Georgia and the United States: De-Alignment Through Regime Change? (Part Three)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 51

Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili (C) and US Ambassador Richard Norland (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Barack Obama administration declared victory for the “democratic process” in Georgia immediately after that country’s October 1, 2012, parliamentary elections. It defined that victory narrowly as an “orderly transfer of power” from the incumbent government to the election-winning opposition. This would in turn guarantee a follow-up phase of the power transfer, from President Mikheil Saakashvili to a president backed by the new parliamentary majority one year later.

By the same token, Washington expected the new government of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili to “co-habitate” with the incumbent president, in the constitutional framework, until the expiry of Saakashvili’s final term of office in October 2013.

Given Georgia’s post-Soviet record of changing governments by unconstitutional means (and some failed but dangerous attempts to do so), this latest change looked initially like a milestone toward Georgia’s political maturity and a success of the Obama administration’s declared goal of an “orderly transfer of power.”

That focus on form and process, however important, stopped short of addressing the deeper implications of the parliamentary elections’ outcome. Electoral democracy of the illiberal variety lifted the country’s wealthiest individual to political power on a wave of populism. The Georgian government that had topped the metrics and rankings on post-Soviet market reforms was replaced by a popularly-acclaimed paternalist-style leader. These elections also saw for the first time the entry of past-oriented Orthodox clergymen, suspicious of modernity, into the political arena on Ivanishvili’s side (see EDM, March 15, 18).

The United States had all along encouraged Georgia to develop checks and balances in its political system, at times reproaching Saakashvili’s team for not moving faster toward that goal. Ivanishvili, however, is moving in the opposite direction. He personally controls the ruling political coalition, his own dominant party within that coalition, the government, and the majority in parliament. Ivanishvili has made clear his intention to select the candidate for the October 2013 presidential election; while his Georgian Dream party is now evicting United National Movement (UNM) officials from local administrations, without awaiting the 2014 local elections. All this, combined with Ivanishvili’s vast wealth, negates the notion of checks and balances (see http://www.jamestown.org/index.php?id=631).

Publicly at least, Washington seems to underestimate or overlook these implications of Georgia’s elections. In Tbilisi, US Ambassador Richard Norland is believed to be practicing quiet diplomacy to mitigate the political misuse of law enforcement and other excesses. The short-term objective is apparently to hold Georgian Dream to a minimally decent level of co-habitation with the UNM, pending the October 2013 presidential election. However, the parliamentary elections’ outcome has dealt setbacks to institution-building, rule of law, and the quality of governance, in ways that can hardly be mitigated from the outside.

Meanwhile, the new government has not deviated from the former government’s commitment to the US-led mission in Afghanistan (Civil Georgia, January 3). With 1,600 troops, Georgia became the largest troop-contributor country on a per-capita basis to the Afghanistan mission. Saakashvili’s government supported the US troop surge with a corresponding increase in Georgian troops (Georgia had also been among the top manpower contributors to the US-led mission in Iraq). Operating without “caveats,” Georgians have lost 19 killed in action (Civil Georgia, January 7) and at least 30 severely wounded in Afghanistan thus far. Georgia (along with neighboring Azerbaijan) provides a major route for US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies’ forces to Afghanistan and back. This role, however, is bound to diminish in significance when most of those forces evacuate from Afghanistan, except for a residual training contingent after 2014.

The “Global War on Terror” and the Afghanistan mission had turned into time-limited, ultimately elusive rationales for US engagement with Georgia and this region. As those efforts wind down, a rethinking of US policy becomes possible and topical, within and outside the Obama administration.

Thus the earlier, long-term rationales for US engagement with Georgia and the region remain compelling but only partially fulfilled. They center on securing the energy transit routes from the Caspian basin to Europe, achieving bi-directional communications between Europe and Central Asia, and buttressing the independence and security of Georgia and Azerbaijan along that corridor. Supporting their national sovereignty vis-a-vis Russia remains the ultimate strategic rationale for US engagement. Washington’s policy in this region gains in effectiveness if linked directly to US policy toward Europe and relations with the European allies. In Georgia’s case, US policy stands or falls on whether it can encourage Georgia to persist with its Western orientation after the regime change.

The Obama administration can still move proactively to implement the US-Georgia Strategic Partnership Charter (if Ivanishvili’s government is seriously interested) (http://www.state.gov/p/eur/ci/gg/usgeorgiacommission/), can mentor Georgia’s efforts to qualify for NATO membership (taking Ivanishvili’s declarative support for this goal at face value), and can still use the term “occupation” when referencing Russia’s seizure of territories from Georgia (unless Ivanishvili’s government would itself object to such usage). These are some “litmus tests” for US policy in the wake of regime change in Georgia.