It’s New Year’s day in Georgia, by the Julian calendar. Georgians go by the Gregorian calendar for most matters, but with their penchant for celebrating, two New Years are better than one. Yesterday saw yet another mass demonstration in Tbilisi, organized by opposition political parties in protest against the results of last week’s snap presidential elections, which were called by the once-and-future President Saakashvili in response to condemnation of his overreaction to an opposition demonstration in November. Confused? You should be.
For a small, not inherently significant country, independent Georgia has been led by outsized characters and attracted remarkable international attention.
Its first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was a prominent Soviet dissident and a rabid nationalist; he was recently buried for the fourth (and, one hopes, final) time—this time in Tbilisi, after his grave was “discovered” in Chechnya. Zviad’s successor was Eduard Shevardnadze, the hero of German reunification and pal of James Baker. Shevy’s welcome wore thin and he was ousted by Mikheil Saakashvili in the 2003 Rose Revolution. Misha, as he is known to all in Georgia, is a preternaturally glib, hyperkinetic reformer, brought to power with the acclaim of Georges Bush and Soros.
In four years, he and his team of young, largely-western educated officials have restored central authority over a fief on the Black Sea, ended a perpetual energy crisis, effectively eliminated petty corruption, attracted billions in foreign investment, paved the cratered highway system, and brought Georgia to NATO’s doorstep. All of which left little time for appeasing out-of-favor political and intellectual elites or tending to the expectations of the chronically disaffected that the benefits of the economic boon would trickle down to them. Add to this a lack of interest in such niceties as property rights, judicial independence, and media diversity, and you have all the elements for a gathering opposition.
Which brings us to the events of recent months, which are too abstruse to explicate here. The presidential aspirants were worthy of Otto Preminger: A popular, thuggish former confidante of Misha’s, who announced the formation of a political party with a speech accusing Misha of having killed the former prime minister and having sought the murder of…Georgia’s richest man, the elaborately mustachioed co-owner—with Rupert Murdoch, it was said—of the main opposition TV station, alleged to be in cahoots with Russian interests to overthrow the Georgian government (although he is a fugitive from Russia), and bankroller of the opposition coalition, led by…a colorless businessman/parliamentarian, who vowed that, upon being elected president, he would abolish the presidency and establish a constitutional monarchy (perhaps his brother, the most popular rapper in Georgia, could be the court jester). And there were some less serious candidates, as well.
The election campaign was, for an American, mercifully short. Under the Constitution, Misha had to step down during the campaign, but you wouldn’t know it from his omnipresence. And, while there was no discussion of creationism or who was the true agent of change, there was no substantive debate. Misha promised a chicken in every pot and the restoration of the country’s territorial integrity. The opposition promised they wouldn’t be Misha. A small army of foreign observers monitored the campaign, media coverage, polling, and vote counting (the OSCE short-term observer team was led by the disgraced Rep. Alcee Hastings, who makes a habit of these gigs—why not send Dan Rostenkowski and Duke Cunningham?). Overall, they gave the process a B-. That won’t get you cum laude at Yale these days, but by post-Soviet standards Georgia is the valedictorian. There were widespread reports of polling irregularities (which didn’t obviously bias the results) and some allegations of fraud, and the ballot counting was Floridian.
In the final accounting, Misha received a couple percent over the fifty needed to avert a runoff vote. The opposition refuses to accept this outcome. But yesterday’s march was animated and without incident, and security forces were hardly in evidence. So the opposition are likely to retrench, and prepare for the upcoming parliamentary elections.
Or, at least, they should. Georgia’s political culture is immature: evanescent parties are based on personalities, without coherent platforms or natural constituencies, and the discourse is crude. But Misha’s party (actually a coalition of pre-revolution parties) is eroding and unlikely to win a majority in parliament, ushering in the first divided government in the CIS. For all the rampant westernization of the previous decade, Georgia may at last achieve that hallmark of western democracy, legislative gridlock. If anything is to be accomplished, the parties will have to learn to negotiate and compromise. Not the skills traditionally most ascribed to Georgians, but not out of reach.