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European View (2014) 13:5966

DOI 10.1007/s12290-014-0294-6
ARTICLE

A change of government and the


future of EUGeorgia relations
Salome Samadashvili

Published online: 27 May 2014


Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies 2014

Abstract The decade of the Rose Revolution in Georgia has ended with the
defeat of the United National Movement (UNM) in the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2012 and 2013. With this, Georgia has gone through the first
peaceful transfer of power as the result of democratic elections in its political
history. As Georgia is about to sign Association and Free Trade Agreements with
the EU, further consolidation of its democracy will be a decisive factor in making
Georgias European future irreversible. Following the change of government, the
country has entered a new and important stage in the development of a modern
democratic state. With this in mind, this article will review some of the challenges facing Georgias democracy and identify the potential threats they pose
to the future of EUGeorgia relations.
Keywords Georgia  Democracy  European integration  United National
Movement  Georgian Dream Coalition  Transition  Association Agreement
Introduction
The efforts preceding the birth of a modern democratic nation can be a messy
sight for observers and extremely painful for those involved in the processthe
people of the emerging democracy. Georgia has not been an exception. Since
regaining its independence in 1991, the country has gone through an armed
coup detat and civil and territorial wars, followed by an economic collapse and
S. Samadashvili (&)
Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, Rue du Commerce 20,
1000 Brussels, Belgium
e-mail: ssamadashvili@hotmail.com

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years of mismanagement and corruption. After the state was virtually destroyed
by vested corrupt and criminal interests, the peaceful and democratic Rose
Revolution of 2003 brought to power a political team of young reformers, who
have succeeded in addressing the rampant corruption and rebuilding the state.
Though often criticised for their failure to consolidate the democratic institutions, the most important legacy of the government of the Rose Revolutionaries
was securing the necessary conditions for the peaceful transfer of power after a
decade of their rule.
The parliamentary elections of October 2012 have ushered in a new era in
Georgian history. The Georgian Dream Coalition (GDC), led by the billionaire
Bidzina Ivanishvili, defeated the United National Movement (UNM) and formed a
new government, led by Ivanishvili as prime minister. The defeated party quickly
conceded victory and Georgia has gone through a monumental changethe
first democratic and peaceful transfer of power in its history. The democratic
transfer of power, a rare development in the post-Soviet world, has also been a
welcome, if unexpected, development for the international community. Georgia
seems to have accomplished an important precondition for moving forward on
the road towards EuroAtlantic integration, fulfilling the necessary democratic
criteria.
In November 2013, the GDC candidate, Giorgi Margvelashvili won the
presidential elections with a comfortable margin, defeating his main rival, the
UNM candidate David Bakradze. Following the presidential elections, Bidzina
Ivanishvili resigned from his post and left behind a hand-picked successor, Irakli
Garibashvili, to lead the government. Bearing in mind that the volatile domestic
political scene in Georgia does not mandate early elections, the current
governing coalition is set to lead the country until the parliamentary elections of
2016. As an important new chapter in Georgias history begins and the GDC is
set on a course to consolidate power, it is timely to assess what the future of
democracy, and hence the prospects for GeorgiaEU relations, looks like.

Politics driven by personalities rather than political parties


The GDC, hastily created a year before the 2012 parliamentary elections, brought
together political actors with little in common. It includes parties such as The
Industrialist Party and the Georgian Forum, with their considerable record of
anti-Western rhetoric and strongly nationalistic, almost isolationist attitudes. At
the same time, the GDC also has some committed pro-Western players, such as
the Republican Party and Our Georgia-Free Democrats. In essence, the GDC was
based on anti-Saakashvili unity. It lacks both a clear programme of action and an
ideological platform.
Looking at the polling numbers for the individual parties of the Coalition just
a year before the 2012 elections, it is clear that on their own, none of them was
likely to pass the minimum threshold of votes necessary to win a seat in
parliament. This leads us to conclude that, while the opportunity for a protest
vote played a significant role in garnering support for the GDC, it was not a

