Georgian Splits and Struggles

In Gore Vidal’s stage play turned film, The Best Man, President Art Hockstader says, “Power is not a toy we give to good children. It is a weapon. And the strong man takes it and uses it.” The struggles of Georgia’s enduring political rivals to acquire and to hold power, whether it is former President Misha Saakashvili and his former United National Movement (UNM) compatriots or the minions of former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili in media and government, continue to call into question how the use of their “weapons” will impact the nation(s) they seek to govern.

Saakashvili has led his party to four successive electoral losses since 2012, and despite now seeking electoral success in Ukraine, he refuses to take responsibility for either his decidedly mixed legacy of governance or the reality that he chose to forgo his Georgian citizenship by seeking to serve in another nation’s government. Instead of allowing others to take over the party, Saakashvili has chosen to re-cast his party as a grassroots organization, in which allegiance to his legacy is prioritized over loyalty to “usurpers.” In doing so, he has likely doomed any chance for the UNM to define which elements of his legacy it will embrace going forward and which ones it will discard to re-brand itself in the eyes of the public. Saakashvili’s careening pursuit of relevance, if not power, in both Georgia and Ukraine, epitomizes the perspective of President Hockstader that “in politics … there are no ends . . . only means.”

Now, 20 of the 27 members of parliament elected as part of a two-party bloc with UNM in 2016 have chosen to leave the party and re-organize themselves within the bloc partner, European Georgia. The bloc qualified for state funding that will now be split evenly between the two parties. But European Georgia will have to spend its funding on rebuilding the bureaucracy necessary to run nationwide campaigns while maintaining a decidedly capital-centric leadership. Former Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, after languishing in prison for more than two years, chose to stay in Georgia while Saakashvili fled. He was released in advance of the Saakashvili-planned UNM convention on January 20. His release served as the final straw for the breakaway faction and is the new party’s best known figure. Former Parliament Speaker and 2013 presidential candidate Davit Bakradze and former National Security Adviser Giga Bokeria complete European Georgia’s governing triumvirate. The party will offer a pro-West alternative that isn’t led by Saakashvili, but it may suffer from the fact that Ugulava is a convicted former officeholder and that Bokeria has consistently been one of the most unpopular political figures in Georgia. There is also the inevitable UNM messaging that claims European Georgia is just the latest effort by Ivanishvili to promote dissension. Three former UNM MPs left to form two parties prior to the 2016 elections, but flamed out as part of the debacle which engulfed millionaire Paata Burchuladze’s failed State for People bloc, amidst accusations by Burchuladze that the former UNM MPs were funded and directed by Ivanishvili.

European Georgia faces an uphill struggle to transcend the underfunded, Tbilisi-centric limitations of previous opposition parties in competing with a constitutional majority ruling party. Other parties made up of former UNM leaders across the political spectrum, such as the pro-Russian Democratic Movement United Georgia of former Parliament Chair and interim President Nino Burjanadze and the pro-Western Free Democrats of former United Nations Ambassador Irakli Alasania, have thus far failed to sustain popular support. European Georgia’s grassroots potential is further undermined by Saakashvili’s support among UNM’s activist base, especially among the newer leaders of women’s and youth organizations, which remains fervent—although some activist leaders claim they know Misha is a deeply flawed leader.

Saakashvili, who built his reputation upon opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the oligarch Ivanishvili, has swiftly shifted over the past two years from serving in the government of Ukrainian oligarch and President Petro Poroshenko to aligning himself with Poroshenko’s opponents. At the same time, he is seeking to portray his relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump, an avowed Putin admirer, as a positive in addressing Ukraine’s ongoing struggle with Russia. He developed a relationship with Trump in the lead up to a failed 2012 development project in the Georgian Black Sea city of Batumi. His rival Ivanishvili denounced the project following the 2012 election, and then he re-assessed his position after Trump’s election in 2016. Trump ended up cancelling the project at the end of the year.[1] Consistency has not been a hallmark among any of these players; instead, they have increasingly chosen to be transactional in their respective approaches to governance. In “The Best Man,” President Hockstader could have just as easily been referring to the new U.S. President and Black Sea politics when he notes, “Time was, when you rich boys liked to play games like polo. Now you play politics.”

Despite the likelihood that Saakashvili will continue to prevent their chances of returning to power, the UNM still retains a national constituency. While the party hasn’t won in the past three elections since 2012, it has received approximately 22%, 22%, and 27% of the vote respectively. It is not unreasonable to assume that many, if not most, of those votes would remain with the UNM due to its branding as the most anti-Ivanishvili party. There is no survey research that can definitively establish the basis for UNM’s increase in the most recent parliamentary elections. One possible scenario is that their margin increased due to dissatisfaction with Georgian Dream governance, and it may have been even greater if Saakashvili had not hijacked the campaign narrative and turned the election into a referendum on his implied assertion that a UNM victory would mean his return to power.

