Georgian politics

The New Old Party

Ghia Nodia
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For the time being, the United National Movement (UNM) is the most successful political party in the history of Georgia. However, its future survival and, even more, its future success is not guaranteed at all. Everything depends on the party itself, no matter how strong the pressure it experiences from the new government and its extremely aggressive supporters.

Naturally, the success of the UNM will be most pleasing for supporters of the former government. But speaking objectively, setting the precedent of establishing a viable political party will first and foremost benefit the political development of Georgia. Hence, it is not necessary to be a supporter of or voter for the UNM in order to favor the maintenance of this party in the political sphere.

What does a political party mean?

Let me first clarify something: the chance of developing into a real political party was only given to the UNM after it had been defeated in the October parliamentary elections. If the UNM takes advantage of this chance, it will become the first ever fully-fledged political party in the recent history of Georgia (I will not now speak about the political parties during the Democratic Republic of Georgia, 1918-1921).

Before the Rose Revolution the UNM was more of a protest movement that united people primarily on the basis of a negative sentiment: "Georgia without Shevardnadze." In that regard, it did not differ much from the subsequent Georgian Dream coalition, the pathos of which is still limited to the emotion: "Down with the UNM." Still, it did differ from the Georgian Dream: the core of the UNM of that time was much more uniform than the morally and ideologically totally amorphous Georgian Dream. But that difference was mainly known only to elite circles; for "ordinary people" the UNM used common populist slogans and promises, which typologically were absolutely comparable with the Georgian Dream's pre-election discourse.

After the Rose Revolution, the UNM shared the fate of its predecessors – it became the ruling party and, in taking over the administrative levers, the line with the political party proper was blurred. The party organization itself was a secondary mechanism responsible only for organizing election PR, yet these populist "PR" messages were often out of step with the real actions of the government. People used to join the UNM ranks mainly to find jobs, although the party seldom performed the natural task of preparing cadres for government (except for local self-government, i.e. second-rank, bodies): the people holding the really influential positions were appointed to these in totally different ways. In short, the party did not have any role in developing and implementing government politics. The real party was a "team" – a small group of people around President Mikheil Saakashvili.

That does not mean that the UNM was not successful in its activities, either in the role of the opposition or in government. The Rose Revolution was a historic benchmark: a better option for replacing the government, or a more "velvet" change of power was, in that context, impossible. Saakashvili's government – despite its numerous flaws or inconsistencies – transformed Georgia into a modern state thereby raising our political and social life to a qualitatively new level. But at none of those stages did the UNM meet the minimal requirements of a political party. It was not a broad and open organization that people supported for its somewhat certain political visions and principles.

Have we had any other party of that kind? No we have not. The Republican Party of Georgia claims to be one such party, although there are no grounds to that claim. I do not want to belittle anyone's achievements: the Republican Party is proud, and for good reason, that they have managed to maintain their identity for quite a long period and that even successive changes in their party leadership have not affected that. This is a serious achievement in Georgia. But the Republican Party has never been a true political party because it has never offered itself to voters independently, standing alone outside of an electoral bloc, and has always limited itself to the role of an elite political broker (with the only exception being the 2008 parliamentary election when they ran independently, though failing to explain why they deviated from their strategic line at that point).

Before the emergence of the Georgian Dream, the pattern of a real political party was most closely matched by the Labor Party: it always acted independently, had something approaching an ideology and a relatively stable electorate. But... Come on. Having the Labor Party as the most advanced party in the country is symptomatic of wider and quite serious problem. The Labor Party was a joke-party or a small business-party which was successfully crowded out of the political sphere by a billionaire-party.

On what account must a political party be maintained?

That the UNM, in contrast to previous ruling parties, did not disband and has maintained its core team after it lost power is a political sensation. For us, it is of the same magnitude as the successful change of power through elections. How can this be explained?

The first and most direct reason is that power changed hands through an election and not a revolution. The UNM has quite a large delegation in parliament that is paid by the state to perform the role of opposition. Why then should it stop performing that role?

In our situation, however, this explanation is not sufficient. Formally, power changed hands in the October elections, however, psychologically (I primarily mean in the psychology of the winners) that was still a revolution: the people had defeated an evil power and are now awaiting its complete demise. Aside from parliamentary speaker Davit Usupashvili, the government and the victors do not recognize the legitimacy of the opposition and actively try to bring it down, whilst, at the same time, wanting to observe the formal limits of the law.

Under such conditions, the mandates and salaries of several dozen deputies will not be enough for the party to maintain its identity and unity. Why do the defeated not switch sides to join the ranks of the victors or instead attempt to hide in holes? Of course, many have done so – some at their own will, others under pressure – but given our reality that is not surprising. What is surprising is that the UNM remains a political force that still needs to be taken into account.

What makes the party stay united after being in power for nine years and what are its strengths that may give it hope for future success? First, it claims that it has clear-cut values and principles and, because of that, it is superior to any of its opponents. This claim is not unfounded: compared to the ideological mess of the Georgian Dream, the UNM really does look better. The UNM is a more or less center-right union and its consistent orientation towards the country's Western integration creates a favorable contrast against the suspicious geopolitical ambiguity of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and his presidential nominee Giorgi Margvelasvili.

