The Georgian parliamentary elections have not changed much in that country, as was expected. But the issue now is not what the government will do, but what Mikheil Saakashvili’s formerly ruling United National Movement (UNM) will do to try and regain power at any cost.
Georgia uses a version of the Additional Member System which was imposed on Germany by the allies after World War Two. 77 seats are divided up amongst the parties on the basis of proportional representation, while the other 73 are decided by old-fashioned first-past-the-post voting in single member constituencies, in what are referred to locally as “majoritarian contests”. However, if no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote in these majoritarian contests a runoff election is held between the top two candidates.
On October 8th the ruling Georgian Dream took just under half of the votes (48.7 percent) and the United National Movement, still led by Saakashvili from his exile in Ukraine, received just over one in our votes (27.1 percent). The Alliance of Patriots, a pro-Russia group, also won just over the 5 percent required to be represented. However it is being reported by local media outlets that UNM candidates have forced a second round of voting in at least 46 majoritarian contests – though this projection may change.
It is here that Saakashvili’s party is doing its utmost to make its last stand. As anyone would expect, it is doing everything it can to undermine the system itself, knowing it is likely to lose almost all these contests. Under the UNM no one trusted the elections because they were all blatantly rigged but nevertheless gave the UNM legitimacy, simply because they were called “elections”. That was one of the things the new government promised to change – but the lingering UNM presence, and its continued commitment to the same old tricks, has left Georgians feeling that democracy is letting them down.
As one Georgian journalist wrote to Jeffrey Silverman, Georgian Bureau Chief for the intelligence and military affairs Journal Veterans Today:
“The situation in Georgia is tensed. People are not satisfied by the election results; they don’t want the National Movement in parliament at all. And to make matters worse, as you predicted in your last interview, there appears to be some agreement between the United National Movement and the ruling Georgian Dream. If this is true, how could anybody have voted for them? It’s awful, nothing will change ….”
Saakashvili and his friends have tried everything so far: coups, projected invasions, and a constant barrage of paid propaganda in the Western media. They have claimed since before the campaign began that these elections are rigged. So what are they going to do now democracy has given them an extended public platform, instead of consigning them to the oblivion their vote share and continual anti-state activity warrant?
Silverman’s journalist contact added, “The UNM people bought all the copies of the last paper, the one with your interview in it; they don’t want anyone to read Asaval-Dasavali. I guess they are afraid of it … as they are afraid of you. But now it is clear that the game has changed – you should tell your friends to ALWAYS refer to Misha as “UNM leader Mikheil Saakashvili” to perpetuate their problem of being inexorably tied to him, and while they’re at it they should refer to Bakradze and Bokeria as “UNM leader Mikheil Saakashvili’s Lieutenants”.
He who shouts loud shouts longest
As the UNM claims that the vote is rigged it would be logical for it not to take part in these runoff elections. Non-participation is a longstanding Georgian tradition, and is sparked by either objecting to the legitimacy of the government, and hence the elections it has called, or knowing you are going to be thumped and wanting to maintain your dignity to mount a future comeback.
However the UNM will contest the runoffs because they give it a platform to further undermine the state. UNM member Givi Targamadze has insisted that refusing to participate will mean self-isolation. However he, like all the other UNM spokespersons, is making it clear from his language what inclusion actually means.
Time and again, UNM people use the same scripted phrase when referring to themselves. As Targamadze put it, “In the situation when the United National Movement is the only pro-Western party in the country, I think that self-isolation is an action against freedom of the country and statehood, while these two things are fundaments of my life. I did everything for the party unity”.
The implication of this is clear to Georgians: the present government, and everybody except the UNM, are Russian stooges. Therefore, they are against Georgia. Therefore, they have no legitimacy. Therefore, Georgians should “take their country back” by any means necessary and help the UNM get back into power.
This again is a longstanding Georgian tradition – the fruit of how the first post-independence government was removed. But the UNM knows that Georgian electors are not making the same judgment this time. It is very unlikely to win most of these contests, despite its support in the Western media and the European Parliament. It is for European ears that all its appeals are now being made; hoping that outside forces will declare the present government illegitimate.
Back to no future
The UNM is pissing in the wind by claiming that the election results have been falsified, Despite their previous track record, all those international organisations and for-hire polling companies who they previously relied on to cover for it … now all are saying that the October 8th elections were generally free and fair, and the results reflect the will of the people.
Even US Ambassador to Georgia Ian Kelly, whose country made Georgia the regional dirty tricks base under Saakashvili’s rule, is contradicting the message which the UNM continues to embarrass itself by spouting.
