When Titans Are Gone: Georgia’s Leadership Vacuum
WASHINGTON—Georgia’s political environment is witnessing the beginning of a new era as it emerges without any strong political leaders in 2014. With the departures of both President Mikheil Saakashvili and Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia’s political arena will be left without a heavyweight leader, as neither newly elected President Giorgi Margvelashvili nor the selected Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili possesses the same level of magnetism. The irony is that Georgia is entering a stage in its development that requires a well-organized, motivated, and highly trusted political center. Facing tough choices between competing integration projects — such as the Russian-led Eurasian Union, NATO, the European Partnership, and Chinese-led initiatives — Georgia now more than ever needs to mobilize its efforts under the guidance of strong, pro-Western leadership in order to realize the goal of European and Euro-Atlantic integration.
In the absence of a strong leader, the burden would typically fall to political parties. However neither existing group is capable of supporting an unstable political system on its own. The Georgia Dream coalition’s diversity, once its appeal, is now its greatest weakness. The United National Movement is under attack as a political organization through incessant attempts at forcefully changing local governments and disrupting its financial support base. Most likely, Georgia will see a disintegrated and divided political environment, and consequently the majority of the government’s efforts will need to be devoted to handling internal divisions instead of focusing on the country’s development and strengthening functioning institutions. Without strong, charismatic leadership and wide-based political support, two emerging crises are likely to disturb an already unstable balance.
The first is economic deceleration and inevitable economic discontent. The second involves the manipulation of the fragmented political domain by external actors as the West and Russia increase pressure on Georgia to make favorable political decisions. Pressure from the Russian Federation is likely to take the form of more traditional provocations: interventions in internal politics and covert or overt manipulation. Meanwhile, the West will exert institutional pressure in an effort to promote continued democratic reforms. From these crises, two new political centers can be expected to emerge, divided based on their worldviews: a pro-Western bloc and a Eurasianist bloc. In order for the former to survive, it must establish a coalition of pro-Western parties and identify a constituency from which to draw support. One part of this base is already convinced of the benefits of a Westward orientation for Georgia, as are many disenchanted voters: the half of the Georgian population that did not vote in the October election at all. The Eurasianists, on the other hand, are largely dependent on their political center, the Russian Federation. But according to many political and economic indicators, Russia will enter a recession in 2014. This could mean that relations between Russia and Georgia become further strained as Russia becomes even more aggressive in its foreign policy.
The prospect of Russian assertiveness is a threat to Western influence in Georgia, and can be used as an impetus for pro-Western factions to unite. A coalition of this kind may be able to resist Russian pressure and work with its Western partners to ensure that Georgia’s political transition into European and Euro-Atlantic institutional structures is successful. Georgia’s governance system has recently transitioned from a presidential system to a hybrid system in which presidential power is shared with a parliament and prime minister. The shift away from a system based on one powerful individual necessitates a stronger and better-organized political party system. Under these circumstances, the West needs to support the development of a coalition of parties sympathetic to liberal democratic ideals. It is high time for a pro-Western coalition to emerge in Georgia, supported by European and U.S. stakeholders.
Temuri Yakobashvili is Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) in Washington, DC and Georgia’s former ambassador to the United States.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.