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decisive factor. If casting a vote against the UNM was the only motivation for
Georgian voters, they could have chosen to support one or another member
party of the GDC on its own merits. As mentioned above, those parties offered
something to the voters of every political taste: those who believe that Georgias
future should be in Europe, as well as those who think that the Free Trade
Agreement with the EU will only destroy national industry and who prefer to
look to Russia for potential markets. Yet, each one of them, taken individually,
enjoyed only marginal support.
Therefore, it would be both fair and justified to assert that the defining factor
in securing the victory of the GDC was the personality of Bidzina Ivanishvili. He
was probably aware of this as, instead of giving tacit financial or political backing
to the coalition, which is often the preferred way for oligarchs to influence
politics, he decided to run for election himself. However, the fact that in these
elections Georgian voters decided to place their trust in the personality of
Bidzina Ivanishvili, rather than in a political party, makes it clear that political
parties as such, an important attribute of a pluralistic democracy, are still very
weak in Georgia.
It remains to be seen if the UNM, founded by former President Mikhail
Saakashvili and now the strongest opposition party, can sustain itself without
the strong personal leadership of a charismatic politician. While Saakashvili
continues to be chair of the party, he has been living abroad since leaving his
post and could possibly face prosecution if he chose to return to Georgia. The
general secretary of the party, former Prime Minister Ivane Merabishvili, was
sentenced to a lengthy prison term shortly after the presidential elections of
2013. The UNM does not lack political talent, but lacks internal democratic
structures and has been run in a top-down management style. However, it
seems to be going through an uneasy process of reinventing itself, not least by
introducing democratic elements into its own structure. For example, the
presidential candidate for the 2013 elections was chosen through primary
elections, and the governing bodies of the party have been expanded to include
more members of the party in order to create space for internal debate. Some
supporters of the UNM feel that these changes have in fact paralysed the
decision-making process in the party and will hinder its progress. Therefore it is
too early to say whether these changes will make the UNM stronger as a party or,
in contrast, result in its demise and break up.
The lack of democratic processes also seems to be an issue within the
currently governing GDC. The election candidates for the posts of both president
and prime minister were selected unilaterally by Ivanishvili. There has been no
democratic procedure, primaries or otherwise, to decide who would be heading
the government following Ivanishvilis departure. The leader of Our Georgia
Free Democrats, Irakli Alasania, a well-respected politician in the West who can
take credit for giving the GDC legitimacy abroad, has, in fact, been punished by
demotion from the post of viceprime minister for discussing his potential
presidential candidacy within his own party.

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European integration and political parties


There is an ongoing attempt among the political parties in Georgia to position
themselves along the ideological lines of the main pan-European political
parties. For several years the UNM has been an observer member of the
European Peoples Party. The Republican Party of Georgia and Our GeorgiaFree
Democrats have developed a similar alliance with the European Liberals, while
the GDC has nurtured a relationship with the European Socialists. This
cooperation is a very welcome development and hopefully will help the
Georgian political parties to learn from the European experience. Specifically
they could benefit from learning how to develop democratic internal political
structures and how to bring more clarity to their ideological framework.
Hopefully this cooperation will be an important vehicle for strengthening the
parties as political organisations that can survive without mega-personalities
such as Saakashvili or Ivanishvili. Stronger links between the Georgian political
parties and their European counterparts is also important for strengthening EU
Georgia cooperation. It will help to develop important political relationships and
strengthen the capacity of the country to position its interests in Europe. Closer
associations between the political elites of Georgia and Europe, which such
cooperation fosters, might ultimately play a very important part in Georgias
future in Europe.

Uninformed voters
The last elections have once again exposed the preference of Georgian voters for
omnipotent leadersIvanishvilis unimaginable wealth, as well as the legends
about the scale of his philanthropic activities and his implicit promise to use his
personal wealth for the benefit of all Georgians, has been a decisive factor in the
choices made by Georgian voters. In a predominantly poor society, the lack of a
middle class has made it possible to win the support of voters through ultrapopulist pre-election promises, which have often verged on an attempt to buy
votes. A good example of this is the wish-list questionnaires circulated at the
rallies organised by the GDC as part of its pre-election campaign, in which voters
were invited to write down their dreams. Many Georgian voters filled them with
their dreams of washing machines, cars, refrigerators and apartments. It seemed
that a considerable number of voters were confusing the political leaders with
fairies, exposing just how low the level of political and civic culture is amongst
the population.
While Bidzina Ivanishvili warned from the outset of his debut on the political
scene that he would leave politics after just one or two years, it seems that the
overwhelming majority of Georgians assumed that this was not true. When he
did resign from his post, the majority of GDC supporters believed that he should
have stayed and now feel reassured by the assertion that he continues to make
vital decisions concerning the future of the country from his informal position. In
a demonstration of their strong trust in Ivanishvilis choices, Georgians elected

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his choice for the post of president, current President George Margvelashvili,
who was largely unknown to the Georgian public prior to the elections.
Ivanishvilis selection for the post of prime minister was also surprising. Rather
than trusting one of the relatively experienced politicians from the coalition,
Ivanishvili placed his trust in a political novice and close business associate, Irakli
Garibashvili. This was also accepted by the GDC supporters, who clearly believe
that Ivanishvili knows best. His choice of a close associate for the post of prime
minister only proved to them that Ivanishvili continues to run the show. The fact
that the majority of Georgians accept that their country can be governed from
outside the realm of accountability given by public office is very worrying. This
clearly demonstrates the lack of understanding of the democratic institutions
among voters and also the lack of political culture.
In the context of Georgias European future, it once again proves the need to
mobilise substantial resources to increase the publics awareness of the
expectations set for political leaders in a democracy. While even in developed
democratic European countries voters are not averse to it, in developing and
poor states, like Georgia, it seems that popular opinion can be even more easily
manipulated by populist rhetoric which does not pretend to create even the
slightest hint of a responsible party platform.

Constitutional model
Georgia has undergone another important change with the latest electionsa
change in its constitutional model of governance from a presidential to a
parliamentary republic. Weathering the challenges posed by these important
institutional changes will be an important stage in the consolidation of its
democracy. The governance of the UNM was widely criticised for the absence of
a strong parliamentary rolewith the UNM having a comfortable constitutional
majority, it rushed desired legislation through the Parliament at lightning speed.
Often this was important for the speedy reinforcement of reforms, which were
vital on many fronts following the Rose Revolution. However, it also created
ample opportunity to tamper with the system of checks and balances needed
for an adequate legislative process and democratic government.
The new constitutional model, which was adopted under the UNMs rule, and
has entered into force under its successor, presents an important opportunity to
address this shortcoming, by increasing the powers of the Parliament vis-a`-vis
the executive branch. The fact that the GDC has not managed to garner a
constitutional majority in this parliament is a welcome development for
Georgian democracy. However there is confusion and a lack of coordination in
the governing coalition with respect to the legislative agenda. A closer look at
the ongoing political process clearly shows that the prime minister seems keen
to concentrate the power in his own hands and further curtail the alreadylimited functions of the president. It is also clear that there is an internal power
struggle occurring within the coalition to claim the credit for the reform
initiatives. There are also proposals for further constitutional amendments. It is

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likely that the different players of the GDC will be pushing their own agendas
through regarding the proposed changes. What kind of obstacles this will create,
both for the consolidation of democracy, but also for the speedy enforcement of
the reforms necessary for fulfilling the EUGeorgia agenda, is hard to say.
What one can assert with objectivity at this point is that clearly the new
Georgian government does not have the same well-oiled machinery for getting
reform initiatives through the legislative process as its predecessor. As Georgia
moves forward on its path towards European integration it will require
substantial support from the EU to address these problems. Considering the
volume of legislative work that the Georgian Parliament must implement in
order to secure harmonisation and approximation with the EU acquis, the
legislative process has to run smoothly. The government needs to have better
coordination in this regard and could also use assistance from the EU with this,
as well as with reforming the state institutions and agencies in order to
streamline their work with the new constitutional model.

