What presents a chance for democracy may pose a great threat at the same time. An important sign of democracy is an open and public struggle for power conducted in accordance with established rules. Where is the guarantee that the key players will observe those rules when the stakes are so high? How can we know that conflict between the sides will not degrade into a civil war? On the other hand, if an open rivalry for power is not allowed, any action of the government (no matter how good or bad) may degenerate into tyranny.
Hybrid of Fears
To term our current situation a “civil war” or a “tyranny” is an exaggeration, of course. Logically, we move between these two extremes. Once the degree of political competition rises in Georgia and hopes of victory are revived among the political opposition, however, talks begin about the “rift in the society,” about the threat that everything may degrade into violence and, eventually, turn “the country into a total mess.” Alternatively, if the situation calms down, we start worrying about the fact that the political process has stalled and there is nothing to balance the ruling power. The essence of our so-called hybrid regime may well be expressed by the alteration of those two fears.
The chance of breaking free of that condition contains the risk of violence. Unfortunately, in our political culture it is hard to imagine a fierce political competition without that risk. That cannot be avoided, but that does not mean that violence is inevitable. But what should be done to avoid the violence?
Incidents and Responsibility
Fistfights and stone-hurling clashes between government and opposition supporters in Mereti and Karaleti settlements have made theoretical suggestions about civil conflict somewhat more real. Those incidents instantly reminded everyone of the year 2003 when the United National Movement, then the party in opposition, attempted to hold rallies in Bolnisi, Zugdidi and Batumi and was met with altercations and stone-hurling. The scale of violence back then was significantly larger, but it is natural to draw parallels.
It is natural too that political sides will try to blame each other for incidents of violence. I am not going to assume the function of an impartial arbiter, especially considering that no one wants to see me as such. But one thing is clear: If a more-or-less systemic form is required, the responsibility will lie with the government. Tolerance toward violence will be viewed as its weakness, at best, and as a deliberate policy of repression against political opposition, at worst.
What can be done?
While it is true that the responsibility lies with the government, the key players must agree on the rules of game in order to achieve real result. In that regard, a recent proposal of the government for a four-point code of conduct for political parties to ensure fair elections is quite rational. But judging by the reaction of the opposition, chances for its success are minimal. Why?
There are two reasons: (1) deep distrust and (2) political interest. The former is so apparent that it hardly even needs to be discussed. But in whose interests is the continuation of violent incidents? By rejecting radical revolutionary methods, Bidzina Ivanishvili has underscored his difference from the “previous” opposition and that move has clearly proved advantageous. Yet, the types of incidents that took place in Mereti and Karaleti clearly play into the opposition leader’s hands – but only if the blame for such incidents is put on the government.
Such a calculation fits in well with Ivanishvili’s common strategy. He declares openly (and quite rightly) that stripping him of citizenship and refusing to restore it plays to his advantage. He demonstratively refuses to pay fines imposed by the Chamber of Control and thus have his property seized. And what’s especially advantageous for him is that the government is accused of blocking the spread of the signal of independent media. At the same time, he pays large sums of money to lobbying companies in the West to portray the Georgian government as a dictatorship.
That game has proved quite successful so far. The government invokes legislative provisions, but no one cares much for them (especially given that those provisions have been adopted for the purpose of restraining Ivanishvili). Meanwhile, supporters of the opposition obtain more and more evidence to support their claim that the government applies every method it can to fight opposition and independent media.
Therefore, the government should not hope that the political coalition Georgian Dream will agree publicly with it on anything. The government alone will have to take care to contain the wave of violence.
Where does the biggest threat lie?
In my opinion, large-scale violence during the pre-election period or on the day of election does not play into any side’s hands and therefore its probability is low. Main threats relate to the post-election period.
An opposition-winning scenario still remains hypothetical. Of course, we cannot rule out that the opposition may win the election. But surveys conducted after a rather successful campaign of rallies by Ivanishvili still predict victory for the government. If those projections prove true, will the opposition acknowledge its defeat? That is the most difficult question at present.
During the 2008 presidential elections, everything was crystal clear: the political opposition made preparations in advance not to recognize election results in case of defeat. The plan was to repeat the “Rose Revolution.” Back then, Badri Patarkatsishvili had a concrete plan of how to stage vote-rigging. Why they did not go for that is a separate issue – many still bemoan that missed chance.
What does the current opposition intend to do? Its behavior does not suggest any clear-cut answer to that question – yet. Frequent reiteration by Bidzina Ivanishvili that he will act only within the limits of the law creates an expectation that he will not opt for extreme exacerbation of the situation. On the other hand, we cannot exclude the possibility that the measured behavior underscored today is a tactic to prepare the ground for legitimizing future radicalism, along the lines of: “The entire world has seen that we act only within the limits of the law, but the bloodthirsty dictatorship has not left us any other chance save the revolution.”
But words alone are not enough to accomplish that. The legitimacy of the Rose Revolution depended largely on compelling evidence of mass election-rigging gathered by civil society through exit polls and parallel voting and corroborated by the West. Since then, nothing of that kind has been repeated.
New Enemies of Georgian People
In that context, an important indicator of attitudes among the opposition is its treatment of public opinion polls. Developed democracies also sometimes question the validity of such polls, but no one speaks there about intentional falsification. Bidzina Ivanishvili sets a very bad precedent when he says that surveys conducted by esteemed U.S. organizations such as the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute were in fact conducted by Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili when he was still Interior Minister (a task the opposition probably believes will be taken over by new Interior Minister Bacho Akhalaia in the future). When Ivanishvili’s propagandists are quick to repeat and defend that allegation fiercely, it contributes even more to pessimistic forecasts about post-election situation.
A person saying such things is unlikely to take heed of anyone’s conclusion about the fairness of elections. The international community has played, both poorly and successfully, the role of an arbiter in Georgia. Some of its recommendations were not accepted and were criticized, but at least key political players have never accused the international community of deliberate animus toward the country or of “raping Georgian society’s opinion” (a phrase used by one of Ivanishvili’s propagandists).
That crises in 2007 and 2009 did not end in uncontrollable processes was conditioned, inter alia, by the reality that eventually both sides honored the opinions of the West. The systemic media-campaign of the Georgian Dream intended to disgrace American organizations targets the moral esteem of the West which, so far, has been an important factor for restraint in Georgia.
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 110, published 23 July 2012.