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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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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Georgia and Moldova Remain Fragile as Russian Aggression Continues

We are upholding the principal that bigger nations can’t bully the small ones, by opposing Russian aggression and supporting Ukraine’s democracy, and reassuring our NATO allies. (…) today it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated with its economy in tethers. That’s how America leads, not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve.

                                                                                        US President Barack Obama, State of the Union Speech, January 20, 2014

To be sure, Russia may be isolated, but Vladimir Putin is not retreating. His aggressive maneuvers continue to produce large numbers of military and civilian casualties in Ukraine every week, and there is no sign of improving conditions despite the fact that almost a year has passed since it all began. Ukraine is still in shambles, physically and economically. But how has the crisis in Ukraine affected Georgia and Moldova? Where do these small, fragile hybrid states stand today, and what challenges does their geopolitical location pose for them going forward?

First Ukraine, now Georgia: Russia quietly annexes Georgian territories

Once Georgia became independent from the USSR in 1991, ethnic conflicts broke out first in its South Ossetia region, and later in Abkhazia (in Western Georgia, bordering the Black Sea). At the time Georgia was considered a failed state, like many other former USSR states after they achieved initial independence. Thus its government was incapable of effectively resolving these conflicts with Russia-backed separatists. Both regions declared independence that was not recognized by any state other than Russia, who placed its “peacekeeping forces” in the de-facto republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Since then every Georgian government has unsuccessfully dedicated much effort and resources to resolving the frozen conflicts and reuniting with its breakaway regions. On the other hand Russia managed to closely integrate with both de-facto republics through many means – legal and illegal. The Russian government began handing out its passports practically to anyone who wanted one in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, thus creating a motive for long-term involvement there—its obligation to defend Russian citizens anywhere.

The frozen conflict with South Ossetia reached a new level of complication when a war broke out between Russia and Georgia in August 2008. While each side accused the other of starting the conflict and Georgia’s then President Mikheil Saakashvili’s reputation suffered a great deal over the war, the fact that Russia bombed undisputed Georgian sovereign territory—the city of Gori and its surroundings, located well beyond the borders of South Ossetia, remains unchanged.

The international response to the 2008 war was weak at best. Finally, after five days of war Poland and France brokered a cease-fire deal between the two sides. Once the bombing stopped the situation started to look frozen again, from the outside, but soon after the war ended the Russian “peacekeeping” forces began to build barricades to create a physical border between Georgia and South Ossetia.

While the 2008 war looked like an isolated incident for a while, there is now good reason to believe that this act was Putin’s way of testing the waters. The minor international outrage and lack of any meaningful punishment was what Putin hoped for and achieved. This laid the groundwork for the war in Ukraine later.

While the Ukraine crisis has rightfully been publicized, Russia’s recent moves to annex Abkhazia and South Ossetia have gone practically unnoticed. Recently, as part of his larger strategy of expanding Russia’s borders as well as its sphere of direct influence, Putin made significant advances towards formally annexing Abkhazia and South Ossetia (more so in the latter case). In late November 2014 he and the leader of Abkhazia, Raul Khajimba, signed the “strategic partnership agreement.” According to this document Russia and Abkhazia will join their military forces under Russian command. Additionally, Moscow promised to double its subsidies to Abkhazia to about $200 million in 2015. Moreover, Abkhazian leadership has agreed to integrate its trade laws with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union. Thus not only has Putin not given up on his expansionist policies, he is still actively pursuing the idea of the Eurasian Economic Union.

The EU, the NATO, Washington, and the Georgian government all condemned this agreement, but no other tangible moves have been made by either party.  The response was so weak that Putin’s government went on to draft another treaty, but this time with South Ossetia, and one that is comprehensive enough that it translates into de facto annexation.

Drafted in December 2014, this agreement is meant to “legalize South Ossetia’s integration with Russia.” Its clauses go well beyond the matters of military integration and include Russian takeover of South Ossetia’s border control, finances, economy, educational, healthcare, and social welfare systems. On the other hand the agreement removes borders and restrictions on movement of goods and people between Russian and South Ossetian territories. The language of this document in itself is all-encompassing, and once the terms of this agreement are implemented, Russia will have truly swallowed South Ossetia, likely irreversibly so.

In addition to this, Russia’s financial crisis and sheer incompetence of the current Georgian government have driven the country into economic turmoil. The Georgian lari devaluated and prices of goods and services have skyrocketed. While Georgia managed to achieve average GDP growth rates in 2014 (real GDP increased by approximately 5.9 percent), the year ended with massive panic among Georgian citizens as the lari continued to plummet to its lowest rates in the past 10 years. In theory the currency devaluation should encourage trade and foreign direct investment, but an array of reforms on foreign ownership of property, labor, and immigration laws adopted by the Georgian government in the recent years had already led to a decrease in investor confidence and ease of doing business in Georgia. Thus its GDP growth forecast for 2015 has already been lowered by 2 percent. The government’s inability to deal with public panic and offer timely explanation to what caused the lari crisis and how it can be resolved is worrisome. No apparent solution for the lari problem is in sight at the moment.

