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Four Questions for Georgia in 2017

Like most years, 2017 promises to be an exciting and intriguing one for Georgia. Given how spectacularly wrong much of my political forecasting was in 2016, I am not making any predictions for Georgia, or any other countries for the new year. However, there are some key questions that will confront Georgia this year and are worth exploring. How Georgia responds to these questions will be of central relevance to Georgia’s future.

Can Georgia navigate the new global environment?

The New Year began in Georgia with a visit by three influential US senators, John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). One of the reasons for this visit was for these senators to demonstrate that the US-Georgia bond remains strong. That the need to do so arose at all is evidence of the rapidly changing political relationship between the leadership of Russia and the US and its potential impact on Georgia. Unfortunately, a visit by three earnest and well-meaning senators will do little to ameliorate this concern. Interestingly, the strong words of praise that the trio, notably Senator Graham, had for Georgia and its current government suggest that the coming Trump presidency has left little political space for Georgia’s American friends to continue to repeat inaccurate United National Movement (UNM) talking points about the Georgian Dream (GD) somehow being pro-Russia.

Donald Trump’s election will at the very least mean tremendous uncertainty for Georgia. Trump campaigned on a vision of the US becoming less engaged with the rest of the world. He has little experience in foreign policy, and has a tendency to over-personalize everything from not winning television awards to terrorist attacks. Additionally, and of particular relevance for Georgia, the new American President appears to be enthralled with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and very likely owes his narrow electoral college victory, at least in part, to Russia’s hacking of the Democratic Party.

It is possible, but unlikely, that this will have little effect on Georgia. There are still many supporters of Georgia, and many who are wary of Russia, in congress, the US government and the broader American foreign policy community. However, it is more likely that Moscow will try to exploit its new relationship with the American president to weaken the link between Washington and Tbilisi. The Georgian government must be nimble in its efforts to maintain this relationship and to prevent Georgia from being a casualty in the new good feeling between Presidents Trump and Putin. Whether or not it can do this in 2017 will have tremendous bearing on the future security, and indeed sovereignty of Georgia.

Will Georgia move towards a multi-party political system?

The 2016 election was a triumph for the governing GD, and an equally resounding defeat for the opposition UNM, who had governed the country from 2004-12. Moreover, that election was less an exercise in parties offering different ideas and visions, than one in which the UNM’s calls for regime change fell on deaf Georgian ears. As a result, the GD currently comfortably dominates Georgian politics; and the UNM appears to be in disarray. Thus, while Georgia is making progress in areas regarding freedom and democracy, it remains, in many respects, a one-party system. If Georgia continues to be dominated by one party, as has been the case essentially since independence, its democratic development will be stunted.

There are some possible paths to a multi-party system including the rational breakup of the GD block, an opposition coalition of liberal pro-western parties and individuals emerging from the last election or a currently unseen political force emerging. There is, however, no guarantee that this will happen.

Can Georgia’s economy begin to deliver for ordinary Georgians?

There have been some recent signs that Georgia’s economy is beginning to recover. Additionally, during the last several years, Georgia has begun to be a larger presence in the food, culture, travel, design and film world. It is increasingly common to see Georgian wine, mountains, fashion or film in the global media in a positive way that demonstrates what Georgia can offer the rest of the world. For example, Vogue described Georgia as the hottest travel destination for 2017. This, in addition to ongoing efforts to reduce regulations, improve the business climate and nurture the tech sector over the last several years are good harbingers for Georgia’s economic development.

These positive developments have not yet begun to impact the everyday lives of Georgia’s people, who still confront widespread unemployment and poverty. As long as that remains the case, nice mentions on foreign websites or magazines are of little concrete value for Georgia. The major economic challenge for the Government of Georgia in 2017 is to translate these abstract accomplishments into concrete economic goods for the Georgian people.

This will require government policies that focus explicitly not just on bringing investment to Georgia, or raising Georgia’s profile as a destination for tourists, hikers, wine experts or foodies. Instead, policies must seek to link foreign investment to more and better paying jobs, facilitate the development of small businesses that can support these growing sectors and make sure that inflation does not become too high. If Georgia can turn a good story about economic development and reform, albeit one that primarily resonates outside of Georgia, into a reality for the Georgian people, it will be a significant turning point for Georgia, one that suggests they are moving in new and better direction

What about Abkhazia and South Ossetia?

Since the war in 2008, there have been few major flare-ups between Russia and Georgia, but numerous minor and medium sized clashes between the two. Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been at the center, both symbolically and actually, of many of these. While Georgia has succeeded in stymieing Russia’s efforts to win almost any international recognition for their position that these are two independent states, Tbilisi has been unable to stop Russia from tightening its control over the regions or pushing the de facto borders, usually by erecting fences, further into the rest of Georgia.

Despite these issues and the obvious relevance of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to broader Russian efforts to increase their influence in what they call their near abroad, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are not exactly front and center issues in Georgian political life. This is in part because the Georgian government lacks a clear policy approach that could solve the problem. Military solutions are not possible. Strategic patience is little more than a euphemism for doing nothing and hoping for the best. Other more innovative approaches, such as engaging in more dialog and the like would cause political problems for the ruling GD. Additionally, because both the GD and the UNM were unable to move Abkhazia and South Ossetia closer to Georgian sovereignty, neither party has much of an incentive to focus a lot of political attention on these questions.

It is, however, significant that the New Year’s delegation from the US Senate visited the boundary line at Khurvaleti near South Ossetia. This was a reminder, not least to Russian President Vladimir Putin, that despite Donald Trump, some in the US leadership have not forgotten about Russia’s occupation of much of Georgia. Given the increased tension, but also increasingly strange relationship, between Russia and the West, 2017 could see Abkhazia and South Ossetia taking on a political relevance that is much greater than in previous years.

The year ahead will force Georgia to confront a changing world where long held notions, like the stability of American democracy or core concepts underpinning NATO, can no longer be assumed. While Georgia must craft a strategy for a changing Washington, and changing relationships between Washington and Moscow, there are domestic issues, such as the longstanding needs to deepen multi-party democracy and create an economy that benefits ordinary Georgians that will require attention and determine what happens to Georgia this year as well.

The Georgia Analysis is a twice monthly analysis of political and other major developments in Georgia. Find it on lincolnmitchell.com. Lincoln Mitchell is a political development, research and strategic consultant who has worked extensively in the post-Soviet space.

Lincoln Mitchell

09 January 2017 20:20