Georgian politics

The Fifth Column or Party Number Five

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A "fifth column" normally denotes a group of people who, acting overtly or covertly, attempt to undermine a nation's solidarity from within. Emilio Mola Vidal, a Nationalist general during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), originally coined the term. As four of his army columns moved on Madrid, the general referred to his militant supporters within the capital as his "fifth column." The methods the fifth column applies in its activities include infiltration into the societal fabric, especially the political class, and the spreading of disinformation, rumors and lies to demoralize society.

A trend observed over the past several weeks is the attempt of openly pro-Russian forces to fill the political space left vacant by the persecution of the United National Movement (UNM). First, a previously unknown organization, the Eurasian Institute in Georgia, brought together the nomenclature intelligentsia and made them swear the oath of eternal love to Russia. The most remarkable phrase of that meeting was: "Let's give Putin a chance to repent his mistake." Following that, the former security minister of Shevardnadze's regime, Igor Giorgadze, told a Russian TV audience that "within two or three years Georgia will become so pro-Russian that they will not recognize it." Then came a spate of statements about the establishment of pro-Russian political forces. These were made by yet another former security minister, Valeri Khaburzania, who was seconded from Moscow on a special mission to Tbilisi; by someone named Aslan Husein Abashidze who made such a statement without leaving Moscow; and by Levan Vasadze, a self-declared godfather of Orthodox fundamentalism who returned from Russia not long ago.

What might this trend bring about?

We may be witnessing an attempt to "reformat" the political field with the final aim being to make the pro-Russian orientation of Bidzina Ivanishvili's government more clear-cut or to openly bring pro-Russian forces to power. According to this scenario (let's call it the "Russian scenario"), pro-Russian political groups are set up as satellites to the Georgian Dream coalition. Their objective is to ally with the Georgian Dream, rather than oppose it, and to play on the electoral field of the coalition to gain a foothold in it. An inseparable part of this tactic is demonizing the UNM and, accordingly, the West. In parallel with this process, the pressure on Mr. Ivanishvili from pro-Russian positions has been increasing, and pro-Western elements inside the Georgian Dream have become increasingly oppressed.

Such a development of events is, up to a certain point, in line with Mr. Ivanishvili's pursuit of the tactical goal of marginalizing the UNM and the strategic goal of creating dozens of weak political players. Let us recall the Georgian parliament of 1992-1995, which comprised up to 20 party factions and witnessed the MP of one faction sewing up his mouth in protest; an MP of another faction smashing up microphones; and one of a third faction throwing water into the face of the speaker whilst the speaker was preaching a philosophy of "camaraderie." In such a parliament, the government will be formed by the Georgian Dream and its partners whilst all other parties will be happy about merely being represented in parliament. Having formed an extremely fragmented political field, Mr. Ivanishvili will leave parliament to "take up" the post of the "leader of civil society" from which he will continue to administer the political situation for a long time.

The point, however, is that under a fragmented parliament and weak government, events may not develop in the way that Mr. Ivanishvili imagines. Under the conditions of a fragmented parliament and a weak government it will become impossible, in principle, to implement structural reforms. Economic decline will accelerate. The government will find it difficult to cover costs of increased social liabilities. The decrease in foreign direct investment inflows and a halt in infrastructure projects will trigger higher unemployment. Social problems will be further exacerbated. The country will start sliding down towards the rampant corruption characteristic of Shevardnadze's epoch. Contours of social unrest will loom. At this point, in the wake of the failures of Ivanishvili's government, pro-Russian parties together with the anti-Western elements of the Georgian Dream will fan popular discontent further and when, in their view, this discontent reaches its peak, they will offer the electorate – without beating around the bush or offering any courtesies to the West – a return to "the family of brotherly nations." According to the rhetoric of pro-Russian forces, "tired of reforms and counter-reforms, westernization or semi-westernization and the endless bickering of politicians, Georgia will itself plea to Russia for help and for membership of each and every Eurasian association" – with or without Mr. Ivanishvili.

I am far from assuming that the Georgian Dream has depleted its resources of selective justice. But still, a parliamentary test vote for constitutional amendments that was conducted upon the insistence of UNM MPs on 21 March has somewhat changed the euphoria caused by the victory in the recent parliamentary elections. When the smoke emitted from political retaliation and the propagandist machine cleared, it became apparent that the UNM as a nationwide political organization is still alive. If the protest rally scheduled for 19 April is successfully held, it will give strong political legitimization to the UNM. Mr. Ivanishvili cannot help but see that.

The impression is being created that Mr. Ivanishvili must realize with increased clarity that the chances of his project materializing are dwindling. What is more – and here we arrive at a seemingly paradoxical hypothesis – Mr. Ivanishvili may even understand that a strong and consolidated UNM is vital to his interests too: a party not so strong as to endanger his position in future elections, but strong enough to defend him from pro-Russian forces. It is difficult to predict as to how much Mr. Ivanishvili would "manage" to fit the UNM into this Procrustean bed. However, one thing is clear: his political future hinges upon bold reforms and a strong, responsible opposition which has broad ties with the West and which will resist those calls dragging the country towards Russia's orbit.

In this created situation, what should the tactics of the patriotic and pro-Western political forces and society be? Building a broad coalition and engaging in public discourse showing the advantages of Western democratic development.

Who can secure a place in this new coalition? Student, youth and women's organizations; cultural associations; human rights watchdogs; the patriotic leaders and parties of the national liberation movement; and a patriotic segment of opposition parties not currently represented in parliament. Moreover, there is a niche for the creation of a new liberal-democratic and secular party which will primarily be based on the interests of the young urban population and medium-size business. Pro-Western elements of the Georgian Dream may even find a place in this new coalition.

The new social discourse is determined by issues related to employment, investments, new technologies, a knowledge-based society, social mobility, health insurance, anti-corruption systems, education, the fight against crime, social assistance, and sustainable energy.

Moscow continues to play cat and mouse: we will allow wine, but not mineral water; we will host the Georgian Patriarch today, and tomorrow representatives of "Abkhazia's Church;" we will first meet the Georgian prime minister's negotiator with Russia, Zurab Abashidze, but then play host to the "president of Abkhazia" in the Kremlin; we will conduct unannounced military drills first in the Black Sea and then directly in occupied Abkhazia; and if we so wish, will move the line of occupation deeper into the rest of Georgia. The message is clear – Moscow wants "Georgia not bit by bit but altogether."

Mr. Ivanishvili must be well aware of what happens when Putin establishes a political order. For example, he must be aware of what happens to Russian oligarchs who show an interest towards politics: they are given the freedom of choice – the choice between the fate of Khodorkovsky and that of Berezovsky.

Party number five is better than a fifth column for both Mr. Ivanishvili and Georgia.

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