The looming economic crisis in Georgia is partly a result of larger shock waves. However, the loss of territorial integrity is a different issue altogether, thus it is particularly noticeable that Georgian government and media are free of any significant outrage over Abkhazia or South Ossetia. Moreover, the current Georgian government (but not the media or the public) has been very delicate so far in its expression of support for Ukraine or condemnation of Russia’s actions there. Whether the inaction is caused by fear of Russia, or general indifference, Georgia has experienced what looks like irreversible losses in the last year, and is entering 2015 in highly unfavorable conditions.

Moldova Makes pro-EU Choice, but Remains Very Fragile

This past November Moldovans had an opportunity to elect a new government. The Moldovan elections were highly publicized as the deeply polarized geopolitical conditions meant that the Moldovans were going to choose between Russia and the EU. The pro-Western parties prevailed, but no parliamentary majority could be achieved without forming a coalition. By mid-January 2015, almost two months later, a coalition agreement was finally signed between the Liberal Democratic Party of Moldova and the Democratic Party of Moldova. The Liberal Party, previously a part of the pro-Western governing coalition that included all three parties, did not join the coalition. The next step for the coalition is to form an effective government.

Rampant political infighting, corruption, and lack of government effectiveness have kept Moldova in continuous political stagnation, keeping it from implementing much needed reforms in an effective manner, thus earning it the status of “Europe’s poorest country.” Therefore “choosing between the EU and Russia” was not such a straightforward decision to make for the Moldovan voters. While the latent anti-Russian sentiment was reinvigorated by the Ukraine crisis, the alternative to pro-Russian parties—the pro-Western coalition government that had been in charge for the past few years—began to lose its appeal as it became ensconced in continuous political turmoil.

Some of the most recent political scandals included the collapse of the coalition government led by Vlad Filat, who was accused of corruption and abuse of power; a parliament left without a ruling majority from February to May of 2013; and a rift within the ruling coalition that slowed down the implementation of much needed reforms. Finally, to quote a 2014 Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index (BTI) report:

The obstacles to any managed transformation in the country remain massive: the structural weakness of the Moldovan economy and thus its absolute dependence on stronger partners, the decades lost in political debate and continuous rearrangement of political loyalties, the unresolved Transnistrian conflict, and the structural havoc wrought by mass out-migration and brain drain. Consequently, any government’s scope of action is limited.

A closer look at the election results directly coincides with the high degree of uncertainty and division among the Moldovan voters. The pro-Russian Socialist Party came in first with 21 percent of the vote, with the pro-EU Liberal Democrats in second place with 19 percent, and the still highly influential and popular Communist Party, led by Moldova’s former President Voronin, in third place with close to 18 percent of the votes. The Socialist Party, which was founded by former Communist Party members, is strongly pro-Russian and advocates abandoning the EU Association Agreement in favor of joining Russia’s “Eurasian Customs Union.” This is an idea that seems to appeal to at least 21 percent of the Moldovan voters. 

As the pro-Western parties were preparing to form a coalition, some expected the Communist Party to join in. However, this expectation was proven invalid when the Communist Party members filed a petition to declare the election results null and void. While the Communist Party is not officially against EU integration, and Voronin is not overtly pro-Russian, the problem posed by the party’s strong presence in the Moldovan parliament is two-fold: First, the Communist Party represents a Soviet-era relic (even retaining the hammer and sickle in its logo) that by definition cannot lead Moldova into the European Union nor facilitate the consolidation of its democracy. Second, the Communist Party has a track record of creating long-term uncertainty in Moldovan politics and destabilizing its government. The Moldovan Communist Party has repeatedly prevented opposition parties from forming strong and effective coalitions and implementing crucial democratic and economic reforms. And, thanks to the Communist party’s boycott, the country was left without a president for three years, from 2009 to 2012. On the other hand, 18 percent of the votes represents a serious drop in support for the Communist Party compared to 39.34 percent which it received in the previous parliamentary elections in 2010. However, some commentators have suggested that the votes the Communist Party lost went to the more radically anti-western Socialist Party.  On the whole, the popular support for the Party per se has been steadily declining since the early 2000s. The Communists received about 50 percent of the votes in 2001, 46 percent in 2005, and 45 percent in 2009.

