In his annual address to the Parliament on 28 February, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili presented a pragmatic vision for the future and a whole new set of social and economic reform initiatives. With the parliamentary election just months away, the President’s words seemed carefully calibrated to shore up the support of his ruling party’s base without alienating undecided voters.
“Georgia still continues its advance” – was the leitmotif of President Saakashvili’s speech. In 2012, Georgian economic growth is again accelerating and the ruling party has finally recovered some of the self-confidence it lost after the 2007 political crisis and the August 2008 war. The ruling party in the years following the Rose Revolution had resolutely used its dominant political position to implement radical reforms. Today, the idealism characteristic of those early years has given way to pragmatism. The political modulation has affected the President’s rhetoric as well: His annual address to the Parliament this year was short on references to abstract liberal values and long on plans to do to meet the needs of various constituencies.
The President’s United National Movement Party early on positioned itself as a transformative political force oriented toward the future. Radical reforms it pushed through over the years produced dramatic results, but not without incurring a political price. That may be a price it figures it can no longer afford. Today, the ruling party’s principal aim appears to be maintaining the status quo in order to firm up support of its existing constituency. For that reason, voters are unlikely to see any radical changes that could just as easily alienate the ruling party’s base as appeal to a potentially wider circle of supporters.
The National Movement’s political calculation derives from the fact that its existing electoral base has proved sufficient to sweep its candidates to victory in six nationwide elections. With the continued support of its base, the National Movement would seem to have a clear path to yet another victory in the parliamentary election in 2012 and again in the presidential elections in 2013. However, the increasingly competitive electoral climate means that neither the ruling party nor any opposition party can afford to neglect even the smallest voter group.
The President’s speech to the Parliament signaled that the ruling party is conscious of the delicate balance required to keep the base happy without abandoning disgruntled citizens. The extent to which the President’s annual address accomplished that objective and won over disillusioned voters remains to be seen.
Those unhappy with the current government are mostly middle-aged urban citizens with lower incomes. Most have been unemployed for quite some time with little or no hope of finding jobs in the foreseeable future. They are not sufficiently disadvantaged to qualify for the state’s various social assistance programs, and it is unlikely that professional-retraining vouchers offered by the President will change their situation in any tangible way.
Reforms implemented in the first years of the Rose Revolution led to an appreciable increase in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). That increase, however, has yet to have any appreciable effect on the employment picture. A new wave of economic reforms might create an upturn in the labor market, but such government initiatives have been dwindling in recent times. The President’s address to the Parliament left little doubt that there would not be any deviation in 2012 from this trend.
Another source of dissatisfaction with the United National Movement is its perceived shortcomings in the sphere of democracy. The number of voters concerned about the state of Georgian democracy is relatively small and mainly concentrated in the capital city, but those voters have a disproportionately high influence on public opinion. Of late, the ruling party has been paying closer attention to citizens’ concerns about deficiencies in the political system. So far, though, its efforts have not gone much beyond rhetoric.
The upcoming elections may provide the National Movement with the opportunity to renew its political contract with supporters. The success of the party in 2012 and 2013 will depend largely on its ability to mobilize its traditional base – aged and young voters from rural and poor populations, minorities, and the newly affluent urban population. The President’s speech was primarily addressed to these voters. If they heard in the President’s words concrete answers to their concerns, other voters worried about unemployment and democracy heard only generalities.
As the President himself acknowledged, numerous citizens have yet to feel the benefit of the country’s success. Saakashvili declared that economic progress is much more than mere statistics; it affects how people feel in and about their country – the country’s success must become people’s personal success. Hence, the ruling party is looking for ways to translate the country’s progress into “progress of more families.”
The challenging question for the United National Movement at this time is whether to address voter concerns by increasing state interference or by engaging the private sector. In earlier years, the government adopted a more liberal approach; in recent years, the state role in such processes has been increasing. At the same time, the state realizes that its assistance can only be temporary and that people ultimately must be able to take care of themselves without relying on the state.
On the issue of Georgian self-sufficiency, President Saakashvili stressed the importance of individual competitiveness. Creating new jobs in Georgia does not necessarily mean greater employment opportunities for Georgians, the President noted, because there is still a problem of individual qualification. Even in their home country, Georgians sometimes fail to compete with foreigners. “Nor is the closure of borders and economic self-isolation the correct path,” Saakashvili added in underscoring the need to improve Georgian competitiveness.
In comments directed toward the international community, Saakashvili spoke about the country’s unwavering Western course and the achievements it has made on the road toward Euro-Atlantic integration. He said the West is a historic choice for Georgia but that Georgia’s long-term security still must be viewed in the context of the security of the Caucasus region. To that end, Georgia’s relationship with the people and countries of the Caucasus must be carried on and deepened. In the words of the President, Georgia “is a window to Europe” for the region. As proof of his interest in improving relations even with Russia, the President disclosed that Georgia has unilaterally abolished visa requirements for Russian citizens.
The President’s orderly speech to the Parliament was followed by disorderly debates in the parliamentary chamber. At certain times, the contentious debates degenerated into an exchange of insults between the President and opposition lawmakers. That lack of civility could be a manifestation of the new pragmatism – the segment of the population that longs for quality political debates still does not constitute a significant enough voting bloc to warrant change. Until it does, conducting an issue-based debate while listening to differing opinions, be they even absurd, will continue to be too formidable a task for our politicians.
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 90, published 5 March 2012.