president of all Georgians.
The truce was brief, however. The new prime minister and UNM parliamentarians immediately spoiled the atmosphere with a macho slanging-match in which Garibashvili looked badly out of his depth.
Georgia's ruling coalition is a mixed bag, containing many figures who are more democratic than its predecessor, as well as many who display a more nativist and Georgian nationalist agenda. The worry now will be that this more intolerant group, which is well represented in parliament, will skew the agenda, just as Georgia has a chance to relaunch itself as a more democratic European country.
To make a big generalization, if the problem of the Saakashvili administration was that it was too outwardly focused, seemingly caring more about Western opinion than the concerns of its own citizens (a flaw that ultimately cost it its power), then this administration risks being too inwardly focused.
There have been some troubling incidents over the past few months. For example, the arbitrary removal of a minaret from a Muslim village and the passage of a law by Georgian Dream parliamentarians seeking to ban foreigners from owning agricultural land. The government worked to correct both of these, but only after the initial damage had been done.
More mixed messages like these could hurt the economy, which is heavily reliant on foreign investment. The growth rate in the first nine months of this year slowed to 1.7 percent. The new government—as well as some foreign analysts, such as those at the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development —put much of the blame for this on the "political uncertainty" of the recent cohabitation regime, as well as the cancelling of several of Saakashvili's extravagant and unpopular infrastructure projects. But from now on, Georgian Dream has full authority in Georgia and no one but itself to blame.
This is why the Vilnius Summit was both timely and important. Georgia, alongside Moldova, has led the way for the six Eastern European countries of the EU's Eastern Partnership bloc. It fully deserves the coming benefits in terms of freer trade and visa liberalization (though not, unfortunately, a membership perspective) that the EU offered at Vilnius.
Here too there has been continuity and indeed acceleration. For most of his presidency, Saakashvili was scornful of the European Union, being much keener on the "Atlantic" part of Euro-Atlantic integration. As one European diplomat said to me, "If he could put up the Stars and Stripes alongside the Georgian flag, he would have." A libertarian group in the Georgian government identified the EU with bureaucratic socialism, and abolished many of the regulatory standard agencies required for closer association with Brussels. The Georgian labor code was so weighted against workers that it threatened to endanger Georgia's trade privileges with the United States.
However, in his last two years in office, Saakashvili reversed course and commissioned the Foreign Ministry to work on a EU deal. The new government, which has a more EU-friendly social democratic agenda, sped that up and, amongst other things, amended the labor code.
This is an era of chastened expectations in Georgia. The unfortunate illusion created by the charismatic Saakashvili was that the problems of an emerging country like Georgia could be fixed quickly. They cannot.
Vilnius was very much the beginning of a process, not the end of one. Fuller agreements will not be signed until next year. The experience of EU approximation for other states tells us that the most painful part comes first, when new regulations are adopted that put an extra burden on the country, before the benefits of more open trade flow in.
From a U.S. perspective, this leads two broad conclusions.
The first is that this is a time for more active engagement with Georgia, not less. A flawed narrative has been told in Western countries since last year’s election, spun by the defeated UNM and picked up by sympathetic voices in the Western media: that Saakashvili's Georgia was a “liberal democracy” and shining success story which lost power almost by accident because it was subjected to an anti-Western (sometimes called pro-Russian) hostile takeover—and that the new government therefore needs to be kept at arm’s length.
The overwhelming vote by all sections of society against Saakashvili in last year's election and subsequent revelations of the scale of the abuses his government committed in its last few years—not to mention the continuity in foreign policy—shows this narrative to be seriously off-target.
This is not to at all overlook the problematic sides of the new government. It is a plea for more humility about the past; if some of those same Western publications had focused more on the dark side of Saakashvili's administration, it might have helped curb its more egregious abuses and stopped it from going so badly off course. And it is an argument for a more practical dialogue in the present, supporting those officials who are pursuing a more reformist outward-looking agenda.
A good example of a balanced intervention has been set here by the European Union's human rights envoy to Georgia, Thomas Hammarberg. In a nuanced and specific report, Hammarberg voices concern about a rise in intolerance of minorities under the new administration and the continuing lack of public confidence in the prosecutor's office. Yet he does this while giving the proper context within which they came to power, saying that under the previous government, "The separation between the State and the party tended to become blurred. Land and other property were confiscated with little or no possibility for appeal; properties were also 'donated' to the State under pressure and threat. There were complaints about 'elite corruption'."
The second conclusion is that in the post-Vilnius Eastern Europe, Washington needs to adjust to a new role. The arguments that Georgia is a battlefield in the Cold War or a “pivotal strategic ally” can finally be put to rest.
The best guarantee of its security and sovereignty is closer integration into Europe, first through closer economic approximation. American-Georgian trade by itself is minuscule, worth $300 million in the first nine months of this year—and the hopes for a US-Georgia free-trade deal are best served initially by a US-EU free trade agreement.
Most of the hard work will be done in Brussels. But Washington has important technical instruments that it can deploy to support this new transition. It is a much more articulate messenger than Brussels, and can give political cover to this economic project. To reach the place where Bulgaria or Romania are now in ten or fifteen years’ time does not fit the kind of lofty vision that Georgians heard from their previous president—but it would actually be a real and solid achievement.