Georgia: Where Is It Going?

Nina Iskandaryan

The first speaker was a journalist and political analyst from Tbilisi, Mikhail Vignanski. He began by pointing out that the situation in Georgia is developing very rapidly and attracts a lot of attention. On the whole Mr. Vignanski voiced a fairly harsh criticism of Saakashvili’s regime noting that the current president could have done much more, given that the West gave him a carte blanche and his citizens trusted him so much. According to Mr. Vignanski, on 1 October the country experienced a true ‘velvet revolution’ which led to many changes. One proof of this was that the National Security Council finally held its first session in seven months. Mr. Vignanski was confident that in its foreign policy, Georgia will continue to prioritize integration into the EU and NATO, and that the Georgian government hopes to get a NATO MAP (Membership Action Plan) by 2014. Mr. Vignanski also noted that the militaristic rhetoric, used by official Tbilisi in relations with Russia for so long, had gradually subsided. He expressed the hope that these positive developments will lead to more trust between Moscow and Tbilisi. According to Mr. Vignanski, one of the most important problems that needs to be solved in Georgia is selective justice. At the end of his speech, the speaker touched upon the topic of the upcoming presidential elections in October, assuring the audience that the Georgian Dream party would win a landslide victory, and, most importantly, that the election would bring tangible results.

The Director of the Concord Center David Shahnazaryan was the second to speak at the event. Mr. Shahnazaryan started his speech by emphasizing the unique and unprecedented nature of the October 1, 2012 events in Georgia for the whole South Caucasus. For the first time in the region, state power was handed over by means of elections. On the opinion of Mr. Shahnazaryan, the key problem of present-day Georgia is the cohabitation of the old president and the new prime minister, and the political parties they represent. On the whole, this is a complicated process, first of all because Mikhail Saakashvili still controls many levels of power. However, positive dynamics occur as well due to the rapid legislative process in the parliament. Mr. Shahnazaryan mentioned positive developments regarding the freedom of the Georgian press, especially online media. He also noted that one of the few areas where positive changes are not observed in Georgia are socio-economic and social tensions. However, they can still be dealt with, because the government still has high popular legitimacy. Speaking about Saakashvili’s personality, Shahnazaryan pointed out that his actions have become a problem even for his own team. On the same page with Mr. Vignanski, Shahnazaryan drew the audience's attention to the change in the rhetoric of Georgia towards Russia, adding, however, that the response of the Russian side has not been too active, since official Moscow has no agenda on the issue. At the end of his speech Mr. Shahnazaryan expressed confidence that after the forthcoming election, the bipolarity of Georgian policy will change. Other parties, especially those that are not in the parliament, will become more active, for example, the party of Nino Burjanadze who is planning to run for president.

The last speaker was Caucasus Institute researcher Hrant Mikaelyan. According to him, the Saakashvili period in Georgia can be characterized by power concentration in the hands of one party, the United National Movement. A good illustration of this is the situation in local government: in the 2010 elections, the National Movement representatives won in all 74 municipalities outside Tbilisi. In the Parliamentary Elections in May 2008, 81 out of 85 single-constituency MPs were members of the UNM. This layout also illustrates the situation with democracy in the country in 2004-2012. According to Mr. Mikaelyan, this concentration and personification of power had several consequences. The positive consequence was that with only one player making decisions, anti-corruption reforms were possible. The negative was that the decline in the quality of democracy and the reduction of the number of those who influence decision-making led to income disproportions and marginalization of social groups (including older people and farmers). Mr. Mikaelyan considers that the situation changed after the Elections of October 1, 2012, that set a precedent of power handover by means of elections. The cohabitation of the UNM and the Georgian Dream has been successful in the sense that the gradual transfer of power is taking place without violence and the conflicting tone of Georgian politics is being reduced. Mr. Mikaelyan suggested that the foreign policy of the new government of Georgia will move away from isolation towards greater regional inclusivity, which is very important for Armenia. Also, if the previous government tended to Atlanticism, Euroscepticism and libertarianism, the new one will, in all probability, seek to integrate into the EU and have a leftist agenda, although the political course of the country will not change fundamentally.

Russian-Georgian relations and the Georgian-Ossetian border were amongst the most discussed issues during the debate. Representatives of the Embassy of Russia assured the audience that Moscow and Tbilisi have things to talk about, but because South Ossetia is an independent state, the problem of borders should be discussed between Tskhinvali and Tbilisi. Participants also talked about the fate of Saakashvili's party in the absence of Merabishvili, former prime-minister and the true “backbone” of the party. The participants agreed that the party would not only remain in the political arena of Georgia, but stay strong and influential. When speaking about Saakashvili’s achievement, one of the guests noted that Saakashvili should not be seen as a leader democratizing the country but as a centralizing agent, and his main achievement was the unification of Georgia.

Overall, the discussion showed that Armenian experts follow Georgian events very closely, and not just where relations with Armenia are concerned, or when Georgian experiences can be projected onto Armenian reality.  However, they are quite insufficiently informed about domestic politics and economics of Georgia; specifically, a comparison of Georgian and Armenian economy could be of great interest to the Armenian expert community.