While there will be municipal elections in 2017, given the level of organizational infrastructure, funding, and candidate recruitment necessary for success, a national campaign for president in 2018 would be the best way for a new, under-funded, pro-Western party, like European Georgia, to develop. However, this is unlikely given that the Georgian Dream has expressed support for eliminating the popularly elected position of the president in favor of one elected by parliament. Another significant hurdle for competitive challenges to Ivanishvili’s government is the current media landscape.

Rustavi-2, a popular television channel in Georgia, has been struggling since August 2015 in the courts over the question of whether or not the brother of a Georgian Dream MP is the true owner. Having had its assets frozen by a court decision, the Court may restart its deliberations, thereby prolonging the strain on Rustavi-2 finances and increasing the prospect of financial ruin before a final judicial determination is made. This potential outcome would absolve the Georgian Dream government and/or judges of any responsibility for a fundamental decline in the diversity of viewpoints that Georgia has benefited from in international assessments of its media freedom. The stage increasingly appears to be set for a greater level of single-party (Georgian Dream) television dominance and an increasing number of anti-Western perspectives than ever existed during the Saakashvili era.[2] For those who would argue that the only editorially pro-European Georgia outlet, Tabula (led by Bokeria’s spouse, Tamar Chergoleishvili), would also be a competitor within these developments, it has suspended its broadcasting for lack of funds and exists only online, a growing but not primary medium[3] for Georgian news consumption.

Amidst all of these changes in opposition politics and media outlets, the Georgian Dream government has reaffirmed its Western aspirations in a rare instance of bi-partisan legislative achievement. Yet, the lack of any significant capacity for institutional oversight or meaningful opposition beyond President Margvelashvili’s veto (which can be overridden) has provided the government with ample opportunities for both the ridiculous and the disconcerting. Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili recently declared that the alleged denial of entry into nightclubs of Georgian men was a violation of the anti-discrimination legislation and gender equality goals before correcting himself to say that what he really meant was that the presence of Georgian men in these nightclubs would be a deterrent to prostitution. On the same day, Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze announced that Georgia would fundamentally change a key element of its energy independence policy and acquiesce to a deal proposed by Russia’s Gazprom, identical to one it rejected a year ago,. This news was met with strong criticism from civil society, the opposition, and President Margvelashvili, which has nevertheless been insufficient for getting the government to disclose essential details of the agreement.

Saakashvili’s resistance to choosing which country to serve, Ivanishvili’s continuing influence within the government and media, and Russia’s increasing political assets in Georgia are important political factors to watch in the coming years. Georgian politics are beset by political players who all seek to wield power without taking responsibility for themselves with the public. As Henry Fonda’s leading presidential aspirant in “The Best Man,” William Russell, opined, “no sense of responsibility towards anyone or anything …. is a tragedy in a man, and a disaster in [governance].” This is a mutual reality that Georgia and the United States, with the ascension of President Donald Trump, may face for the foreseeable future.

Notes

[1] The announcement of the Trump Tower came in the run-up to parliamentary elections in 2012, which Saakashvili’s party lost to former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition. Ivanishvili, who remains a powerful figure, expressed contempt for Trump and the project. “Trump did not invest in Georgia,” he told reporters in 2012. “It was kind of like a trick. They gave him money and they both played along, Saakashvili and Trump. And, as you know, Saakashvili was the master of lies. I don’t know what project this is, I’ve never been seriously interested. We won’t do anything based on such fairy tales.” https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-12-09/left-for-dead-trump-tower-is-suddenly-revived-in-ex-soviet-state

[2] See: the impending consolidation of pro-Georgian Dream television stations (Maestro and the Ivanishvili owned GDS) under the leadership of Rustavi-2’s primary rival, Imedi; the helm of the Georgian Public Broadcaster channel being assumed by a former Ivanishvili talk show producer on GDS; and the emergence of new, separate, pro-Ivanishvili (Pirveli TV) and pro-Russian stations led by Ivanishvili’s Alliance of Patriots allies (Zaza Okuashvili’s Iberia TV, in addition to Irma Inashvili’s Obieqtivi); as well as another (Tbilisi 24) featuring pro-Ivanishvili and pro-Russian partisan, 2012 prison scandal “whistleblower” and participant, Davit Bedukadze.

[3] Television remained the main source of information about parties and candidates for 73% of respondents, followed by internet – 6%.

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Georgian Parliamentary Election Results and Aftermath

[Editor’s Note: This blog entry follows up on the author’s E-Note “Of Georgian Personalities and Politics: European Dreams, National Elections, and Future Days” that appeared on October 7, 2016.]

 

Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream (GD) electoral bloc appears to have won a 49% plurality in the October 8 parliamentary elections. There will be up to 51 runoff elections—slated for probably October 30—for majoritarian candidates who failed to win 50%.  While Georgian voter turnout declined from 61% in 2012 to 52% in 2016, barring unforeseen circumstances, the GD will likely achieve a constitutional majority, with or without the votes of the xenophobic Alliance of Patriots, Ivanishvili’s personally favored position. They hover around the 5% threshold at the time of writing, so they could qualify for a six-member faction. Misha Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) remains the main opposition party with 27% of the vote.  In the autonomous region of Adjara, former Parliament Chair Nino Burjanadze’s pro-Russian party, Democratic Movement United Georgia, will join GD, UNM, and the Alliance of Patriots on the governing Adjara Supreme Council.

 

In the immediate aftermath of the election, UNM has refuted the findings of domestic and international observation that the elections were adequately conducted in a competitive environment. Although a number of concerns were noted by both sets of observation groups, they were not deemed as sufficient to alter the election’s outcome, and the results aligned with the parallel vote tabulation (PVT) conducted by the International Society of Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED). If UNM limits its challenge of the results to holding party rallies, press conferences, and pursuing all procedurally and legally available avenues, then that is entirely within their purview as the leading opposition party in the country with significant electoral support.  However, if UNM is to deny the legitimacy of the elections and refuse to sit in Parliament as the opposition parties did in 2008 (in defiance of international observation findings), or pursue actions to usurp duly elected government bodies (as GD did with municipal governments after the 2012 parliamentary elections, well ahead of the 2014 elections), that would be problematic because without UNM, there is no pro-West opposition to the GD—only the pro-Russian parties of the Alliance of Patriots and Burjanadze’s United Georgia.

 

Now that Georgian Dream has real potential to achieve a constitutional majority, the question of how they would use that power comes to the forefront.  Perhaps the most immediate question is whether or not they will dispense with majoritarian representation in Parliament, the existence of which currently is the basis for their constitutional majority prospects. Majoritarian seats make up 73 of the 150 seats in Georgia’s Parliament. In 2015, the GD proposed a constitutional amendment to eliminate majoritarian seats in 2020, rather than in this year’s elections because according to party leaders, “while Georgian Dream is in power, the Georgian political system will achieve in coming years the level of development, which is necessary for prevention of difficulties associated with introduction of fully proportional electoral system.”  Presumably, these difficulties included holding onto a parliamentary majority, which they cannot do without their anticipated majoritarian runoff victories. GD maneuverings around majoritarian seats last year clearly demonstrate that they knew they were in trouble at the time. These moves may have contributed to its disbandment as a part of an initial strategy to better absorb voters who had been disaffected from Bidzina Ivanishvili, but uncertain about voting for UNM. This further explains the GD relationship with the Alliance as well as possibly newer, anti-Western parties that withdrew as the election drew closer, then declared themselves for Ivanishvili/GD—possibly to undermine any effort of Shalva Natelashvili’s Labor party to cross the threshold and limit the potential of Burjanadze’s party. In conjunction with its constitutional proposal last year, GD also passed legislation changing the percentage necessary to win a majoritarian seat from 30% to 50%, which will add to its advantages going into the runoff elections.  This proposal was opposed by fourteen opposition parties, except the Alliance. NGOs, such as ISFED, the Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA), and Transparency International (TI), have also opposed this proposal. It should be noted that dispensing with majoritarian seats and moving to an all proportional system was opposed by UNM when they were in power.      

 

The more immediate concerns in the aftermath of these elections are related to UNM’s protests. To what extent is UNM willing to push their grievances about the election results and what role will law enforcement play in the GD government’s response to UNM? The pre-election declarations of Misha Saakashvili—the UNM leader in Ukrainian exile—that the exit poll of Rustavi-2 television, which is editorially aligned with UNM, would be more accurate than the results of the Central Elections Commission heightened the potential for denying the outcome.  Having set those expectations among their supporters, a solid quarter or so of all voters who have consistently backed UNM against GD in the three consecutive elections since 2012, may have its leaders in Georgia attempting to find a path that reassures those voters that they still have effective advocates for their interests.

 

Leading up to the elections, audio tapes of Misha Saakashvili allegedly speaking with UNM leaders about plotting a popular uprising were made public. While Saakashvili and UNM have denied the authenticity of those tapes, they came only months after a prior leak of tapes of a similar nature: Saakashvili instructing UNM party leader Giga Bokeria and Rustavi2 director Nika Gvaramia to use violence if necessary to protect the station from a possible court decision to change the station’s ownership, a case that even non-UNM supporters see as politicized. Two weeks before the audio tapes even surfaced on a Ukrainian website and three weeks before the election, Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili accused UNM of planning to “radicalize [the] situation,” while insisting that he was under no obligation to provide any evidence of this accusation. In the aftermath of UNM MP Givi Targamadze’s car exploding in Tbilisi, injuring several bystanders and four days before the election, Kvirikashvili immediately implied that UNM was responsible. He made this statement before an investigation was launched, and then the day before the election, information was leaked to Imedi television, which has an editorial policy favoring GD, claiming that the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs had “solved” the case without providing details. 

