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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Georgia’s Former President Saakashvili appointed the New Governor of Odessa: Implications for Georgia and Ukraine

President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko has appointed Georgia’s former President Mikheil Saakashvili the new governor of Ukraine’s key Odessa region. It is difficult to decipher the bizzare news, but considering the implications this move could have for both Ukraine and Georgia, the issue merits some meditation.

      

How are Georgians reacting?

What caused the biggest outrage in Georgia was the fact that by accepting the Ukrainian citizenship (required by Ukrainian law in order for one to take office in government) Saakashvili automatically lost, thus deliberately gave up, his Georgian citizenship. It is certainly an unorthodox move for a former president of one country to first give up citizenship of his own country, and second take political office in another country, especially a position that is of much lower rank than that of a presidential office.

Georgian citizenship is something Georgian politicians have taken lightly for a long time,[1] but we’ve seen it used as a tool of political maneuvering recently. In the 2012 parliamentary elections when the Georgian Dream Coalition was formed under the leadership of billionaire oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, his lack of Georgian citizenship became an issue. According to Georgian citizenship laws, one automatically loses Georgian citizenship when accepting another. However, it is viewed as a mere technicality, as Georgia allows its citizens to have dual citizenship, which is achieved by requesting to be “granted Georgian citizenship by law of exception.” Ivanishvili had become a Russian and a French citizen, and had never reapplied for Georgian citizenship. Legally he was not allowed to run for office. He later gave up his Russian citizenship and asked for Georgian citizenship—a process that was dragged out for months, and put on a public display by Saakashvili’s government, adding to the already high pre-election campaign pressures. To be sure, this was a process Saakashvili himself was directly involved in, as granting Georgian citizenship is the president’s job there.

Ukraine on the other hand does not allow dual citizenship. Whoever becomes a citizen of Ukraine has to give up his/her other citizenship within two years of obtaining Ukrainian citizenship. In a recent interview given to the Georgian television channel Imedi, Saakashvili, among many other things, explained the reasoning behind this move. It appears that: (1) he sees the issue of citizenship as a technicality to comply with the bureaucratic requirements of taking political office in Ukraine; (2) he does plan to return to Georgia with the hopes of reentering Georgian politics; and (3) he believes in his Georgian supporters more than they believe in him. He thinks all of this will be undone soon, with support of his Georgian voters.

In the interview Saakashvili said that “taking away my Georgian citizenship is the [Georgian] president’s prerogative [this would be in the form of the president rejecting Saakashvili’s application for being granted Georgian citizenship by the law of exception]. If he decides to take my citizenship away, I am sure, this will not be a deciding factor, because for the moment when I return to Georgia, and this will happen much sooner than many imagine, people will make them rescind the indictments against me as well as the act of stripping me of my Georgian citizenship.” Moreover, he went on to explain how he does not see the lack of citizenship as an obstacle. “Eduard Shevardnadze was not a Georgian citizen when he went to Georgia and became its leader; nor was Ivanishvili, when he was running around, conducting his pre-election campaign and became the leader of Georgia. Thus citizenship issue was never an obstacle for anyone, why should it become one for me?”

While he may be technically correct, Saakashvili may have strongly miscalculated this move. Let us set aside for a moment the implications this move will have on Ukraine. All along, Saakashvili has still believed that a comeback as Georgia’s leader was possible for him. He has been counting on the incompetence of the current government—if they bring enough poverty and setbacks to Georgia (which the current Georgian government has already partly achieved), Saakashvili and his party would then regain the people’s confidence, and would be “obligated” to return by popular demand. The Georgian Dream Coalition government may be losing approval ratings due to the worsening economic conditions in the country (the lari has been plummeting since November 2014), but this does not automatically mean that there will be popular demand for Saakashvili in Georgia any time soon (a recent National Democratic Institute poll shows that only 16% of Georgians would vote for Saakashvili’s party). Additionally, if there was any possibility of Saakashvili regaining popularity in Georgia by some miracle, those chances have now been severely diminished thanks to his Ukrainian venture.

