Whither Georgia?

Over the last decade, Georgia has brought itself to a crossroads that its recent initialing of an Association Agreement with the European Union has not resolved. Indeed, it has heightened the nature of its conundrum.

As the leader in the wave of color-coded revolutions that swept through Eastern Europe, Georgia was for a long time considered the exception to the unfortunate outcomes of those hopeful days. In Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko’s Presidency fizzled as he sacked co-Orange leader Yulia Tymoshenko for corruption and battling him for power, then (to his self-professed eternal regret) brought her back as Prime Minister only to have her co-opt the mechanisms of government to prepare for her own, unsuccessful run at the Presidency. The net result was more of the corruption and cronyism from which Ukraine has suffered since independence, a trend that only began to reverse in the last few years as Viktor Yanukovych began pushing ahead (without much credit from Europe) on the European reforms the Orange Revolution promised.

Moldova, too, has languished, its own democracy brittle and prone to crises over abuse of power. Its own bid for Europe is beset by its breakaway region, Russian influence, incredible corruption, economic stagnation, and a political class more interested in holding office than in advancing its polity.

Georgia seemed different. Today, however, it is functionally led by one man, Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose wealth and the numerous failures of the prior administration have allowed him to bring a level of Moscow-style politics previously missing from Tbilisi’s politics. Today, the president and prime minister answer to a man who formally stepped down from power months ago, a nod to Ivanishvili’s patron and role model, Vladimir Putin. Ivanishvili has also made clear that the outgoing government is set for a long string of convictions, a pronouncement that has less force abroad because none of them are beautiful women with blonde hair.

Yet this farce of government with which Georgia finds itself is its own doing. The voters chose Ivanishvili and his crew and they will now have the pleasure of them.

Some credit must also go to Mikheil Saakashvili, a favorite in the West during his time as President and basically a highly inconsistent performer at home. His bungling of the South Ossetia situation gave Putin the excuse he needed to invade. He allowed corruption, always a danger in Georgia, to bloom. Simply, his performance in office made Ivanishvili’s rise possible.

Georgia is now indisputably tilted more toward Moscow than it has ever been, Ivanishvili’s protests notwithstanding. It continues to claim a European future, as its people want; but its dominant political class is coming to see the value of Moscow not merely as a trading and foreign policy partner, but as a governing model. Whether this trickles down into a population already prepared for it is the question of the next several years for Georgia and Europe.

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