A parliamentary delegation for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe recently visited Georgia. Parliamentary Assembly President Wolfgang Grossruck praised Tbilisi for having emerged from the Soviet Union with a well-developed democracy.
He’s right, though the hand-off from President Mikheil Saakashvili to Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili continues to be troubled. Last month Saakashvili’s United National Movement party held its first national rally since its defeat in last October’s election. The president accused his adversary of being a tool of Georgia’s Russian enemies and declared: “In all good deeds we will stand by you — you are lucky to have an opposition which loves its country — but we will not let you to betray our country.”
The prime minister returned the favor by announcing an investigation of the 2008 war with Russia, including President Saakashvili’s role. Unsurprisingly, the effort has taken on partisan overtones. Noted EurasiaNet.org: “coming on the heels of of dozens of other investigations into past doings under the United National Movement, the repeat investigation is unlikely to avoid the label of bias. It is already seen as part of the ongoing Ivanishvili-Saakashvili war.”
Unfortunately, politics in Tbilisi is likely to heat up with the election to replace Saakashvili just five months away. Yet the conflict between Georgia’s two most important politicians obscures the success of the country’s democratic transition.
UNM had been expected to win handily last October. Given some of his government’s abusive practices, many observers didn’t expect the president to gracefully accept the election result. Despite abundant disagreements, antagonisms, and struggles, the two men have made the transition work, even though it has been rough at times.
Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream party retains the advantage — UNM has fallen to just ten percent in the polls. However, the Georgian people tell pollsters that they want a strong opposition, which would be best for their nation’s future.
The government should respond by deepening democracy. The prime minister recently told an NGO forum that the government should not engage in illegal surveillance or cause people to fear that they are being tracked. Civil liberties should be protected irrespective of which party is in power.
He also recently said the government would consider halting the prosecution of lesser officials in the prior government. Doing so would help diminish partisan conflict, since many of these cases were viewed as political retaliation.
Indeed, as the Economist pointed out, justice is one of the areas most needing reform: “The judicial system was always one of Georgia’s weakest points. Under Mr. Saakashvili, courts were obedient and the police acted as an arm of the party, not as an independent institution. Plea-bargaining was often abused to extract money and assets from businessmen to finance government projects.”
Messrs Saakashvili and Ivanishvili need not become drinking buddies for democracy to work in Georgia. But the country’s political development will be smoother if the two leaders reach a modus vivendi in which a vigorous opposition is able to operate freely, irrespective of the party in power. The people of Georgia deserve no less.