Besides the existing domestic challenges, Russian meddling in Moldovan politics continued to be an important factor in 2014. There has been much reason to fear that Moldova might become the next Crimea or Eastern Ukraine. In view of the Ukraine crisis, Moldova’s outlook for making major strides toward consolidating its democracy or achieving further EU integration without severe consequences has begun to look grim. The country had suffered under Russian pressure many times in the past, often economically due to Russian embargoes on Moldovan export products. In addition to this, most Moldovans speak Russian as well as Moldovan, and many of them have family members who work in Russia, and whose remittances greatly support the economy. Thus the degree of Russian influence on Moldova and Moldovans has proven to be so high, that moving closer into the EU orbit can be viewed as playing with fire. Considering the fact that Moldova’s breakaway region of Transnistria falls within Putin’s “Novorossya” agenda, the fear of a Russian takeover was legitimate until the Russian economic crisis began to unfold in December 2014, and became renewed this month as the Ukraine crisis began to take a new turn for worse.

At this point, if Russia were to formally annex Transnistria, it would have to exert serious military efforts that would yield an outcome of too little strategic importance at a very high cost. Directing its military actions against Moldova would mean picking a fight with Ukraine’s Odessa region (in south-Western Ukraine, on the Black Sea), and then invading the sovereignty of Moldova via Transnistria. This would be followed by additional Western scrutiny of a country that is already starting to show signs of breaking down under the pressure of falling oil prices—Russia’s undiversified economy relies on energy export profits as its primary source of income—exacerbated by the effect of Western sanctions. Using the logic of any democratic leader, invading Moldova would not offer a big enough net payoff for Russia, but Putin’s agenda has hardly ever proven to be aligned with a democratic leader’s logic, thus Moldova remains in danger as long as the Ukraine crisis continues. 

An unstable Moldova would remain highly susceptible to direct Russian influence, and undermine its ability to attain EU membership. This in turn would enable Russia to continue to meddle in Moldovan politics and exercise de-facto control over Transnistria, but also most importantly—continue to transport energy into Europe using the vital lines that cross the Moldovan territory. Thus, Russia keeping Moldova within reach via Transnistria (Russian “peacekeeping” forces are also well situated in Transnistria) is a savvy strategy Putin will keep up his sleeve as he continues to pursue his expansionist policies.

It was with this strategy in mind that Russia meddled in Moldova’s November 2014 parliamentary elections. In fact, a pro-Russian Fatherland party was banned from participating in the elections just one day before they were held for allegedly receiving Russian funding. This ban by the Moldovan government caused a major uproar among Russian officials, who warned that Moldova should tread carefully going forward and once again banned Moldovan exports to Russia.

However, there are important factors that could help make the case for Moldova’s potential European future. In November 2013, at the fateful Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius (the event that precipitated the still ongoing Ukraine crisis), in contrast to the Victor Yanukovich government, Moldova initialed and in 2014 signed the EU Association Agreement. Within this framework Moldova was granted visa-free travel rights to the Schengen  countries (which Georgia does not yet enjoy, although it also signed the association agreement). The citizens of Moldova have been benefiting from this important new arrangement since April 2014; an incentive that would be difficult to give up for closer ties with Russia, and benefits of which would surely outweigh any painful consequences of reoccurring Russian embargoes on Moldovan exports.

In addition to this, unlike Georiga, Moldova has a strong EU ally in Romania, where recent presidential elections served as encouraging news for Moldova as well as the EU. In Romania, the first round of presidential elections on November 3rd revealed Victor Ponta and Klaus Iohannis as the contestants for the runoff elections. In the second round of elections, Klaus Iohannis emerged the winner 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. He represents the center-right bloc via the Christian Liberal Alliance. Iohannis pre-election campaign was based on a promise of a “normal Romania,” free of lies and scandals that the Basescu-Ponta government was characterized by. Ponta’s candidacy was creating a high degree of anxiety among the pro-Western voters and commentators. It was expected that had Ponta won the elections, he would reorient Romania more closely towards Russia and China, following in the footsteps of Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Historically and geopolitically speaking, Romania has reasons for wanting to lead Moldova into the EU. Romanian officials have on multiple occasions stated that it is in Romania’s strong interest to strengthen its ties with Moldova and support its EU membership aspirations. Thus stronger Romania is good news for Moldova as well.

***

In sum, both, Georgia and Moldova have had a turbulent year. Some significant progress was made towards achieving the much coveted EU integration in the form of signing Association Agreements with it. However, Georgia is now further than ever from the possibility of reuniting with its breakaway regions, and Moldova is still in serious danger of Russia-instigated domestic unrests (stemming from Transnistria). Both economies will continue to be affected by the shockwaves coming from the ruble crisis, and unless their governments receive competent guidance from the West, they will very likely experience economic crises themselves.

Both countries were previously on a very slow path towards democratization. Georgia and Moldova struggled with consolidating democracy and implementing reforms to achieve good governance, rule of law, development of strong civil society, political culture, and sustainable economy. The democratization processes in both countries were slow and often halted, requiring constant hand-holding from the EU and the US. Thus newly aggressive Russia and the Ukraine crisis further challenged this fragile path for Georgia and Moldova, adding to the uncertainty of their future.

While the West has taken serious steps to punish Vladimir Putin’s government, the Russian people seem to be the only ones feeling the consequences. President Putin is showing no signs of retreating, and is clearly willing to sacrifice Russia’s well-being in order to satisfy his own hunger for power. Thus this is a 21st century authoritarian challenge that the West must face in a creative and rigorous way. Remaining engaged with Ukraine while also encouraging and strengthening Georgia and Moldova will be key to preventing violent Russian expansion. 

 

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Calling the Same Thing White Today and Black Tomorrow: Is Russia Poised to Annex South Ossetia?

I do not like to resort to quotes, but in this case, I cannot help it.  Here is a quote from another official document: the Written Statement of the United States America of April 17, 2009, submitted to the same UN International Court in connection with the hearings on Kosovo.  Again, I quote: “Declarations of independence may, and often do, violate domestic legislation. However, this does not make them violations of international law.” End of quote.  They wrote this, disseminated it all over the world, had everyone agree and now they are outraged.  Over what?  The actions of Crimean people completely fit in with these instructions, as it were.  For some reason, things that Kosovo Albanians (and we have full respect for them) were permitted to do, Russians, Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars in Crimea are not allowed.  Again, one wonders why.

We keep hearing from the United States and Western Europe that Kosovo is some special case.  What makes it so special in the eyes of our colleagues?  It turns out that it is the fact that the conflict in Kosovo resulted in so many human casualties.  Is this a legal argument?  The ruling of the International Court says nothing about this.  This is not even double standards; this is amazing, primitive, blunt cynicism.  One should not try so crudely to make everything suit their interests, calling the same thing white today and black tomorrow.

                                                                                                                            –President Vladimir V. Putin, 18 March 2014                                           

Russia and the self-declared Republic of South Ossetia[1] — which declared itself independent from Georgia in 1990 — in December completed a draft treaty “of alliance and integration” which some analysts believe could lead to South Ossetia’s de facto annexation within a matter of days or weeks.[2]   This comes less than a year after Russia’s highly contentious annexation of Crimea.

Map of South Ossetia[3]

The stated objective of the draft treaty — a copy of which was published online by South Ossetia’s government-controlled OSinform Information Agency[4] — is “to promote all-round cooperation, convergence and integration between the Russian Federation and the Republic of South Ossetia, making the transition to a new level of alliance and strategic partnership.”[5]  Its intentions are unambiguous: “The new agreement is intended to legalize South Ossetia`s integration with Russia,” according to the official State Information and Press Committee of South Ossetia.[6]  According to Anatoly Bibilov, Chairman of South Ossetia’s parliament, “the new agreement between South Ossetia and Russia should be maximally integrative” and lead to “a United Ossetia” which he defined as “Two countries – one Ossetia.”[7]  Taimuraz Mamsurov, head of the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania — a Russian Federation republic bordering South Ossetia — unsurprisingly called the draft treaty “a landmark, historic opportunity to make a big step towards integration with Russia.”[8]

South Ossetia agrees within six months to “transfer power to ensure security and defense, including the defense and security of the State border” to Russia, and its armed and security forces “become part of, respectively, the Russian Armed Forces and the Federal Security Service.”  So, too, borders and customs enforcement, and internal security, all of which are transferred to the Russian Federation.  Russia’s central bank will “assist the National Bank of the Republic of South Ossetia in the implementation of monetary policy and strengthening the financial system.”

In December Georgia was quick to condemn “the so-called treaty […] between Russia and the occupied Tskhinvali region,” claiming its terms violate Russian commitments under a 2008 six-point ceasefire agreement brokered at the time by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.  The Georgian Foreign Ministry called on “the international community to take all possible measures to prevent Russian annexation of Georgia’s breakaway Tskhinvali regions.”[9] 

Former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Vladislav Surkov, who in September 2013 was appointed an aide to President Putin[10] with responsibility for South Ossetia and its fellow Georgian breakaway republic, Abkhazia[11] — and who recently described himself as “the author, or one of the authors, of the new Russian system”[12] — was quoted as saying “Obviously, now it is not the best of times for Russia as sanctions and oil price fluctuations contribute to it.  But the difficult economic situation in Russia will not be an obstacle for fulfilling our obligations and we assure you that we are ready for further cooperation and increase of financing will continue.”[13]

As Commentary recently asked, “The obvious question is: Why is Putin doing this–or at least, why now? Only Putin knows for sure, but it does demonstrate how differently the conflict is viewed from Washington and from Moscow.”[14]  Another commentator goes further, noting ominously:

Russia is preparing to absorb a province of neighboring Georgia, and delivering an ultimatum to Europe that it could lose much of the Russian gas on which it relies. […] Putin has argued that the west is simply intent on ousting him and weakening Russia… Faced with these perceived attempts to undercut him and his country, Putin suggests that he has no choice but to pull around the wagons and stick it out. This could go on a long time.[15]

 

NOTES


[1] The Russian Federation formally recognized the independence of the Republic of South Ossetia by parliamentary decree on 26 August 2008.  The only other states to do so are Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Nauru; Tuvalu did so in 2011 but withdrew its recognition in 2014.  For its part, the Georgian government routinely refers to South Ossetia as “the occupied Tskhinvali region” and to its government as the “Tskhinvali puppet regime.”  Tskhinvali is the capital of the self-declared Republic of South Ossetia.

[2] For example, see: Thomas De Waal (2015). “Swallowing South Ossetia.” Carnegie Moscow Center Eurasia Outlook [online edition, 14 January 2015]. http://carnegie.ru/eurasiaoutlook/?fa=57706. Last accessed 14 January 2015.

[3] Source: http://www.allworldwars.com/Battle%20for%20the%20South%20Ossetia%20August%202008.html. Last accessed 15 January 2015.

[4] Osinform.ru is a division of the South Ossetian State TV and Radio Department.

[5]  Проект договора между Российской Федерацией и Республикой Южная Осетия о союзничестве и интеграции (“Draft treaty between the Russian Federation and the Republic of South Ossetia on alliance and integration”). http://osinform.ru/48181-proekt-dogovor-mezhdu-rossiyskoy-federaciey-i-respublikoy-yuzhnaya-osetiya-o-soyuznichestve-i-integracii.html. Last accessed 15 January 2015.

[6] “The new agreement is intended to legalize South Ossetia`s integration with Russia.”  State Information and Press Committee of South Ossetia [online English language edition, 18 December 2014].  http://cominf.org/en/node/1166503816. Last accessed 15 January 2015.

[7] “The agreement between South Ossetia and Russia should be maximally integrative: Speaker of the Parliament of South Ossetia.” State Information and Press Committee of South Ossetia [online English language edition, 23 December 2014]. http://cominf.org/en/node/1166503855. Last accessed 15 January 2015.

[8] “Taimuraz Mamsurov: the Treaty between Russia and South Ossetia is a landmark, historic chance.” State Information and Press Committee of South Ossetia [online English language edition, 7 January 2015]. http://cominf.org/en/node/1166503965. Last accessed 15 January 2015.

[9] “Georgia condemns new treaty between Russia and South.” Georgia Newsday News Agency [online English language edition, 23 December 2014]. http://newsday.ge/en/index.php?newsid=1112. Last accessed 15 January 2015.

[10] See: http://news.kremlin.ru/media/events/files/41d48f190dc2821f7392.pdf. Last accessed 15 January 2015.  The English-language The Moscow Times greeted the announcement with the headline, “Same Old Kremlin, Same Old Surkov.” http://www.themoscowtimes.com/opinion/article/same-old-kremlin-same-old-surkov/487354.html. Last accessed 15 January 2015.

[11] “Сурков в Кремле займется отношениями с Абхазией и Южной Осетией” (“Surkov to take on Kremlin relations with Abkhazia and South Ossetia”).  Rusnovosti.ru [online Russian language edition, 20 September 2013]. http://rusnovosti.ru/posts/282909. Last accessed 15 January 2015.

[12] Peter Pomerantsev (2014). “The Hidden Author of Putinism.” The Atlantic [online edition, 7 November 2014]. http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/11/hidden-author-putinism-russia-vladislav-surkov/382489/. Last accessed 15 January 2015.

[13] “Moscow’s planned new treaty with Tskhinvali to be signed early next year.” Agenda.ge [online English language edition, 23 December 2014]. http://agenda.ge/news/27007/eng. Last accessed 15 January 2015.

[14] Seth Mandel (2015). “Putin’s Gambit and the Future of Ukraine.” Commentary [online edition, 15 January 2015]. https://www.commentarymagazine.com/topic/south-ossetia/. Last accesed 15 January 2015.

[15] Steve LeVine (2015). “Putin is about to absorb part of yet another country’s land.” Quartz [online edition, 15 January 2015]. http://qz.com/327184/putin-russia-is-about-to-absorb-part-of-yet-another-countrys-land/. Last accessed 15 January 2015.

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Geopolitical Implications of the Ukraine Crisis: What is at Stake for Georgia and Moldova?