 

Under both, UNM’s and GD’s rule in Georgia, there has been a long history of suspicious cases, seemingly intended to further political narratives rather than reflect actual events.  Many NGOs and international organizations were suspicious about UNMs involvement in the Kurcha shooting incident in 2008 and another pre-election alleged “terrorist attack” near the Abkhazia administrative boundary line (ABL) in 2012. Similar suspicious incidents have been pursued by GD with cases such as the allegation that UNM was responsible for the death of the Rapaliantsi child the day before the 2012 election, and the seemingly perpetual investigation based on the GD narrative that UNM killed former Prime Minister and Saakashvili’s 2003 Rose Revolution ally,  Zurab Zhvania.  GD MP Giorgi Zhvania, Zurab’s brother, and other GD leaders  have repeatedly claimed that a new development will occur in the investigation despite the fact that the body was  never exhumed to ascertain a cause of death other than the original determination of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. The investigation originally arrived at this finding in part through assistance from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of the United States. The Georgian government’s failure to take significant action following the Korskheli beatings of UNM leaders does little to increase confidence thus far that GD is interested in fundamentally discontinuing one of the worst elements of UNM’s legacy.

 

As Georgia moves onto the final phase of its parliamentary elections and beyond, possibly transitioning from the one party rule of UNM in 2008 to one party rule under GD, both major parties will have to find a way to transcend the bitter personal rivalry of Bidzina Ivanishvili (GD) and Misha Saakashvili (UNM) in order to achieve further progress towards the nation’s democratic and European aspirations.  GD Party Secretary and incoming MP Irakli Kobakhidze has said that even with a constitutional majority, GD will seek consensus with opposition parties.  Coming from a man who has likened UNM members to Fascists and given its titular leader’s expressed preference for anti-Western parties over UNM, this could either be a potential opening for an unprecedented collaborative process between the opposition and ruling parties, or the equivalent of a head fake in order to lay the predicate for empowering the Alliance and Burjanadze against their mutual enemy, the UNM.  Regardless, Georgia’s ability to move forward and continue—if not possibly increase—progress tackling the difficult challenges that lay ahead: transcending zero sum politics, implementing further electoral reforms, de-politicizing judicial and law enforcement institutions, improving relations with Russia, and integrating itself more with the West may depend on what Prime Minister Kvirikashvili chooses to do and whether he can move away from the shadow of Bidzina Ivanishvili.

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The Eurasian Economic Union’s growth is not good for democracy in the region

In August 2015, Kyrgyzstan officially became a full member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), joining Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Armenia in the Russia-led European Union rival. The expansion of the EEU could spell trouble for the democratization of Eurasia.

The EEU itself is a new institution, formally coming into existence on January 1, 2015. Loosely modelled, in concept if not yet execution, on the EU, it grew out of the Eurasian Customs Union that had been founded on January 1, 2010 between Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan—which itself was the result of a series of customs unions created by various Eurasian countries in the late-1990s and early- to mid-2000s—and seeks regional integration on a political and economic level.

Unlike the EU, the EEU is not held back by the necessity of considering the democracy and human rights records of potential members, as the Freedom House Freedom scores for the founding members are a  6, 6.5 and 5.5, respectively, all “Not Free.” In addition, as Russia has by far the largest and most robust economy in the region, with a GDP roughly nine times that of Kazakhstan and twenty-nine times that of Belarus, and the economies of the other countries are already so dependent on Russia, any attempts at integration will be dominated by Russia and, as a necessary consequence, Putin. Russia’s economic preponderance, codified by the EEU, will give it much greater leverage over its neighbors. Uzbekistan’s heretofore hesitancy to joining the EEU, fearing direct Russian influence over its affairs, evidences that other countries in the region are aware of this risk. Yet even here, the already established economic dependence is working against Uzbekistan: in late 2014 Russia simply wrote off $865 million dollars of Uzbekistan’s debt, with the goal of developing ties between the two countries.

Despite attempts by the European Union to court post-Soviet countries in Eastern Europe and Eurasia and bring them into direct association with the EU via programs such as the Eastern Partnership, support for European institutions is down in several key target states. In Moldova, for example, seen as one of the leading lights of the Eastern Partnership—and one of the most successful Eastern Partnership countries in terms of reform—support for the European Union hovers around only 40 percent. In 2007, 78 percent of Moldovans supported the EU. The recent protests have cast further doubt on Moldova’s chances for a successful integration with Europe; while the protestors themselves are not openly pro-Russia and have valid reasons to protest, the collapse of the fragile pro-European coalition could see pro-Russian political groups profit, with two of the most vocal supporters of the protests, the Socialist Party and the Patria Party, holding pro-EEU positions.

At the same time, support for the Russia- and Putin-led Eurasian Economic Union is growing in the region as a whole. Armenia, one of the Eastern Partnership countries, has already joined the EEU, acceding in January 2015. In a poll carried out by the Moldovan Institute for Public Policy, 50 percent of respondents favored integration with the EEU, versus 32 percent that favored joining the EU. Although support for the EU in Georgia, one of the most Euro-centric countries in the region, remains high at 68 percent, 31 percent of Georgians now favor joining the EEU, up from 16 percent only last year.

That support for the EEU is rising even in countries with relatively competitive democratic institutions is deeply troubling. Moldova, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan are countries that, while perhaps not yet on the level of the strongest Eastern European democracies, have slowly been taking the necessary steps to establish certain democratic and pluralistic norms that are not often found in the region.