The UNM’s “fight for democracy” is merely one man’s desperate attempt to get his greasy and blood-soaked hands back on the steering wheel and keep himself out of prison. Saakashvili assumed he could use his new status in Ukraine to rehabilitate himself in Georgia and with the White House. However his stay there is not going well because the locals in Odessa have come to realise why he is so despised in Georgia: criminality doesn’t cease to be criminal because you do it again do a new group of victims, who didn’t even get the chance to vote for you.
The only way the UNM, as a formable political party, can survive is by detaching itself from Saakashvili completely and putting all his old cohorts (e.g. Bakradze and Bokeria) out to grass permanently. Only then can it begin to act responsibly and constructively, and work WITH the ruling party, to regain the trust of the electorate within the next four years.
One of the reasons the UNM is still tied to Saakashvili is that Georgia has only ever been a pluralistic democracy on paper. All the political parties are based around the cult of one individual rather than a coherent ideological platform. This is why political talks shows ae the top rated TV shows in Georgia – everyone is interested in politics but no one knows what any of the politicians actually stand for, and hope desperately that someone will present a platform relevant to their concerns, which they can believe in.
However this is an area where the present government has made progress. Initially, the Georgian Dream was based on the personality of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who was parachuted in out of nowhere to remove Saakashvili as real politicians weren’t up to the job. But as he promised, he handed over the reins to others a year after taking power – and these others are dazzling nonentities, with no personalities to speak of. Therefore they are being judged on what they do, not what they say or how they say it – and if that is the criterion for making judgments, the UNM cannot hope to win back power legally, as everyone remembers what it did when it had the chance, and can see it still wants to do the same things.
Through its actions, the Georgian Dream is now seen as the pro-Western party the UNM has always tried to convince the world it isn’t. Previously the Western support for Saakashvili convinced many that if they wanted the Promised Land of Europe they had to put up with whatever the pro-European UNM did in the name of “European integration”. Now they can see that it is not necessary to be repressed by the state to achieve their goal.
Furthermore, Georgians have developed a more nuanced relationship with Europe, rejecting some things Europe wants to introduce, such as same-sex marriage. The more they want Europe on their own terms, the more Georgians will reject the terms the UNM imposed for becoming part of it.
Flies made by the ointment
UNM’s Glorious Four Year Plan to bully and coerce its way back into power by bringing down the elected government has failed – the Georgian Dream has stolen the middle ground quite effectively, and is now seen as the pro-Western party, although the UNM has tried for four years to convince the world it isn’t.
Consequently there is little wonder there is such a hoo-hah about UNM candidates getting in. The party still has some support, but the Georgian Dream has persuaded most of the population that the UNM is not a political party but an anti-state institution. The promised era of democracy and openness will not be anything of the sort if the system allows the same actors, unrepentant of their old crimes, to remain on the stage.
To this extent, the Georgian Dream is the victim of its own success. By rightly criminalising the UNM it has left the latter no alternative but to undermine the state, if those who don’t care about the party’s true nature keep voting for it.
The Georgian Dream would have been able to fulfill more of its promises over the past four years if it had not also being battling against the anti-state, undermining tactics of the UNM and their foreign partners – the US and a rake of Eurocrats including the European People’s Party (EPP) and the chief Russophobes in Europe, such as former Swedish Prime Minister and fellow Poroshenko advisor Carl Bildt.
One example of UNM anti-state activity is the currency crisis which has plagued the Georgian Dream coalition in the last year. This was created by a UNM leftover it had appointed to the National Bank. He put a substantial part of the population in debt based on easy credit and then changed the terms, as repayment was based on dollar exchange rates. Similarly, the countdown to the elections was marred by the usual backbiting and pot-calling-the kettle black. But it also included violent incidents which Georgian politicians blamed on everyone from Moscow to forces bent on destabilising the vote. As reported by Reuters, all the indications point “more-often-than-not-to-the UNM” being responsible for these.
Greater love hath no man than this
The UNM understood at the beginning of the campaign that it was walking on thin ice. The US government has sent a message to Saakashvili’s protectors in Ukraine: if he attempts to destabilise the situation prior to US presidential elections, so as to get the most possible media attention for the Georgian election, the US will no longer be so protective of him and what will happen next, in retrospect, will have been self-inflicted. He remains free to decide his own fate, but it will not end well for him.
Georgians don’t trust the political solutions of their elected leaders, as politicians are the worst layer of society. But there are differences of degree. Georgians only put up with the UNM’s crimes because they were committed in the name of the better future they wanted. Now they see they can get that future without the criminality, and on better terms than the UNM ever offered.
Politically, the UNM of Saakashvili has nowhere to go. The question now is whether it is prepared to drag the whole of Georgia along the road to nowhere – and everything indicates that it will continue doing everything in its power to do so.
Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.