By Evan Bird
BOLOGNA, Italy — It’s been fifteen years since the Rose Revolution set Georgia on its pro-Western reform path and ten years since a Russian invasion nearly brought it all down. But, the small, former-Soviet republic has once again conducted a free and competitive election.
In a second-round runoff on November 29, Salome Zurabishvili, an independent candidate supported by the ruling Georgian Dream, defeated opposition candidate Grigol Vashadze with nearly 60% of the vote. In addition to bringing extensive international experience to the position, President Zurabishvili has become Georgia’s first female president. Despite the achievement, Georgia’s transformation into a Western-style liberal democracy remains incomplete.
Georgia’s democratic transition and Euro-Atlantic orientation were never assured. In 2003, opposition politician Mikheil Saakashvili ascended to power following peaceful protests against the corrupt administration of President Eduard Shevardnadze. Welcomed in the West, Saakashvili forged an administration of energetic technocrats, opening the possibility of future NATO and European Union membership. But, this boldness made quick enemies in Moscow.
In August 2008, following a violent flare up in the separatist region of South Ossetia, Russian soldiers invaded Georgia under the guise of peacekeeping and crushed the Georgian army in just five days.
Russian soldiers still occupy the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (nearly 20% of Georgian territory) and over 250,000 Georgian citizens remain displaced from these regions. Despite the overwhelming setback to its Western ambitions, Georgia hasn’t strayed from its Euro-Atlantic course.
In 2012, the country underwent its first peaceful transfer of power after Saakashvili was defeated in parliamentary elections by Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream. Softer in both rhetoric and style, Ivanishvili and his successors in Georgian Dream have continued Georgia’s Western orientation. But, while Georgia continues to signal to the world the promise of a liberal democratic state in an otherwise illiberal region, fundamental challenges still remain.
The government’s democratization and economic modernization efforts have failed to bring widespread prosperity and Georgian voters understandably remain frustrated. With perennial unemployment, an unstable currency and an inefficient health care system, it’s not surprising that bread and butter issues dominate Georgian concerns rather than issues related to democracy, European integration or Russian aggression.
Moreover, governance in the country is characterized by weak institutions and informal power centers that limit transparency and government accountability. Despite stepping down as prime minister in 2013, billionaire oligarch Ivanishvili (his estimated $5 billion net worth makes up a third of Georgia’s nominal GDP) continues to cast a shadow over decision making in the country. Since leaving office, the oligarch has run through a carousel of prime ministers and uses the party and government structure to distribute patronage and bolster his personal power.
Furthermore, Georgia’s fractured opposition parties are personality-driven and offer few alternative visions to Georgian Dream. The lack of accountable government and serious political choices are likely impacting voter turnout. In a country where voting in free elections is a relatively new phenomenon, turnout has been in decline since 2004.
There is some hope, however. In 2024, Georgia’s switch to a fully proportional election system will empower the country’s diffuse political opposition and force the country’s democratic institutions to better represent voter concerns.
Furthermore, Ivanishvili appears to be increasing his public role. He has reinstated himself as chairman of Georgian Dream and actively campaigned in the presidential election. Both indicate that Georgia’s shy informal leader may be opening himself up to more accountability to Georgian voters.
But, where is president-elect Zurabishvili in all this? While the successful stewardship of another free election and the ascension of Georgia’s first female head of state are important achievements, the position today is mostly ceremonial. It’s also unlikely that Zurabashvili will be able to exercise any meaningful political independence as Ivanishvili continues to wield power from behind the scenes. Thus, it may be best to keep our excitement subdued until Georgia fully completes its democratic transition.
Evan Bird is a SAIS MA ‘20 student and a Returned Peace Corps Georgia Volunteer.