The lack of conviction of the EU initiatives and the unwillingness of EU politicians to make any promises about the chances for Eurasian countries to join the EU, both in evidence at the May 2015 EU summit in Riga, puts these trends in an even more worrying light. The difficulty of joining the European Union potentially makes the EEU a more satisfying prospect for populist politicians looking for successes to sell to their constituents.

In creating the EEU, Putin has found a vehicle for binding post-Soviet countries more tightly to Russia. Although the EEU’s founding members were countries already linked to Russia and Putin, the accession of Armenia and Kyrgyzstan and the increase in support for the EEU in Georgia and Moldova shows that other countries in the region are being convinced by Russian rhetoric. The greatest danger if these countries fall under greater Russian influence is not only that they will move further away from Europe, but also that Putin will be able to influence their politics more directly and so any democratic gains they have made in the past few decades will be lost for good. 

Simon Hoellerbauer is a research intern with the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Project on Democratic Transitions and a graduate of Kenyon College. 

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Freedom House Reports Alarming Authoritarian Pushback in Eurasia’s Nations in Transit

On June 23rd Freedom House—an independent democracy and human rights watchdog organization—released its annual Nations in Transit report. Nations in Transit (NIT) studies the state of democratization in 29 countries from Central and Eastern Europe to Central Asia. The NIT is also one of the few highly respectable and reliable quantitative measures of democracy, which for 20 years now has served as an important point of reference for scholars and organizations all over the world. FPRI’s own Project on Democratic Transitions relies heavily upon Freedom House’s NIT measurements for its research and publications.

Freedom House’s findings shed further bad news about the state of democracy in Eurasia this year. The title of the 2015 report warns that “Democracy is on the Defensive in Europe and Eurasia.” As the report’s project director Sylvana Habdank-Kolaczowska states in its executive summary:

When the first edition of NIT was published 20 years ago, only three countries—Belarus, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—were considered “consolidated authoritarian regimes.” Since 2000, however, the number of such regimes has more than doubled, and Eurasia’s average democracy score has fallen from 5.4 to 6.03 on a 7-point scale.

Looking back at the post-communist world 20 years ago, it is impossible to believe that the region is more authoritarian now than it was during the era of failed states, rampant corruption, and civil wars. But while the region is better off today than it was in the 1990s, it is no secret that 20 years ago the democracy-promotion community exercised an excessive amount of wishful thinking when it dealt with the countries of post-communist Eurasia. This wishful thinking often refused to acknowledge that there was no actual “democratization” happening in some of those states, labeling them as “slow democratizers,” “would be democracies,” or “nascent democracies.” In the early 2000s, when these “slow democratizers” never democratized, the democracy-promotion community had to finally come to terms with the reality and adjust its “labeling system.” This is why Georgia, for example, practically a failed state throughout the 1990s, continued to receive the same NIT democracy scores throughout the 2000s as it did in the late 1990s, although it had become a rapid and successful reformer.

That said, even with today’s sober approach to understanding democratic transitions, the recent regression in post-communist Europe and Eurasia is obvious to people who closely examine the region. As Ms. Habdank-Kolaczowska says, “Over the last 10 years in particular, authoritarian leaders who paid lip service to democratic reform have systematized their repressive tactics and largely abandoned any pretense of inclusive politics.”

Alarming Key Findings

The key findings for this year’s NIT are alarming to say the least:

  • Russia has earned its largest ratings decline in a decade, “as the Kremlin stepped up suppression of dissent at home while seeking to destabilize the new government in Ukraine.”
  • Hungary completely fell out of the category of “consolidated democracies.” It is now considered a semi-consolidated democracy—joining EU newcomers (relative to Hungary)—Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia, to name a few, who have long belonged in this category.
  • Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Belarus continue to be in dire conditions under consolidated authoritarian rule. Azerbaijan in particular has experienced serious backsliding as the Aliyev regime has become unapologetic about punishing dissent and resorting to severe human rights abuses to avoid opposition.
  • We have also seen the fear of Russian propaganda translate into government actions limiting the voice of free media in the Baltics—previously frontrunners in securing media freedom. “Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania struggled to come up with adequate responses to Russia’s propaganda onslaught,” resorting to unorthodox approaches to solving the problem, like banning some of the Russian propaganda TV channels.

Hard Questions, Impossible Answers 

To honor of the release of the NIT 2015, Freedom House held a panel discussion on June 23rd. The panel, moderated by NPR’s David Greene, included Will Englund (Washington Post), Tim Judah (The Economist), and Sylvana Habdank-Kolaczowska (Freedom House). Some of the major themes of the discussion included the rise of Russia as a major aggressor in the region, the strength and impact of its propaganda machine, and the decline in democracy’s popularity as people are increasingly more willing to choose stable authoritarianism over “freedom” in anarchy (as we have seen in many of the Arab uprising countries).

