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Georgia: With New Political Landscape, Can Stability Prevail?

  • Brian Whitmore --> A man clears snow from the dome of the presidential building in Tbilisi (AFP) Humbled by a narrow victory in Georgia's snap elections, President Mikheil Saakashvili has admitted that he can no longer "ignore the opinions" of his opponents.

Neither, it appears, can his allies in the West.

Since sweeping to power in the wake of the 2003 Rose Revolution, Saakashvili has carefully cultivated the image of a democratic reformer who would lead Georgia out of its post-Soviet funk and into the promised land of Europe's mainstream. His U.S. education, single-minded determination to join NATO, and open defiance of Moscow led many Western policymakers to view him as a reliable ally in the volatile and strategically important South Caucasus.

But in the wake of the January 5 election -- in which Saakashvili won 52 percent of the vote, narrowly avoiding a runoff -- the emphasis has suddenly shifted from big-picture goals like trans-Atlantic integration to smaller-scale domestic issues, like poverty and infrastructure.

Moreover, the man who won 96 percent of the vote in 2004 is no longer the undisputed master of Georgia's political universe. If Saakashvili's newly conciliatory tone is any indication, the year ahead could see the country's political system become far more colorful and diverse than it was during the past four years.

Former Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar, who serves as a special economic adviser to Saakashvili, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service that better government is ahead. "The biggest problem is when the opposition is weak," Laar says. "The government makes bad policies, it makes more mistakes. To have a strong and organized opposition is the best thing that can happen to any government. You don't need big majorities."

Common Interest

Observers can also be hopeful that pet Saakashvili issues like Georgia's NATO bid will remain on track. Politically, membership of the Western alliance inspires far less of the internal divisiveness seen, for example, in countries like Ukraine. A plebiscite that coincided with the snap presidential election shows that more than two-thirds of the Georgian public supports membership.

But moving toward NATO and opening up the political process may not be easy tasks to conduct simultaneously. Georgia's rough geopolitical neighborhood further complicates the equation. Russia, which remains determined to block Tbilisi's NATO goals, is undoubtedly heartened by Saakashvili's electoral wing-clipping and is sure to continue fomenting conflict in the pro-Moscow separatist enclaves of Abhkazia and South Ossetia.

Critics accuse President Saakashvili of adopting a siege mentality (epa)

Such pressure in the past has caused Saakashvili's government to respond with a siege mentality that has ignored opposition voices and hindered the democratic process in its "with-us-or-against-us" zeal.

"You have had a government that has been unable to operate in a normal mode. And a big reason for that is the immense external pressure that they have been subjected to," says Svante Cornell, head of the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm.

"Without Western engagement in the security of the country, you are unlikely to either get security or stable democratic development," Cornell continues. "As long as the external and transnational threats are so strong, it will simply impede the democratic process. If you want a democratic Georgia, you have to invest in Georgia's security."

And therein lies the paradox. To continue moving toward the West and NATO in this new environment, Saakashvili needs to engage the opposition and be more democratic. But for Georgia's famously single-minded leader, that openness might come more easily once the security of alliance membership is in place.

The Revolution Is Over

Georgia's presidential election came in the aftermath of a two-month-long political crisis that saw Saakashvili break up opposition protests in Tbilisi in November, declare emergency rule, and temporarily shut down all opposition media.

It was a shock for many Western observers accustomed to thinking of Saakashvili as a word-and-deed democracy proponent. Once-robust Western support for Georgia's one-man political show became more measured. By the time January 5 rolled around, many in the West were praising the vote as a victory not for Saakashvili but for Georgian democracy.

Clearly, the time had come to look beyond the man to the country. Western allies are now calling on Saakashvili and the opposition to come together and solve the nation's problems. U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Mathew Bryza denied that Washington had "personalized" Georgia's democratic reforms in Saakashvili.

"Our message is to all parties in Georgia, be they in the government or the opposition, that now is the time for the serious and difficult work of building democratic institutions," Bryza said. "The revolution is over. It is time for the rule of law rather than the rule of the street."

The Georgian president appears to agree, and has formally invited his rivals to join him in mapping out a political partnership. "With the opposition in mind, we need to reshuffle the composition of the government and I believe that we should be much more inclusive and reach out to a broader circle of people," Saakashvili said.

Now that Saakashvili has taken a step toward reconciliation, observers say it is time for the opposition -- some of whom referred to the president as a "fascist" and a "terrorist" during the election campaign -- to follow suit. "I think it is important that [the West] not only put pressure on the government, but also on the opposition to be serious and to take democratic responsibility, which they haven't always done. They have felt as though, being the opposition, they can do whatever they feel like," Cornell says.

Slower Pace

With the presidential election over, Georgian officials are now looking ahead to April's NATO summit in Bucharest, which should clarify Tbilisi's standing with the alliance, and to parliamentary elections, which are due to be held sometime in the spring.

Prior to Saakashvili's declaration of a state of emergency in November, most observers said Georgia had an outside chance of receiving from NATO a coveted upgrade from Intensified Dialogue status to a Membership Action Plan. But the recent political crisis has made the possibility more remote.

"The big winner in Georgia in the last few months is not Saakashvili,” says Lincoln Mitchell, a professor of International Politics at Columbia University specializing in Georgia. "It's Vladimir Putin.”

Among its myriad pressures on Tbilisi, Moscow has repeatedly posited that Georgian democracy had been tried and found wanting. The November crisis, Mitchell says, gives a "tremendous amount of fodder" to the Russian argument. The Russians, he adds, "will run with that in ways that are not accurate, not helpful, not good for Georgia."

The United States, along with new NATO members like the Baltic states, Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania, and Bulgaria have traditionally supported Georgia's NATO bid -- despite Russia's opposition. (Germany and France, wary of antagonizing the Kremlin, have been more reluctant.) Bryza says that won't stop now, even as Moscow steps up its claims against Tbilisi.

"Pleasing Russia, or avoiding Russia's displeasure when it comes to NATO enlargement, is not something that drives our policy," he says. "We believe that every European country that aspires to NATO membership and fulfills the criteria should have the door open to NATO membership. We are hoping that Georgia will fulfill those criteria."

Thaw In The North?

In an apparent effort to improve relations with Moscow, Saakashvili has indicated he will begin his second term as president by putting four years of mutual antagonism behind him and wiping the slate clean. He also extended a personal invitation to Putin to attend his inauguration. Putin has never traveled to Georgia in the capacity of Russian president.

Saakashvili is unlikely ever to win over Russia, regardless of how many olive branches he extends to Putin. And observers say that the best way to overcome the apprehension in Berlin and Paris would be for Georgia to push forward with democratic reforms.

"I believe that the only pressure that Georgia can put on these powers is to continue on the path toward building a consolidated democracy that works no matter who is in power," says Bakur Kvashilava, dean of the School of Law and Politics at the Georgian Center for Public Affairs in Tbilisi.

The good news is that most of the opposition shares Saakashvili's goal of joining NATO and, eventually, the European Union. Some opposition figures in recent days have rejected the idea of NATO membership, perhaps because it is seen as too closely linked to the controversial president. But it remains to be seen whether such dissent will find purchase, or whether Georgia's long-standing desire to break free of Russian influence will prevail.

With a bit of effort, this could potentially serve as a unifying issue in the upcoming parliamentary elections -- as long as the public is assured that domestic issues ignored in Saakashvili's first term will now be a priority.

"What is the one issue on which these people all agree? This is Euro-Atlantic integration," Cornell says. "So Euro-Atlantic integration is actually one of the areas where it is possible to work for cooperation between the very hostile political forces in Georgia at this point."

(RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report.)