Peaceful transfers of power are all too rare in nations in transition, moving from autocracy to democracy. But sometimes men’s better angels prevail. Lawrence Sheets of the International Crisis Group observed: “Georgia’s peaceful transfer of partial power as a result of the October election was an encouraging and rare example of a post-Soviet government being changed at the ballot box.”
But that very important success is not enough. Tensions have arisen, especially after the arrest of officials in the past government for charges including abuse of power. Georgians will benefit if the transition remains smooth through presidential elections next year.
The ICG recently released a new report entitled “Georgia: Making Cohabitation Work.” It offers useful advice to both sides in a country which faces pressure from Russia and continues to suffer from the 2008 war, including the loss of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
President Mikheil Saakashvili cannot run for reelection but retains wide powers under a constitution set to be amended next year. ICG recommended that he “continue to honor his pledge to refrain from exercising the extensive powers still legally available to him under the old constitution, lest that lead, as it almost inevitably would, to a confrontation with unpredictable consequences.” Georgia’s democracy remains too new and the experience with political violence remains too recent to risk such a test.
In return, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili must manage extraordinarily high public expectations. ICG urged him “to win broader trust by demonstrating that it is concentrating on critical governance issues, not political score-settling.” The latter is particularly important: Abuses require justice, but it is important that justice be the objective.
Indeed, ICG contended that “The immediate priority of the new government should be to build trust in the judiciary, the penal service and the powerful interior ministry.” This advice should resonate since revelations of prison abuses helped deliver the election to Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition.
For many Georgians the most important issue is the economy. Although Saakashvili presided over important economic reforms that encouraged growth, the benefits did not reach everyone. Many of Ivanishvili’s voters are impatient for economic improvement. Political cooperation would create a better climate for further reform and, equally important, to attract new foreign investment.
Russia also continues to loom large as an issue. Georgian Dream campaigned on behalf of improving relations with Russia, but the government rejects resumption of diplomatic relations as long as Moscow recognizes and maintains troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Tbilisi is more hopeful of resuming trade. The latter would both improve Georgia’s economic prospects and open a bilateral dialog which could eventually cover politics. ICG encourages this “focus on non-political areas where progress in outreach to Russia is attainable in the short term,” which could include opening trade liaison missions.
Georgia has many advantages, including a record of economic reform and close relations with both Brussels and Washington. But further progress requires political peace at home and political progress with Russia. If Georgia succeeds it has, suggested ICG, an opportunity “to serve proudly as a true development model for the region.”