The conditions for democratic consolidation are less than favorable in today’s Central and Eastern Europe and Eurasia. Approximately 80 percent of Eurasia lives under some form of authoritarian rule. Russia has quickly moved away from its role as an important ally to the West and is now a dangerous aggressor. Hungary is no longer a consolidated democracy. Previously pioneers of democracy, the Visegrad Four countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary) are now facing major internal struggles. Euroskepticism within the EU is combined with uncertainty over economic conditions and serves to weaken the EU’s image abroad. Its decision-making mechanisms are complex and inefficient, preventing it from taking a strong stand against authoritarian pushback. To the question of what the EU can do to avoid further regression in Hungary, Ms. Habdank-Kolaczowska said that the EU’s options are limited as it does not have too many tools in-between doing nothing and resorting to expulsion. Ms. Habdank-Kolaczowska added that watching Hungary regress so quickly after so much initial democratic progress is “demoralizing”. While it had been slowly regressing for the past seven years, even five years ago no one questioned Hungary’s democratic aspirations. Today it is no longer a consolidated democracy. Moreover, its regression is showing diffusion effects on Slovakia where we may soon see the same type of regression.

The panelists added that just as alarming is the rapid regression in Azerbaijan. The regime has become more and more intolerant of criticism and impervious to international pressures. Azerbaijan enjoys the privileges of being an ally to Europe and the US. Whether it is politicians going on very expensive holidays to Baku or Lady Gaga performing at the Olympic games, the West’s actions towards Azerbaijan have only served to further legitimize the corrupt Alyev regime. For economic and strategic reasons the West is not doing much about its regression, and this is in turn leading to a dramatically negative shift in Azerbaijan. The situation is reminiscent of Kazakhstan, but the Aliyev regime in Azerbiajan has enjoyed a lot more “success” in openly practicing authoritarianism while also enjoying the West’s support.

Mr. Englund, a long-time Russia reporter, expressed concerns over Putin’s success at giving human rights a bad name. For many Russians it is a concept mostly viewed as a decadent western ideal that has nothing to do with them. The discussants also expressed their concerns over the decreasing popularity of democratic values and the growing support for authoritarianism as a means to stability. Since the dramatic failures of the Arab uprisings, the Eurasia region has seen a rise in the “fetishization” of stability, which is now a lynchpin to most authoritarian regimes. The pragmatic voters are choosing the “known evil” over the unknown one in fear of ending up in a Syria-like scenario, believing that “the alternative is worse.” In this vein, the discussants stressed the need for combating this narrative by ensuring that Ukraine’s transition becomes a successful one. If the West is to support Ukraine’s democratization, its economic stability and territorial integrity, the results will speak for themselves; this will be an outcome more powerful than anything RT (formally known as “Russia Today”) may be propagating.

While there was consensus on the importance of the West supporting Ukraine and ensuring its success and stability, many of Mr. Greene’s hard questions were often met with brief, inconclusive responses, not due to the discussants’ incompetence, but due to the daunting nature of the questions. Is it ok to restrict media freedoms in order to control Russian media propaganda (i.e., the recent case of the Baltics)? How do we respond to the rise of authoritarianism that is flourishing at the expense of democracy’s popularity? What do we do about the rampant human rights abuses throughout our strategic partner states in Central Asia? How do we deal with the weakened EU? Are we to simply come to terms with the fact that some countries, like Ukraine, will always be “stuck in the middle,” serving as “buffer zones” between Russia and the EU? If we cannot fight to promote democratic values in a country, and if we are to accept that some countries are always going to be caught in the middle, what are we doing talking about them? These were some of Mr. Greene’s panic-inducing questions that left the audience pondering long after the event was over.

Perhaps in a way, the ambiguities of this discussion reflect the current state of mind in Washington; democracy is in serious trouble: not only are the Western liberal values losing global support, but even basic human rights and freedoms are being violated on a regular basis. We are in the midst of a dangerous authoritarian pushback in Europe and Eurasia, and the new and fragile democracies that the West invested in so heavily are now at risk. We have plenty of tools to carefully study and understand these problems, take Freedom House’s excellent NIT report as one example, but we are unsure as to what exactly our role and responsibility may be in resolving these problems going forward.

***

Author’s Note

The good news is that if these are the questions on the minds of FPRI’s readers, one needs to go no further than its Project on Democratic Transitions. For the past 10 years we have dedicated our time and efforts to analyzing what the West can do to help spread democracy, what it has done in the past, how successful its efforts have been, what lessons can be learned from our previous successes and failures in assisting democracy abroad, and when, where, and how it can be done better in the future. These are some of the questions that our October 2014 conference dealt with at length, and our forthcoming (Winter 2016) book entitled “Does Democracy Matter?” will explore in greater detail.

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Romania and Moldova in Political Crises Yet Again

Continuous political stagnation is a part of everyday life in Europe’s east it seems. But sometimes that stagnation gives way to a full on crisis: often having something to do with corruption and/or the lack of political compromise. Thus it comes as no surprise that Moldova and Romania are in the midst of political crises yet again.

It was less than a year ago that Moldova and Romania made important positive strides towards achieving greater stability and democratic consolidation. Romania elected a new president who was promising a change of pace from the scandal-ridden political scene. Severe political infighting between President Traian Basescu and Prime Minister Victor Ponta had become a normal occurrence, frequently bringing the country to a political standstill. At the same time, to the east of Romania, its friendly neighbor and longtime ally Moldova withstood major Russian pressures as Moldovans made a pro-Western choice, giving three pro-EU parties an opportunity to form an effective coalition government. However, both countries are currently facing political crises—Moldova more so than Romania—that continue to challenge their hopes for democratic consolidation and political stability.

Romania’s Prime Minister Wrapped in Corruption Scandal

This past fall Romania made important strides towards consolidating its democracy. (Freedom House, for instance, currently rates Romania as a semi-consolidated democracy—see ratings table below.) But while Romania is a member of the EU it is not a member of the Schengen area nor of the Eurozone, and thus still has a long way to go before it achieves deeper EU integration. In November 2014 Klaus Iohannis emerged the winner of Romania’s presidential elections with 54.5 percent of the votes. Iohannis is an ethnic German and a former mayor of Sibiu, a well-off town in the region of Transylvania. A member of the center-right bloc via the Christian Liberal Alliance, he brings a proven track record of success in economic reform and development to the table—two things for which Romania is currently desperate. Iohannis’ pre-election campaign was based on a promise of a “normal Romania,” free of the lies and scandals that the previous government of rivals—President Basescu and Prime Minister Victor Ponta—was characterized by.

Ponta did run for President in 2014 and it was expected that had he won he would have reoriented Romania more closely towards Russia and China, following in the footsteps of Hungary’s controversial Prime Minister Viktor Orban. In addition, his political career has been connected to plenty of scandals in Romania—including his attempts to impeach President Basescu in 2012

Now Ponta finds himself involved in another scandal, but this time he is at the center of it: he is being investigated for charges of money-laundering, forgery, and tax evasion. This new scandal in Romania’s politics has also revealed that Ponta and Iohannis aren’t exactly going to be playing nice. President Iohannis has called for Ponta’s resignation, but Ponta continues to claim innocence. Moreover, earlier in June the Romanian senate voted by a large majority against lifting Ponta’s immunity so that criminal investigation could take place. It is clear that Ponta continues to enjoy the support of the parliament, where his own Social Democratic Party occupies the greatest amount of seats. President Iohannis criticized this move, stating “it is conclusive proof of huge irresponsibility and defiance towards the public, because the majority MPs are obstructing justice and will destroy the parliament as an institution, harming the image of Romania, in order to save one person.” The president added: “I furthermore consider the key to getting out of this situation is the resignation of Mr. Victor Ponta as prime minister.”

Romania’s Prime Minister Victor Ponta

While President Iohannis may be keeping his promises and working hard towards driving Romania towards normalization, Ponta, with his strong hold over the parliament, is bound to complicate things for him in the near future. Thus despite Iohannis’s best intentions, Romania is far from achieving normalcy any time soon.

Moldova’s Minority Coalition Government

In November 2014, Moldovans made an important choice and voted for pro-EU parties. This was possible despite the well-oiled Russian propaganda machine that was working overtime to sway the Moldovan voters to support the pro-Russian parties. However, the pro-Western parties only won the election by a small margin as the Pro-Russian Socialist party came in first with 21 percent of the vote, and the Communist party came in third with 18 percent. A pro-EU government could only be made possible if the other parties formed a strong coalition. Thus Moldova entered 2015 with a great deal of uncertainty–after all, the pro-Western parties do not have a very good track record of effective coalition forming. It appeared that Moldova had overcome the vast external pressures (stemming from Russia), but achievement of true progress was now entirely up to the domestic political scene. This opportunity, however, was quickly squandered; after losing two months in negotiations, a minority government composed of pro-Western parties, yet dependent on Communist Party votes, was formed.  

The Liberal Democratic Party (PLDM, 23 seats), the Democratic Party (PDM, 19 seats), and the Liberal Party (LPM, 13 seats, previously a part of the pro-Western governing coalition), had engaged in lengthy coalition negotiations in hopes of forming a pro-Western coalition government. The negotiations ended leaving the Liberal Party out, as its demands were not satisfied. PLDM and MDP ended up forming a coalition called the Political Alliance for a European Moldova (APME), but a minority one with only 42 seats in the 101 seat parliament. The next party with most seats in the parliament is the Socialist Party (25 seats), but with their blatant pro-Russian orientation, they are not expected to side with any other parties in the foreseeable future. (The Socialist Party, which was founded by former Communist Party members, is strongly pro-Russian and advovates abandoning the EU Association Agreement in favor of joining Russia’s “Eurasian Customs Union.”) This left the coalition government relying on the Communist Party’s (20 seats) support during the vote of confidence as well as in the process of ruling the country.

The Communist Party, while moderate compared to the Socialist Party, has been the main troublemaker in Moldova’s domestic politics since the country’s independence. It has repeatedly prevented opposition parties from forming strong coalitions and implementing crucial democratic and economic reforms. And, primarily thanks to the Communist Party’s boycott, the country was left without a president for three years, from 2009 to 2012. Thus any progress that may come as a result of the new government being in place is going to be slow and modest at best. The PLDM was charged with the task of a appointing the new prime minister–the Moldovans only participate in parliamentary elections; both, the president and the prime minister are appointed by the parliament. As a surprise to many, they chose to appoint a businessman and a newcomer to politics–Chiril Gaburici. Moldova therefore entered 2015 in an unfavorable political conditions, entirely thanks to the complexities of the relationships within the domestic political scene.

Another Corruption Scandal for Moldova

To add insult to injury, Moldova’s Central Bank recently discovered that one eighth of Moldova’s GDP, or $1 billion, has disappeared from Moldova’s banks. It turns out that in November 2014, the county’s three biggest banks gave out mysterious loans worth almost $1billion. The deals went sour and “the Government was forced to throw $870 million worth of emergency loans at the lenders to save them from bankruptcy.” The Business Insider called it one of Europe’s worst ever banking crises.

Moldova’s newly appointed Prime Minister Chiril Gaburici has harshly criticized the state prosecutors and the Central Bank chief, who have so far failed to properly investigate the case. As angry Moldovans protested in the streets, Gaburici called for the resignation of these individuals. However, in turn, he found himself being questioned by the state prosecutors over his suspicious school certificates. Gaburici announced his resignation on June 12th, stating that he is not a politician and is unwilling to deal with political maneuvering. State prosecutors have now opened a case against him over the forgery of school documents to gain entry to higher educational establishments.

Moldova’s now former Prime Minister Chiril Gaburici

As the political scandal unfolded, a previously scheduled International Monetary Fund visit had to be cancelled. The IMF visit was crucial for Moldova’s financial stability—as it appears impossible for the country to dodge a looming bankruptcy without substantial help from the IMF.

With the backdrop of this major scandal, Moldova carried out its local elections on June 14th. The disheartening events resulted in a low voter turnout—49 percent. However, as a surprise to many observers, 25 municipalities voted for pro-Western parties, and 7 municipalities elected pro-Russian candidates. While the results were in favor of the pro-Western parties, they will have to form a coalition in order to carry out effective policies.

Moldova’s Politics: A broken political system or successful practice of political pluralism?

Among its fellow hybrid regimes in the EU’s east (e.g., Georgia and Ukraine), Moldova has been the frontrunner in terms of EU integration. Georgia and Ukraine were denied a visa-free regime with the EU at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga this past May due to their failure to meet the conditions set out by the EU Association Agreement that they signed in 2013. Moldova, on the other hand, has been enjoying the benefits of EU visa liberalization since spring 2014. While Moldova is just as impoverished as Georgia and Ukraine, its European path is much more certain and even inevitable. This is not to say that the threat that Russia poses on Moldova isn’t existential. However, if one must find exactly what is keeping Moldova from (1) joining its close ally Romania and becoming a member of the EU and (2) achieving economic stability and democratic consolidation, one must look no further than Moldova’s domestic political scene.  

Can Russia really be blamed when the Moldovan pro-Western parties have proven to be so feckless, unreliable and unwilling to compromise? The failure of Moldova’s pro-EU parties to stand united in pursuing Moldova’s European-integration agenda continues to create endless political stagnation. Additionally, the rampant corruption is a major factor in handicapping Moldova’s political system. The frequent collapses of weak coalition governments and the endless resignations of leaders over corruption scandals are leaving the voters frustrated to the point of being pushed into the arms of the pro-Russian parties. Once the president accepts Gaburici’s resignation, the minority government will have to somehow gather support for a new nominee. If this fails, another parliamentary election may be in order, and it is likely that the disheartened Moldovans may not give the pro-Western parties yet another chance. This could in turn spiral Moldova’s domestic political climate out of control, and should the country willingly end up in the Russian orbit, there is very little the EU could do about it.

On the other hand, this seemingly diseased political system in Moldova has kept the country from experiencing any sort of authoritarian backsliding, in a region marred by democratic erosion. While Moldova’s democracy may not be consolidated, its system of political pluralism has managed to maintain the balance of power so far. It has been a very long time since we’ve seen any signs of rising authoritarianism in Moldova. In 2012 Georgia experienced the first ever peaceful transfer of power from Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement to Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream Coalition. This was a remarkable milestone for Georgia. Previously, since its independence all transfers of power had either been forced or as the result of popular uprisings. Meanwhile, in Ukraine’s modern history it only experienced a peaceful transfer of power once—and even that one instance turned out to be detrimental to the country’s democratic aspirations, as it brought President Yanukovych in power. 

By contrast, since independence Moldova’s semi-parliamentary system has worked effectively, allowing continuous peaceful transfers of power. While this has not secured democratic consolidation for Moldova, it has prevented the over-concentration of power in any single individual’s hands. Arguably, out of the three hybrid regimes, Moldova is the least likely to become an authoritarian or even semi-authoritarian state in the foreseeable future. In sum, all Moldova needs to achieve stability and prosperity is to get out of its own way. 

How does Moldova measure up with its fellow Hybrid states?

 

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