Is that enough for the future success of the party? Let's not deceive ourselves. That political parties in Georgia emerge around leaders and money rather than around visions and values must, first of all, be blamed on the voters and not the parties themselves: that is what is demanded, so that is what is supplied. A large majority of people do not vote according to ideas and principles. Moreover, center-rightism, or in this case, a synthesis of economic and social liberalism, is not an idea that can win elections in Georgia. Quite the contrary, what works in Georgia is leftist economic populism saturated with cultural conservatism (precisely what helped the Georgian Dream win the election). One cannot escape that. A core of people united around clear-cut principles is a must, but is not sufficient.

The brand and "re-branding"

The key thing that defines the UNM "brand" and unites its supporters is the experience of being in power, or to be more precise, those objective achievements it had during its nine years in power. Mikheil Saakashvili's government is thus far the only successful government in the recent history of Georgia. It may be premature to evaluate the Georgian Dream government, but, unfortunately, it has not yet shown any sign that it is able to achieve significant changes favoring the country. If that is true, it is reasonable to assume that at some stage people will notice that contrast and evaluate it accordingly when making their decision at the next election.

It seems that the UNM's current strategy relies on that very assumption: it just has to wait until people have clearly seen the incapacity of the Georgian Dream and again turned to the UNM. If this is true, the key objective for the UNM at this stage is to maintain its core. The Georgian Dream seems to have the same idea, with the difference that their expectation relies on fear: "God forbid, they return again." That's why the government is trying to crush the UNM before it is too late.

In general, all that is rational, but it is still insufficient. The UNM will fail to maintain itself if it does not develop and advance. The "returned" UNM should be an evolved party, in principle.
That development does not, however, imply so-called "re-branding" that is so often talked about. The "new united national movement" announced at the UNM rally on 19 April is, in my view, a very weak idea and I doubt it has a future. What does that mean? The word "new" was added – so what?

Nor will repentance be a prerequisite for development. True, the UNM made many mistakes which need to be acknowledged and understood. But the aim of speaking about past mistakes is not just demonstrating: "see, how self-critical we are," but analyzing the lessons learnt and taking those into account when determining a future strategy.

What needs to be overcome?

The problems to be overcome are practical and concrete and are associated with certain organizational and psychological syndromes that have been dogging the UNM since being in power. I will outline some of the most important of these.

Enlargement. Traditionally, the UNM acted according to a scheme: the small core team first devised a plan in a small room and then invited people to support it. This invitation for support was made by means of very simple messages as people can only understand simple (I do not want to use the term "primitive") ideas. The party functionaries were a middle-link in the chain who dealt with the technical tasks of mobilization. I understand full well that democratic, i.e. mass, politics will fail without simple messages. But the key weakness of the UNM was that this did not work (or almost did not work) with a core of real or potential supporters who were not content with primitive messages and shouts of "Hurrah" at rallies. However, real political parties comprise of that very core which, in this or that form, participates in creating party identity and determining its strategy, not only waiting to be invited for support. Transformation in this regard may prove most difficult for the UNM, but without that nothing will be achieved.

The long-term perspective. Since both the revolution and its time in government, the UNM has been dogged by a syndrome of urgency and haste: we must achieve a clear goal today, tomorrow at the latest, or else the day after tomorrow will already be too late. Such an approach was justified: without doing that, the government would probably not have been able to achieve as much as it did. Now, however, the UNM has to readjust itself to the longer-term. Many of its supporters find it difficult to put up with the fact that the Georgian Dream will not go away in a month or two: in previous years, the opposition of the UNM was overwhelmed with exactly the same emotions, wanting to get rid of the UNM immediately. That approach proved stupid and unproductive, and so is adopting a similar approach against the Georgian Dream. Clearly, a political force must be ready for any type of unpredictable situation, but it must know that it is unlikely for anything to happen in one fell swoop.

Flexibility and orientation on coalitional work. We do not know whether or not the UNM will be able to maintain itself and whether or not it will return to power. It is even more difficult to imagine it ever returning as the clearly dominant power that it was just a short time ago. It is well known that one cannot step in the same river twice. The UNM and its supporters must get used to the idea that future success will largely depend on their flexibility and capacity for coalitional work, or its capacity to cooperate with those people who are its active opponents.

Leadership. One of current strengths of the UNM is that it is no longer perceived as an organization of the supporters of just one man, Mikheil Saakashvili. A good indicator of that is that its enemies are blasting the UNM in general and not just Misha alone. I was also referring to this when I stated that the UNM now has the chance to become a real party. This strength, however, may easily become a weakness if it leads to infighting between leaders and a rift in the party – something which can also be easily imagined. The clash of political ambitions is a normal phenomenon and nice adages such as "rein in ambitions for a common cause" are all nonsense. Here we can say only two things: (1) the UNM has a future only if it overcomes the syndrome of a single-leader party, and (2) the longer it retains its leaders with whom the main trump card of the party – its past achievements – are associated, and the more they succeed in working together, the higher the chance of the party's success.

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