By: Maia Otarashvili and Hannah Lidicker

With Russia’s military occupation of Crimea and the obvious threat that Putin’s stealth invasion implies for other parts of eastern Ukraine, far more than Ukraine’s autonomy is at stake. Should Russia consolidate its control in Crimea and gain de facto hegemony in other eastern provinces, the shock waves could change Eastern Europe and the Black Sea region as we currently know it. 

Russian control of eastern Ukraine could ultimately have a negative impact even on some of the strongest post-communist democracies such as the Baltic states, Slovakia and the Czech Republic and possibly even Poland. In addition to this, Hungary’s regression towards authoritarianism could be accelerated. If before the invasion of Crimea Putin’s intentions were not clear, his agenda of restoring Soviet-style influence on the former communist countries is now fully manifest. Putin’s blatant disregard for outside pressure, including that of the US and the EU, is intended to demonstrate a diminished West and to aggrandize Russian power on the world stage.

 In the short term, however, the most tangible, direct and immediate consequences of the crisis in Ukraine are bound to be experienced by its two fragile and partly democratic neighbors–Moldova and Georgia. Although Ukraine is much larger in size and carries far greater geopolitical importance, it has a lot in common with Georgia and Moldova in terms of its internal political evolution since the fall of communism. Aside from the special case of the Baltic states, these three countries are the only former Soviet republics that are anywhere close to emerging as democracies. All of the others have become either consolidated or semi-consolidated authoritarian states. 

Russia nevertheless continues to exercise significant influence in all three countries, and Moscow has been particularly targeting these “hybrid states” in order to fulfill Putin’s agenda of resurrecting a 21st century version of the Russian Empire. 

Developments in each of these three states have in the past proven to have reciprocal effects on the others. Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine share very similar geopolitical roles between Europe and Asia, between East and West. The three countries provide something of a buffer zone between Europe and Russia. Should they stop looking Westward and align themselves with Russia, Europe will find itself uncomfortably close to Putin’s sphere of influence and leverage. This is something Georgia and Moldova understand very well, as they rightfully brace themselves for a potentially devastating impact from events in Ukraine. 

Much of the recent US commentary on the Ukraine crisis draws parallels between the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia and the current situation in Crimea. As a matter of fact, the 2008 war is receiving nearly as much press attention today as it did at the time it happened. Wrapped in the cloak of Russia’s “need to protect its citizens” in South Ossetia, the war began in the breakaway region but spread well into other Georgian sovereign territory leaving thousands dead or displaced, with reinforced de facto Russian control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This scenario is now being repeated in Crimea and is leaving Georgians and Moldovans with understandably uneasy feelings. One might even argue that it has taken the West 6 years to see what Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine were made aware of back in 2008: the war with Georgia was not a single isolated incident, but rather a manifestation of Putin’s grand strategy of reestablishing Russian hegemony in the region. The attack on Georgia was Putin testing the waters. Although a belated international response did save Georgia from full dismemberment or subjugation at the time, most of the West’s condemnations and sanctions faded within a couple of years of the conflict. This weak international response convinced Putin that the West was disunited and ineffectual. Putin thus correctly anticipated some of the West’s early weak reactions to his initially veiled-–but swift and decisive-–actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. 

Nearly all Georgians, regardless of their political views, seem to be united in support of Ukraine and against Russian domination. The nation has not come together to take a stand this unified since the Rose Revolution in 2003. This is not only because Georgians care deeply about Ukraine, but also because Georgians know that should Ukraine lose this fight for sovereignty and democracy, their own aspirations of joining the EU and pursuing a democratic future independent from Russia would be severely threatened. 

While Georgian civil society and the media have been openly condemning Russian actions in Ukraine, the government has been widely criticized for not making bold enough statements in support of Ukraine. This is quite understandable, however, as the Georgian government has to walk a fine line at the moment, hoping to support Ukraine without unduly provoking Russia. 

Moldovan media and civil society groups have also been apprehensive about the implications that Russian military actions in Ukraine will have for their national security and political autonomy. Like Georgia and Ukraine, Moldova also suffers from problems of territorial integrity. The majority of the population in its autonomous republic of Gagauzia and the conflict zone of Transdniestria are Russian-speaking and generally of anti-Western orientation. This issue was once again brought to light after a recent referendum in Gagauzia (denounced as illegal by the central government) in which the voters expressed overwhelming support for the Eurasian Union (Putin’s new initiative that is meant to counteract the European Union’s growing influence in the region) versus closer integration with the EU and Moldova’s participation in the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative. 

Moldovan analysts are understandably worried about Transdniestria. They believe that if Russian “peacekeeping” forces located in that breakaway region were given the order, they could take over Moldova’s capital city in a matter of hours. Unlike Georgia, Moldova would likely go down without much of a fight. 

