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Georgia: The Risks of Winter

Europe Briefing N°51 26 Nov 2008

OVERVIEW

The situation in and around Georgia’s conflict areas remains unstable. Violent incidents are continuing. Shots were fired near a convoy carrying the Georgian and Polish presidents on 23 November. European Union (EU) monitors are being denied access to South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Unambitious multi-party negotiations focusing on security and internally displaced person (IDP) return have gotten off to a slow start in Geneva. For the moment, however, domestic politics are the capital’s main preoccupation. President Mikheil Saakash­vili’s position is at least temporarily secure, but his administration is likely to be severely tested politically and economically in the winter and spring months ahead. The August 2008 war with Russia and the global financial crisis have seriously undermined Georgia’s economy and the foreign investment climate. Social discontent could rise as economic conditions worsen unless the government pushes forward with economic and political change.

The medium to longer term is in any event highly unpredictable. This briefing provides a snapshot of the current situation with regard to ceasefire implementation, but also and particularly to internal developments, because attention is shifting from the conflict zones to Tbilisi. Russia’s recognition on 26 August of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (condemned by Western countries) temporarily strengthened Saakashvili’s position, because it kept public attention and anger directed at Moscow. However, Georgia’s myriad opposition groups are ratcheting up their criticism of the president and his administration, beginning to pose pointed questions about whether the war could have been avoided and in some cases calling for Saakashvili’s resignation.

The one-year commemoration of the 7 November 2007 protest broken up violently by the police brought relatively few into the streets, but a worsening economy could rapidly increase frustration over the lost war. Who might mobilise the dissatisfaction and turn it into a politically significant movement remains unclear, however, since the opposition is still badly divided by ideology and personality.

Whether the government and opposition groups can cooperate in the national interest to lessen tensions is likewise uncertain. Much depends on whether the government implements urgently needed reforms, many of which Crisis Group recommended a year ago but on which there was virtually no movement before the August crisis and there has been only partial and tentative progress since. These include lifting both formal and informal controls over television outlets, building a truly independent judiciary, eliminating high-level corruption, guaranteeing property rights, making vital changes to the electoral code and transferring some presidential powers to the legislature and ministers. Meaningful dialogue between the government and opposition is still badly needed, with the president and his inner circle treating the opposition as legitimate participants in the democratic process.

President Saakashvili at least partially acknowledged the need when he promised a new “wave of reforms” in September though these were largely restricted to the judiciary and media and are still incomplete. He reiterated the pledge to reform as well as to combat poverty in November on the fifth anniversary of the Rose Revolution. If the government fails to follow through and indeed expand its agenda, it is likely to lose international good-will and a portion of the remarkable $4.5 billion in post-war aid that was promised at the 22 October donors conference and which it badly needs if it is to be able to emphasise job creation and social help programs even as tax revenue declines. But the use of aid funds should be transparent, with Western assistance directly contingent upon progress in lasting political reforms and including funding for NGOs and other civil society organisations that promote political dialogue, monitor government programs and can contribute to improving the rule of law and media freedom.

Meanwhile the EU and the U.S. should continue to press Russia to abide fully by the ceasefire agreements reached by Presidents Sarkozy and Medvedev. There has been some progress, but it is spotty, and Moscow still needs to remove unauthorised troops from both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Having taken on itself the responsibility to ensure security, Russia should also facilitate return of IDPs to their homes in the two territories and stop blocking access to EU monitors.

 
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