Xenophobic and homophobic public attitudes, the role of the Georgian


Church
One of the most unwelcome developments in the election campaign of the GDC
was its pronounced xenophobic and homophobic rhetoric. The UNM government worked hard to develop the modern notion of citizenship, inclusive of
ethnic and religious minorities. Unfortunately this trend has been reversed under
the new government, and it has failed to prevent several instances of
infringements of citizens religious rights in the regions of Georgia with
substantial Muslim populations. Given the widespread homophobic attitudes in
the country, gay rights is an issue that has always been controversial. How
Georgia will rise to the challenge of adopting a law on non-discrimination, which
will also apply to gay rights, remains to be seen. While the head of Georgias
Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II has always been publicly very supportive of
Georgias European future, many representatives of the Georgian Church use
strongly anti-Western rhetoric. It is safe to say that at least a considerable part of
the Georgian Church subscribes to the conservative, Orthodox ideological base,
which has been consciously cultivated by the current Russian leadership as an
ideological counterweight to liberal Western traditions. Considering the enormous authority the Orthodox Church wields in Georgia, its position on the future
of EUGeorgia relations will play a significant role in public opinion regarding
Georgias European future. It is important for the EU to work closely with the
Georgian authorities, as well as civil society and the media, to develop an
outreach programme that takes into consideration the enormous moral
authority and public trust enjoyed by the Church.
As Russia is deploying its soft power tools in order to rebuild ties with the
former Soviet republics, it is important that the EU should find a way to reach
out to the hearts and minds of Georgian citizens, retaining their support for a
future with Europe. Russias most recent aggression in Ukraine has derailed any

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progress it had made to rebuild its relationship with the neighbours. It has also
destroyed the nonsensical foreign policy promise made by the current
governing coalition in Georgia that through successful diplomacy it would be
possible to convince Russia that Georgias EuroAtlantic aspirations are not
directed against Russia. The Wests reaction to Russian aggression in Georgia, as
well as Ukraine, has also exposed its weaknesses vis-a`-vis Russia. Russia is not
likely to give up its dominion in the South Caucasus easily and Georgia will
continue to be its main target.

EUGeorgia relations
As far as EU integration is concerned, the inheritance of a new Georgian
government is excellent news. By the parliamentary elections of 2012, the
negotiations with the EU on the future framework of cooperation had almost
closed. The GDC has taken over where the UNM left off, has completed the
negotiations on the Association and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade
Agreements (DCFTA), and is preparing to sign them in the summer of 2014.
Looking forward, however, the new government needs to retain strong public
support for Georgias future in the EU. While Georgians overwhelmingly support
the European choice, it is important to ensure that they see, sooner rather than
later, the benefits of closer political and economic cooperation with the EU. In
this respect there are three areas which need to be highlighted: economic
benefits, mobility and wide public outreach.
The economic benefits of the DCFTA for the Georgian population will not be
delivered immediately. Therefore, it is necessary to develop a clear and efficient
plan for deploying the DCFTA as soon as possible. So far the governing coalition
has failed to produce a vision that is relevant in this regardit seems to be
consumed with both internal power struggles and a continuing campaign
against the party it defeated in the elections, the UNM.

Conclusion
While the peaceful transfer of power has made it clear that Georgia has
graduated to the next level of its democratic development, it has also exposed
the immaturity of the countrys democratic traditions and institutions. As
Georgia signs the Association and Free Trade Agreements with the EU, it is
important that the pro-Western political forces in Georgia, both in the new
government and in the UNM, continue to work together to address these
shortcomings. The EU needs to make support of further consolidation of
democracy in Georgia the key priority area of assistance and cooperation. In
order to demonstrate how closer GeorgiaEU cooperation would benefit
citizens, it is also important to ensure that an agreement on visa-free travel
between Georgia and the EU is reached as soon as possible. If Georgian citizens
find it impossible to travel to EU member states due to cumbersome visa

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restrictions, it will be difficult to convince them that EUGeorgia relations are


advancing.
As the pressure from Russia is likely to increase in order to derail the
advancement of Georgias democratic and European future, the EU and proWestern political players in Georgia must make sure that the fear of Russia and
disappointment due to Europes perceived weaknesses are not exploited to
draw the support of Georgian citizens away from their Western future. This, in
turn, requires all the shortcomings of the Georgian democracy, as described in
this article, to be addressed.
Ambassador Salome Samadashvili was the Head of Georgias Mission to
the European Union from 2006 to 2013. She was a member of the Georgian
Parliament and Deputy Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee in 20045.
Since November 2013 she has been a visiting fellow at the Wilfried Martens
Centre for European Studies.