In addition to this significant military vulnerability, Moldovan politics have long been prone to Russian influence. The Communist Party of Moldova still continues to enjoy a high level of support, receiving 35% of the votes at the last parliamentary elections. With its close ties to Russia, the Moldovan Communist Party has repeatedly prevented the opposition parties from forming strong and effective coalitions and implementing crucial democratic and economic reforms. And, thanks to the Communist party’s boycott, the country was left without a president for three years, from 2009 to 2012. 

Having initialed the same EU Association Agreement that Yanukovych refused to sign at the Vilnius Summit last November, Moldovans are also very concerned about being forced to join the Russia-led Eurasian Union, thus sabotaging their chances for a more prosperous economic future linked to the EU and to the West more generally. For the present, however, Moldova appears to be closer to the EU than ever before. Just last week, Moldovans were celebrating the European Parliament’s vote to approve an end to visa requirements for Moldovans traveling in Europe. But the successes that Moldova (and Georgia) have so far had in integrating more closely with the EU is easily reversible, and that is a vulnerability that the West should remain keenly aware of. 

Discussions of Ukraine and Russia in the Moldovan press are filled with references to the role of the EU and NATO. Both the independent news media and official statements from the Moldovan government advocate a diplomatic solution. Major Moldovan news sources like IPN and Tribuna reiterate phrases like “respecting sovereignty” and “territorial integrity” when condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and they champion the principle of international law in any crisis. 

Several political parties have spoken out against Russia’s actions, with the Green Ecologist Party going as far as to call the Kremlin “fascist”, and several news sources have criticized President Timofti’s statements on the situation as being “sterile” and not nearly as critical or as assertive as they should have been. Like the Georgian government, Moldovan officials are also walking a fine line and realize that, despite their recent progress, this long-coveted process of closer integration with the EU and the West could easily evaporate should Russia get involved. 

Thus, the degree of anxiety regarding the Russia-Ukraine conflict is very high in both Georgia and Moldova. While the West should stand up to Russia’s challenge for Ukraine’s sake, it should not forget that much more than Ukraine’s territorial integrity is at stake. The US and the EU as well as the UN must do everything they can to avoid dismemberment or bloodshed in Ukraine. But they should also be proactive in protecting Georgia and Moldova from Russian aggression or intimidation.

While Georgia and Moldova may not face the immediate threat of direct military invasion that Ukraine now faces, these two countries are particularly vulnerable to possible worsening of relations with their breakaway regions that Russia could help escalate. 

South Ossetia, in particular, is going to need close monitoring, given that Russian troops have started putting up barricades along the border lines with Georgia. This process was stopped while the Sochi Olympic Games took place, but recent reports say the “borderization” of South Ossetia resumed immediately afterwards. Also, Putin’s economic sanctions (embargoes on Georgian and Moldovan products) have in the past proven devastating to the financial stability of the two countries. In addition to this, Moldova heavily relies on energy imports from Russia. 

This anxiety in Georgia and Moldova won’t be relieved until the Ukraine crisis is over. However, if the West shows a commitment to making their EU integration process irreversible, they will be less prone to falling under Russian influence. One way to do this would be to continue to engage with both governments and show them clear and firm support. Tblisi and Chisinau will need continued reassurances from the West that they will not be abandoned if faced with Russian threats and that we have learned important lessons from the 2008 Russia-Georgia war-–and now again from the Crimean crisis.

(The authors would like to thank Ambassador Adrian Basora for his support throughout this research.)

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Upcoming Presidential Elections in Georgia: More Uncertainty and Economic Slowdown to Come?

Georgia braces for more political and economic uncertainty as it prepares for the upcoming October 27th Presidential election. This just a year after the October 2012 parliamentary elections which left the powerful Rose Revolution government of Mikheil (Misha) Saakashvili and his United National Movement (UNM, now in opposition) defeated.

The political developments during the past few years in Georgia have been a lot more turbulent and unpredictable than during the “golden years” from 2004 up until November of 2007 when police and security forces dispersed opposition protests in the capital Tbilisi using excessive force—to include reports of the police physically clashing with the media. On a broader scale this was the first important incident since the UNM came to power in 2004, displaying just how far the government had gone in order to maintain its power. The UNM government had been responsible for many successful reforms and had achieved strong economic growth (averaging about 6% per year between 2005-2012), but it had also become increasingly interventionist while attempting to sustain the rapid growth. Also, the benefits of this growth were unevenly distributed as poverty and inequality levels remained high. Unemployment rates were only lowered by about 5% between 2004 and 2012, staying stubbornly high at 15% (the unofficial unemployment rates have been reported to be as high as 30%).

