Georgia is facing yet another political challenge. In the wake of a devastating war with Russia and continued Russian occupation of Georgian territories, a broad coalition of political parties and civic organizations is demanding political changes in the country. In fact, it is becoming clear that stability cannot be maintained in Georgia without significant reform. The U.S. interests in the region dictate the need for strong support of Georgia’s independence and territorial integrity, as well as its internal political stability. That can only be achieved through active mediation by the US and EU between the opposing political factions.
BACKGROUND: It is becoming clear that stability cannot be maintained in Georgia without radical reforms of the political system, and broader representation of the political spectrum in the governing bodies. Such reforms are necessary in order for the country to gain more support from Western allies and, most importantly, to deal with the pressing issues of internal development, including economic and social problems.
The conflict with Russia compounds Georgia’s internal problems. Georgia is a key target of Russian efforts to reduce or eliminate alternative access routes to Central Asia and Afghanistan for the US, NATO, and Western energy interests. Russian interests will be served by a weak and destabilized Georgia, as that would leave Russia as the key, and maybe sole, potential partner for Western access to Central Asia. In that case, Russia would be able to dictate its own terms of collaboration. The August war made it clear that Russia is willing to use force to protect these interests. With that war, Georgians learned that Russia will always have enough power to inflict substantial damage on their country or, in the worst-case scenario, destroy its statehood. The Western response to the events before, during, and after the war has also demonstrated that Georgia can expect limited help in case of Russian military aggression.
Against the backdrop of the security challenges posed by Russia, and the economic consequences of the global financial crisis and the war, there is growing popular discontent in Georgia with the performance of the government. While not drawing as many supporters as they had hoped to, the opposition coalition drew substantial numbers of people to the streets, with a smaller yet significant number staying on. More importantly, the opposition is more organized than had been expected, and protesters have remained peaceful. Meanwhile, the government’s response to the protests so far has been largely peaceful and reserved. It is clear that lessons were learned from the experience of November 7, 2007, when the government used excessive force against demonstrators. That is a positive development, but it does not mean Georgia’s problems are resolved.
Indeed, with no meaningful process of negotiations and no tangible concessions from either side, the standoff has entered a stalemate that could transform into a serious confrontation. Several government buildings and major roads in Tbilisi are now blocked by improvised prison cells, occupied by self-imprisoned political and public figures. This is already disrupting the functioning of the state and municipal institutions. In addition, some protesters have been severely beaten by small groups of individuals in civilian dress, sometimes wearing masks, usually outside of the protest sites. The opposition accuses the government of organizing those violent attacks and has threatened to organize self-defense groups, something that would further deteriorate an already dangerous environment. Some of those beatings were documented by security cameras, and criminal investigations are under way.
IMPLICATIONS: The current political crisis can lead Georgia to serious destabilization that will further weaken the country’s internal and external security. There is no internal capacity for the resolution of the crisis between the government and opposition. This challenge suggests several realistic scenarios for the near future. In the first, a status quo scenario, the government may succeed in managing the political unrest, disregarding major demonstrations and opposition demands for new presidential elections. It will use all available means to convince the majority of citizens that there is no alternative to the current government if stability is to be preserved. The probability of this scenario will depend on the following conditions: a public desire for stability; political division among opposition leaders; allocation of substantial resources to populist government programs; limited Russian interference; and strong and documented demonstration of political will by the government to conduct substantial democratic and judiciary reforms. Under such conditions, fewer people will be motivated to protest. However, without meaningful change and reforms, it will be hard to maintain stability or achieve lasting national unity: tensions will remain high, with a likelihood of repeated anti-government demonstrations in a few months.
In a second more radical scenario, the government will be unable to maintain control over political developments, and clashes between the government and opposition will become inevitable. This could include provocations in the streets of Tbilisi, sabotage on the main roads, picketing of state and municipal institutions, etc. This may be followed by the government’s use of force and additional destabilization. There is little chance for a forceful overthrow of the government by the opposition at this point, but if the government seeks to keep power by force, destabilization will lead to further deterioration of conditions in the country, and it will be difficult to expect stability.
A third possibility is a peaceful modification of power arrangements through a process including reforms of electoral and judiciary structures, early parliamentary elections, and subsequent presidential elections. This scenario depends on the political will of the leadership; a continued high number of people in the streets; internal tensions in the government; unity of the opposition; prevention of radicalization; and support from the U.S. and EU. This scenario would maintain relative peace in Georgia and would open the door for a normal process of political transformation.
CONCLUSIONS: Against the backdrop of the emerging US-Russia strategic dialogue, the US—together with the EU—needs to take a proactive position with regard to Georgia in two areas. First, it must send a clear and strong message that continued Russian occupation of the Georgian territories cannot be considered acceptable, and that Russian neutrality regarding Georgian political developments should be considered a pre-condition to larger geopolitical negotiations. Second, it must send high-level current or former officials to Georgia to mediate between the opposition and government. Peaceful resolution of the current crisis would normalize the political process in Georgia, allowing a peaceful modification of power structures and the creation of a more representative government. A smooth transformation of these structures is in the best interest of both the Georgian people and the US and Western allies. This could be an important step toward normalization of relations between Russia and Georgia, as well as between Georgians and Abkhaz, and Georgians and Ossetians. The US and Western allies need to help Georgia to use this crisis as an opportunity to emerge as a stronger democratic state based on the values of individual liberties, free markets, and diversified and balanced foreign relations.
AUTHORS’ BIO: Dr. Mamuka Tsereteli is an Assistant Professor at the School of International Service at American University; Dr. Kelli Hash-Gonzalez is an Adjunct Professor at the School of International Service at American University