Janusz Bugajski is a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International
Studies in Washington DC and the author of 18 books on Europe, Russia, and trans-Atlantic relations.
W ith a new government about to take office, Prime Minister designate Bidzina Ivanishvili has evidently realized his Georgian dream. Meanwhile, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is understandably confused whether he will achieve his own objective of steering Georgia back within Moscow’s orbit.
Numerous domestic and external pitfalls lie ahead for the Georgia Dream government and relations with Russia may not become as idyllic as some have forecast. Domestically, the new administration will be expected to deliver on its election campaign promises, especially in the economic arena by generating growth and creating jobs. People may naively think that because the Prime Minister is wealthy then everyone will become rich. A similar situation prevailed in Bulgaria a decade ago when the self-made millionaire and former King Simeon was rapidly propelled into office, but realism soon descended and Simeon quickly lost ground to other political contenders.
Steering the national economy is not the same as running a business, especially if transparency is to be maintained and officialdom largely untainted with corruption, a significant achievement of the previous United National Movement (UNM) administration. Meanwhile, the competence and unity of the new government will only be tested when policies are implemented. After successfully passing its democratic election test, Georgia must strike a balance between two competing political players. President Mikheil Saakashvili will now be the voice of the Georgian opposition while he serves his last year in office. He will also retain substantial constitutional powers, such as appointing ministers and, in the event of a crisis, disbanding parliament and declaring new elections.
If the new parliament seeks to oust the President before his term in office expires in October 2013, it in turn will be charged with reversing democratic progress. If the economy languishes there will be a popular reaction against Georgian Dream from which the UNM and the incumbent President may also benefit. Paradoxically, the election result removes Saakashvili’s dilemma whether to stand for the Prime Minister’s office next year when his mandate expires and risk international censure for clinging on to power. Instead, he can step aside gracefully, be praised for his political maturity, and return to competitive politics at some future date.
An intriguing question hanging over the region is how Tbilisi’s relations with Moscow and the West will develop. Will Georgia’s national security and territorial reintegration benefit from the policies of the new government, or will the authorities make far-reaching concessions to Russia? The Kremlin seeks the legitimation of Russian military bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and will push Prime Minister Ivanishvili to comply. Will Georgia veer toward Russia and terminate its desire to join NATO, even though the majority of Georgians want to belong to the Alliance? Will Tbilisi abandon energy cooperation with the West while increasing its dependence on Russian supplies? Georgians voted on the understanding that the new Prime Minister will improve economic conditions and create employment, not that he would turn Georgia into a neutral state beholden to Russia.
President Putin’s posture will also help determine the achievements of the new Georgian administration. Moscow is not euphoric over the smooth transfer of power in Tbilisi, as any successful democracy on its doorstep is a threat to Russia’s authoritarian model. The Kremlin has minimum and maximum objectives toward Georgia. At the minimum, it seeks to have a government in Tbilisi that abandons its quest for NATO membership, diminishes its aim of regaining the occupied territories, eliminates its outreach program in the North Caucasus, and is no longer openly critical of Russia’s neighborhood policy.
Although Ivanishvili rationally asserts that he wants good relations with both Russia and the U.S., it remains to be seen how he will react if Moscow demands a clearer choice in Georgia’s alliances. Will he continue its push for integration with the West if this comes at the expense of normalizing relations with Russia? The Prime Minister will not convince the Kremlin that Georgia¹s NATO membership poses no threat to Russia, as no other neighboring capital nor the Alliance as a whole have succeeded in this task. Moscow needs NATO as an adversary and no amount of verbiage will alter this official stance.
The Kremlin’s optimum objective is to neutralize Georgia, eliminate American influence, and bring the country more tightly under the Russian umbrella. Georgia will be enticed to rejoin the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). It could even be induced for inclusion in the planned Eurasia Union (EuU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), as Moscow seeks to build a major pole of power in Eurasia to incorporate its former Soviet dominions.
The new government in Tbilisi needs to be wary in case any erosion of Georgian independence leads to a major political and public reaction. After all, one of the strongest planks of the previous administration and the Saakashvili presidency was the preservation of national sovereignty and territorial integrity. If the new Prime Minister upholds Georgia’s independence and integrity and moves the country toward Western institutions his popularity will soar. The announcement that his first foreign visit will be to Washington is a good starting point. However, if he succumbs to Russian pressures and ambitions then this may precipitate a new round of political conflict, public unrest, and even early elections.
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 118, published 15 October 2012.