Throughout the year 2007 the UNM leaders had been continuously accused of power abuse, and the public dissatisfaction had escalated into the November demonstrations  (mass protests in Georgia have also been known to be strengthened by “paid demonstrators,” charging anywhere between 10 and 20 Georgian lari ($7-15) per day for joining the protests). The protesters called for early presidential elections and in order to counteract the backlash from the atrocious human rights abuse case, Saakashvili agreed to hold early elections in January 2008. Saakashvili won the elections receiving 53.47% of the votes, but the lack of credible opposition was striking. The next two runner-ups were politically unproven Georgian businessmen. They were certainly not serious enough contenders to win and then run the country.  

The 2007 events played an important role in Georgia’s GDP dropping quickly in early 2008 as investor confidence deteriorated. Later in the year the dual challenge of recovering from the August war with Russia and the looming global economic crisis led the country into a recession. Some experts believe that the war was somewhat beneficial to the economy as it was injected with billions of dollars in post-war recovery aid money. As a result, growth quickly resumed in 2009 and remained steady until the second half of 2012 when more political turbulence and the still sluggish global economy drove foreign direct investment down by 23%.

As a bitter feud between the new Prime Minister Ivanishvili and President Saakashvili continued in early 2013, the investor confidence remained low. The two strongest presidential candidates, as one would have expected, are from the current Georgian Dream Coalition government and from the UNM (the other side of the two-party Georgian parliament). Regardless of who wins the elections, it is for certain that Misha will not be Georgia’s president anymore as his second term has come to an end. On the other hand Prime Minister Ivanishvili has announced his decision about an early resignation in the near future, once the election season is over. This leaves a very important variable in the business confidence-building formula completely unknown. The identity of the country’s key leaders beyond October is anybody’s guess.

In a recent interview, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) president Sir Tuma Chakrabarti named the overall weak economic conditions of the Central and Eastern European region as the main reason for Georgia’s economic slowdown and stated that the 3% growth predictions are “good,” as some countries in the region are only growing at 1% or not at all. But it must be acknowledged that some of the new government’s decisions and the sluggishness of that decision-making process have not exactly eased the situation. To quote a recent publication in The Economist, “how investment funds will work in detail is unknown. And how the government will tackle the property disputes created by the UNM’s arm-twisting is unclear. Moreover, the process of reforming the labour code sent mixed signals to Georgia’s business community. A temporary ban on foreigner’s ability to purchase land raised questions about its openness to FDI.” All of this uncertainty over policy is rather inexcusable now that the new government has been in place for nearly a year and is not exactly new anymore.

Also, the IMF recently had to cut growth forecasts for 2013 from 6% to 4%, while others predict even less – 3% growth for the year (which according to the IMF is “substantially below potential”). The economy only grew by 1.8% in the first half of 2013 and the business confidence is not expected to improve much before the end of 2013 due to the following factors:

  1. The global economic climate is still rather shaky, and Georgia’s neighbors are not doing any better financially. Global FDI levels and Georgia’s partner country growth have weakened.  These are some of the external factors that are bound to affect the Georgian economy regardless of the nature of domestic ordeals.

  2. In an official open letter the Prime Minister of Georgia recently restated his intention of leaving politics very soon in order to join and enhance the “currently lacking civil society.” So at the moment “Misha the builder” is preparing to leave the building, most of his “building projects” have been frozen at a standstill anyway as the new government has found multiple faults with many of the development projects. Some of these issues include property ownership disputes, questionable business transactions, and a newfound need to lower the government spending (which turns out to have been a bad thing as the IMF has recently alerted the Georgian authorities that government underspending has hindered economic growth). Thus the country is bound to have not just a new president but also a new prime minister in the near future, adding extra unknown variables to the uncertainty problem.

  3. There is a lot at stake in the upcoming presidential elections, and a peaceful transfer of power is still the exception in Georgian politics, not the rule. Regardless of who wins, the problematic of cohabitation  is going to come up again. The two parties don’t have a very good track record of cohabitation, thus more political turbulence, at least in the short-term, can surely be expected.

On top of it all, and most importantly, public dissatisfaction with both parties has increased as the high expectations of economic prosperity from last year have not been met. A recent NDI study shows that unemployment, Georgia’s territorial integrity and lack of healthcare remain at the top of the very long list of Georgian people’s problems. So, the question of “to invest or not to invest in Georgia?” might be a complicated one to answer, but it might just come down to how much faith the potential investor has in the maturity of Georgian political processes.

On the upside, in a region with clear signs of retreating democracy, the fact that Georgia has been able to handle political change without democratic regression is worth mentioning. Moreover, despite the current environment of uncertainty, cautious optimism should be allowed. It is reasonable to predict more political pluralism and maturity for the medium term should the opposition remain strong and should the government learn how to make up its mind.

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