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Lincoln Mitchell on Georgian Politics and Power Struggles

Georgia is on the cusp of entering the official campaign for the October 2016 parliamentary elections and there are a number of unanswered questions whether the current government will stay in power or if the political process will be more diversified for the next 4 years. The questions also concern Georgia’s real prospects for joining NATO in order to secure her future development.

To answer some of the commonly asked questions, GEORGIA TODAY talked with Lincoln Mitchell, an American specialist in political development and author of ‘Uncertain Democracy: US Foreign Policy and Georgia’s Rose Revolution.’ Due to his expertise in US-Georgia relations, political development in the former Soviet Union and the role of democracy promotion in American foreign policy, Lincoln Mitchell is a frequent commentator of Georgia’s interior and foreign affairs.

How did the Georgian Dream (GD) coalition perform within its 4-year term?

GD has a mixed record. On the one hand, the country is freer than it was before, including in speech and assembly. And Georgia is still in a condition of informal governance, formally ruled by a Prime Minister. But it has to change if GD stays in power. In terms of foreign affairs, they have the EU Association Agreement and the on-going progress toward NATO, even if the country is not on the brink of Alliance membership. In fact, we should also recognize that this accomplishment is what both the previous and current government should get credit for.

What were GD’s major shortcomings and what could have been done better?

The major weakness for the current government is their inability to really revive Georgia’s economy.

Georgia, regardless of who is in power, has a tough problem with regards to Russia. This government came to power with a lot of forces in the West very suspicious of them. But, if not accomplishing fully, GD did stay out of conflict and did not back down from the core principles of territorial integrity and western orientation. Back in 2010 or 2011, people in Georgia were really scared of Russia’s possible aggression. Now, it doesn’t feel that way anymore.

Can GD regain power in the elections this year?

From what I see, and what can be seen in public opinion data, several key issues can be emphasized. First, this election is not going to be like any previous one, when a single party gets 70% of votes or more. I would be extremely surprised if that happens. In 2012, there were two major blocks in the electoral rally with other forces concentrated around them; this year, we see something different. People are not wildly satisfied with what they have seen in almost 4 years with GD in power, but some people also have no desire to go back to where they were. That leads to a substantial block of undecided voters.

Meanwhile, we see other parties emerging. Thus, there is a situation where the block that gets these undecided votes wins the elections. However, we have no reason to automatically assume that one political force will attract all of the undecided voters, which means that there is a real possibility to have more than two parties in parliament and no party with a majority of seats.

Since 2012 people have been waiting for the United National Movement (UNM) to rebrand. Has it done so? What are their main challenges?

I think it is half a rebrand. The challenge the UNM faces is three-fold: One is the problematic side of the party which concerns its time in power, when a number of negative events and facts were seen. Second, crafting an image and position that is positive and forward-looking. And third, distancing itself from the leader, ex-president Saakashvili, who can no longer play a productive role in the party.

In reverse order, the UNM is rather fortunate that Saakashvili is pretty busy in Ukraine, but he is not so busy not to turn his attention toward Georgia. If I were a GD strategist, every time Saakashvili talks about coming back to Georgia, I would be happy, because that’s not the association the UNM wants right now.

In the meantime, UNM has introduced its top 10 candidates who can play a very positive role for the party’s future role in Georgia’s political life. For instance, Roman Gotsiridze is one of the sharpest economists I know in Georgia, and Salome Samadashvili, who not only has a smart foreign policy mind, but is also a good speaker and political thinker. The UNM can really have an influence with such people in parliament.

If no one gains a majority of seats, how can the decision-making process go on in the legislative or the executive bodies?

If you put Roman Gotsiridze and PM Kvirikashvili together, they would agree with each other a lot in their economic positions. Or if you put Salome Samadashvili and Minister David Bakradze together, they would only make Georgia’s EU and NATO course stronger.

The UNM can play a very productive role in the next parliament, but that requires a totally different thinking on both sides. If there are real coalitions within parliament, the cabinet will be composed of diverse ministers from several parties. Although it is much harder to govern the country that way, this would be a big step forward for Georgia.

To what extent do you think Russia can exert its influence in the ongoing pre-electoral and political processes in Georgia?

Russia has been able to hamper Georgia’s NATO aspirations. It is aware that by meddling in Georgia’s affairs, it keeps Georgia distanced from NATO accession. Can Georgia solve this problem? I think it can, and there are several ways: one, with the Substantial Package NATO gave to Georgia and also the on-going drills of Noble Partner.

Georgia is doing well in defense reforms and contribution to international missions. At the same time, doing the same thing Georgia has always done is not enough, but it makes it harder for NATO to say no to Georgia.

Finally, in the presence of Russia’s increased influence on Georgia’s internal and foreign affairs, integrating more into a global economy is of utmost importance for Georgia. In fact, having more countries connected to Georgia economically greatly increases Georgia’s security, and Russia’s power to hinder Georgia’s western course will gradually reduce.

As for the domestic politics, Russia has soft power in Georgia, but I believe that the western soft power is stronger and the Russian one cannot be prevalent.

ZVIAD ADZINBAIA is an Analyst at Georgia Today, covering security, foreign policy, as well as domestic politics of Georgia. He is academically affiliated with the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies (GFSIS). From the fall 2016, Zviad will be joining the Tufts Fletcher School as a Master’s student in Law and Diplomacy.

Zviad Adzinbaia

20 May 2016 14:00