The president in exile waited for the Georgian officials to drop charges, but ran out of patience. As he expressed,

…what does Georgian citizenship mean to me today?! Today for me Georgian citizenship means sitting in a prison cell, along with my other friends… therefore, this is purely a matter of formality, although I wanted to avoid it. … I cannot go to Georgia, whether I am a citizen or not, what difference does it make. Therefore as soon as the people make them [the government] void the indictments, when the time comes, they will also resolve the issue of my citizenship. I will distance myself from this formality, but I will always be nearby, whenever the Georgian people desire, if they need me for anything.

Browsing local headlines, this move appears to be seen as a betrayal by many Georgians. Saakashvili and his team are infamous for their impeccable PR skills, yet for someone who wants to return to Georgian politics one day, this is a huge miscalculation. Even his supporters, or what is left of them, are seeing this as a negative move. Georgian government officials have openly condemned his actions. The current president Margvelashvili called it “dishonorable behavior,” saying that with this move Saakashvili has “disgraced the country and the institution of presidency. … A former president should not have given up Georgian citizenship. … Values are more important than career, and these values include being a Georgian citizen. His behavior is incomprehensible to me.”

What does this mean for Ukraine?

So, what is Odessa inheriting from Georgia in Saakashvili? His reforms took Georgia from a nearly failed state to a booming tourist destination with a rapidly growing economy. Foreign direct investment began pouring in thanks to the highly favorable investing conditions Saakashvili created. Rampant corruption and crime disappeared and gave way to high GDP growth rates, free and fair elections, and westernization. The rapid reforms came at a high price for Georgia’s democracy, however. Saakashvili was never able to let go of the power that he had to concentrate in his own hands in the first place in order to effectively implement the reforms. Towards the end of his presidency it became clear that crucial democratic reforms had taken a backseat to the president’s insatiable appetite for contemplating and implementing major development projects in Georgia. At some point Saakashvili swapped out, or even mistook, development for democracy and became unapologetic about being the sole decision-maker in Georgia.

As we’ve already seen, American, Georgian (Saakashvili’s teammates), and Lithuanian individuals were granted Ukrainian citizenship since Poroshenko came into office, so they could take key positions in government. Saakashvili himself was Poroshenko’s advisor on a freelance basis until recently. He had been offered official government positions in Ukraine but had not accepted them. When asked why he turned down these jobs he cited various reasons. Sometimes it was the fact that he did not understand Ukrainian political culture and did not think he could be a part of it. He also said that he did not want to give up his Georgian citizenship (as he was still hoping the charges against him would be dropped and he would return to Georgia after the long exile). And lastly, in an interview earlier this year he expressed that he had reservations over the idea of “having to play nice with others” by working with other political actors in order to achieve consensus to get things done. It looks like the complete autonomy of power is something that Saakashvili is still strongly keen on. Based on Poroshenko’s speech announcing Saakashvili’s appointment, it looks like Saakashvili got exactly that, a full carte blanche to do what he pleases with Odessa, as long as he achieves there what he achieved in Georgia—rapid development and modernization through even faster and effective overnight reforms.

Putting the issue of democracy aside, Saakashvili is likely to achieve these goals in Odessa, but as with Georgia, what will be the cost of this success? Odessa is a region of high strategic importance for Ukraine, but also for Putin’s strategic agenda. Appointing Saakashvili as the head of that region is a direct insult to Putin who infamously despises Saakashvili.[2] If this is not a step back in Ukraine’s attempts at ending the war in its eastern territories, it is certainly not a step forward either. Additionally, now there is a new scenario where Saakashvili could be setting himself up for losing another war with Russia, this time in Odessa.

Yes, Ukraine is desperate for immediate reforms, and there is not enough capacity domestically to implement them effectively. Thus the international community should gladly welcome any bold steps that Poroshenko takes towards achieving that goal. However, the most baffling part in this story is that all of Saakashvili’s competence and expertise could be very effectively utilized from behind the scenes had he chosen to do so, without risking further worsening of already lethal Ukraine-Russia relations.

Notes


[1] Vast number of Georgian government officials, current and past, have dual citizenships. The practice of “bringing back” a successful Georgian from abroad and awarding them Georgian citizenship before appointing them to a government position was one that Saakashvili used quite frequently.

[2] For the second half of Saakashvili’s presidency Georgia and Russia did not even have diplomatic ties. The August 2008 war between Georgia and Russia got very personal between the two leaders and since then they do not attempt to conceal their hatred for each other in public. 

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