Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Twitter Video Camera Youtube
Georgia: The Risks of Winter
Georgia: The Risks of Winter
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Georgia: Making Cohabitation Work
Georgia: Making Cohabitation Work
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Briefing 51 / Europe & Central Asia

Georgia: The Risks of Winter

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.

I. 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.

Tbilisi/Brussels, 26 November 2008

Briefing 69 / Europe & Central Asia

Georgia: Making Cohabitation Work

Whether the smooth transfer of power Georgia achieved after October’s bitter election sets a standard for democracy in its region depends on whether the new government can strengthen the independence and accountability of state institutions in what remains a fragile, even potentially explosive political climate.

I. Overview

Georgia’s peaceful change of government after the October 2012 parliamentary elections was an encouraging and rare example of a democratic post-Soviet power transfer. President Mikheil Saakashvili and the new Prime Minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, each received well-deserved praise – Saakashvili for quickly accepting the defeat of his United National Movement (UNM), and Ivanishvili, who led his Georgian Dream (GD) coalition to victory after a bitter campaign, for saying he was ready to work with his arch-rival during a delicate year-long “cohabitation”. The new government now needs to use the ten months before the 2013 presidential elections to prioritise reforms that strengthen the independence and accountability of state institutions.

Saakashvili, who is term-limited from standing again, is due to remain in office until October 2013, when presidential elections will be held and a new constitution will come into force. During this period, he should continue to honour his pledge to refrain from exercising the extensive powers still legally available to him under the old constitution, lest that lead, as it almost inevitably would, to a confrontation with unpredictable consequences. Given Georgia’s chronic, often violent disorder especially during its first decade of independence in the 1990s, any destabilisation of this still delicate situation could entail serious risks.

The new Ivanishvili government has an opportunity to win broader trust by demonstrating that it is concentrating on critical governance issues, not political score-settling. This is a key to managing the extremely high expectations among those who voted for Georgian Dream. Many of his supporters – whether due to campaign promises, or as a consequence of his immense personal wealth – anticipate an unrealistically quick improvement in living standards. It is vital that the reform agenda be communicated regularly to the public, for instance through cabinet meetings whose deliberations are reported in all media outlets. Regular, publicised meetings between the president and prime minister, however distasteful both may consider them, would boost stability.

Tensions have been growing between the new and old government due to the arrest of former and current officials with ties to the UNM on charges ranging from abuse of office to torture. While past abuses should be investigated, it is vital that arrests not be perceived as selective, victors’ justice, and so detract from the need to build support for institutional reform. Investigations should prioritise severe crimes; a criminal cases review commission and amnesties and compensation should be considered, so as to ensure that the still fragile judiciary is not stretched to the breaking point addressing complaints related to the past government’s behaviour. President Saakashvili’s legacy and that of his UNM party would also suffer if he and his closest allies were to attempt to portray every examination into possible misdoings as politically motivated.

The immediate priority of the new government should be to build trust in the judiciary, the penal service and the powerful interior ministry. The courts, as well as prosecutors, must be given real independence from political pressures. Without viable recourse to a legal system enjoying broad public acceptance, other state institutions will not be able to develop properly, and politicisation will continue to affect the entire governing system. Business and investor confidence, vital to economic stability and growth, requires an unbiased legal system that provides protection and guarantees against harassment from the authorities. Encouragingly, the Ivanishvili team has already prepared far-reaching legislation aimed at de-politicising the judiciary, including the High Council of Justice.

Georgia has an ethnically mixed population. Some 15 per cent are minorities, including 12 per cent who are ethnic Azeris or Armenians, so the Ivanishvili government also needs to take bold steps to make clear that inter-ethnic or inter-confessional confrontations or xenophobic manifestations – largely dormant in recent years – will not be tolerated and will be prosecuted under statutes outlawing hate crimes.

During the campaign, many Georgian Dream officials had promised to quickly improve relations with Russia, but the new government has already indicated it will not significantly change its Euro-Atlanticist foreign policy focus. It flatly rules out a full resumption of diplomatic ties with Russia while Moscow maintains “embassies” and a large military presence in breakaway South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Rather than attempt to tackle these difficult issues first, the new government is pragmatically seeking common ground in less controversial spheres. This includes boosting the Georgian economy through the full resumption of normal trade relations. The appointment of a special representative and offer to engage in unconditional dialogue with Russia was a positive initial step.

If Georgia’s leaders succeed in overcoming the challenges of the next ten months with vigilance and patience, the country will be able to serve proudly as a true development model for the region. Compromise, considerable restraint and hands-on diplomacy are necessary to prevent squandering of fragile democratic gains or, worse yet, re-ignition of the often violent instability that marked the first decade of independence. More specifically, it will be important to:

  • abide by the spirit of the new constitution that officially comes into force only in October 2013, including by holding well-publicised meetings between the president and prime minister. If amendments to the new constitution are necessary, they should start with those recommended by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission to strengthen the parliament’s oversight powers;
  • ensure that the judiciary and the prosecution services are immune from political interference by reforming the High Council of Justice (HCOJ) and the chief prosecutor’s office;
  • focus, while investigating former officials, on their involvement in severe crimes, and consider setting up an independent criminal cases review commission and an amnesty and compensation program to help address the thousands of complaints being received.
  • de-politicise the internal affairs ministry (MIA) by legislating maximum civilian oversight and transparency and accepting capacity building and monitoring by local and international expert groups; and
  • focus on non-political areas where progress in outreach to Russia is attainable in the short term, for example, by both countries, as a first step and even while diplomatic relations remain frozen, opening trade liaison missions in Moscow and Tbilisi respectively.

The EU, U.S. and international organisations should help to mitigate tensions during the cohabitation period by:

  • maintaining constant diplomatic engagement.

Tbilisi/Istanbul/Brussels, 18 December 2012