WASHINGTON — Following recent landmark elections, Georgia’s new government has an opportunity to build on the success of the country’s first constitutional transfer of power. With a host of challenges ahead, the United States can and should leverage its strategic partnership with Georgia to help advance the country’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations, consolidate democratic institutions and practices, and support an inclusive economic development strategy.
On October 1, the ruling United National Movement (UNM) was defeated by the opposition Georgian Dream Coalition (GDC) coalition led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, marking Georgia’s first constitutional transfer of power since post-Soviet independence. While the election was neither perfect nor pretty, that a newly unified opposition had overcome the powerful and well entrenched UNM in a competitive political contest was significant. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, to his credit, accepted defeat publicly and handed over power — a watershed moment for political development in the Caucasus.
The UNM left a government with a complicated legacy. During its tenure, the UNM implemented a series of critical modernizing reforms, including largely eliminating petty corruption, improving bureaucracy, reducing organized crime, significantly expanding public services, upgrading the country’s roads and infrastructure, and improving the business climate. However, these reforms sometimes came without full consideration of due process.
The UNM’s bullish governing style seemed to operate above the law, a theme that resonated strongly when evidence of apparently-systemic abuse was revealed in the country’s swollen prison system. By the time the elections arrived, the UNM was increasingly perceived as out-of-touch, with a tendency to run roughshod over public discourse.
Cast by the UNM during the pre-election campaign — and vociferously denied by the GDC — as Russian proxies, the new government is under serious scrutiny to not only demonstrate that it can build on Georgia’s first peaceful transfer of power, but that it will remain a reliable Western partner and a genuine candidate for further Euro-Atlantic integration.
So far, foreign policy signals from Tbilisi have been mostly positive. Not only has Tbilisi maintained Georgia’s already robust manpower contributions to NATO’s International Security and Assistance Force in Afghanistan, but the new government has followed through on plans to double its deployment to over 1,500 troops alongside US Marines in the restive Helmand province
In Prime Minister Ivanishvili’s first overseas trip to Brussels, he reiterated Georgia’s commitment to European and Euro-Atlantic integration, including a desire to accelerate the timetable for Georgia’s entry into a deep and comprehensive Free Trade Agreement and a visa liberalization agreement with the EU.
Perhaps most importantly, Ivanishvili’s pledge to improve relations with Moscow — while unlikely to move the goalposts on the fundamentals of Russia-Georgia tensions — could improve the tone between the two former combatants. Demonstrating a more modest approach to foreign policy will likely resonate with many European policymakers that worried about the previous government’s more confrontational posture.
There remain many open questions over the new government’s plans, but so far it has made good on its pledge to maintain a Western-leaning posture. How and to what extent this continues, however, will depend greatly on the US role in assisting Georgia with building a credible defense and guiding Georgia’s integration into Western structures like NATO.
However, US assistance and oversight in the realm of Georgia’s political development will be the real test of the US-Georgia strategic partnership. While the October elections have created a momentous opportunity for Georgia to make great strides in its democratic development, understandably concerns over a spate of post-election arrests of UNM ex-officials is worth communicating to the new government.
But at the same time, the US should be wary of being drawn into domestic political contests between the now — opposition UNM and the governing GDC. Taking steps to address the perceived epidemic of state abuses of power — a major reason for the GDC’s sweeping victory — are legitimate as long as transparency, due process, and human rights are fastidiously observed.
The US is especially well positioned to help monitor this process, but should particularly encourage the building of impartial judicial institutions over redressing every single alleged wrong from the previous government. Georgia’s October elections may yet serve as a model of peaceful democratization for other hybrid regimes, but much work remains to be done.
Six weeks in, there are inconsistent and confusing signals coming from Tbilisi as the new government gets its sea legs domestically and abroad. However, continued Western engagement from a position of friendship can help ensure that Georgia stays on a democratic track.
While issues of Euro-Atlantic integration and political development are inherently moving targets, supporting Georgia’s economic development should be a relatively straightforward area for US-Georgia cooperation. Elected largely on a mandate of economic development and poverty mitigation, the new government can benefit from coordinated US assistance to upgrade capacity and output in Georgia’s struggling agriculture and small business sectors.
Meanwhile, the US should not only support Georgia’s Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement negotiations with the EU, but should make the signing of a US-Georgia FTA a near-term prospect. And while overtures for an economic rapprochement with Russia are very worthwhile, it should not come at the expense of Georgia’s other relationships like Turkey — Georgia’s largest current trade partner and a major source of investment. But perhaps most importantly, the new government should prioritize the democratic rule of law and a predictable structural environment to best encourage international investment.
The new government has a full plate, and the US can play a powerful role by assisting Tbilisi in tackling the big issues of economic development, normalizing relations with Russia and integrating into the Euro-Atlantic space. At the same time, the US should also work with the new government in Tbilisi to encourage constructive policymaking over the alleged crimes of the past. While an accounting for genuine abuses of power under the previous government may be understandable, Georgia’s long-term challenges are bigger than the misdeeds of a few — and GD’s political capital ought to be expended accordingly.
While the foundations of strong US-Georgia ties were laid by previous governments, the new government has an opportunity to expand on the gains from successful parliamentary elections and take the bilateral strategic partnership to a genuinely new level of cooperation. However, Georgia must do its part to not allow politics to sabotage its relationship with Western capitals and should strive to build international confidence in its policy agenda and institutions. Distracting acrimony over the recent arrests notwithstanding, Washington and Tbilisi have a wealth of converging interests and should ensure those ties through frequent coordination and consultation.
Michael Cecire is an independent Black Sea/Eurasia analyst and associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. Laura Linderman is an assistant director at the Dinu Patriciu Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC.