When All Else Fails, Try Democracy

Georgian president Saakashvili isn’t scheduled to leave office until 2013. But he’s already planning his retirement, and not without some excitement.

“The biggest response I can have [following the August war] is to organize a smooth transition of power not controlled by the Russians,” he told parliament Monday, July 20, as reported by Civil.ge. “It would tell the neighbors—the people and not just the leaders – that Putin is no longer the main street bully in the neighborhood.”

In his speech, he spoke darkly of the encroaching Russian presence that occupies Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and of additional Russian interference in Tbilisi politics.

“We face hard times; parts of our territories are occupied by invaders, which also try to undermine our state through real and not invented conspiracies,” he said.

He likewise spoke darkly of the domestic opposition groups aligned against him, and his own inability to make them go away.

“Everyone has seen that no one is afraid of shouting from the streets, especially they are not afraid of that who came into power through revolution,” he said.

Then he laid out his one answer to these foreign and domestic threats: reform.

“Our only response to these challenges should be deepening democracy,” he said. Specifically:

  • A new Central Election Commission (CEC) with a new chair selected only with broad approval between the political parties;
  • More rights for expatriates
  • A new public TV channel on which “even the smallest political groups” will be free to express opinions and hold discussions; and
  • Large-scale dialogues among national officials and local officials, including those affiliated with the opposition parties. With enough effort by all involved, “We can turn this large-scale dialogue into new large wave of democracy.”

Why is Saakashvili talking now about the end of his presidency, given that it is four years away? Moreover, why is he painting his retirement and replacement by a new president as the strongest rebuke he can make to his Russian adversaries?

The answer to both questions is the same: He’s being realistic. When he looks ahead over the next four years, he sees that his leadership mandate is already over; he has too few supporters left to pursue any serious policy agenda. And he knows that, practically speaking, letting a new president be replaced probably is the strongest rebuke he can make to Russia; there isn’t much else he can do—by his own admission, joining NATO is almost out of the question, and winning back Abkhazia and South Ossetia will not happen any time soon.

And perhaps he is also being strategic. He knows that if he has any remaining chance of NATO membership, it lies in his making some new friends in the West. What better way to achieve this than through a “new wave” of democratic transparency? Note the Tuesday, July 21 statement of Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia Giga Bokeria to the Wall Street Journal: “If Russia will block Georgia’s joining to NATO, it would be a tragedy. Russia is really not able to do it, as evidenced by the position of President Obama,” said Bokeria.

Bokeria said three key things: that Georgia still aims for a place in NATO, that Russia is an opponent, and that the United States is Russia’s counterweight.

Not incidentally, if you’re seeing a recurring theme of Russia as the bogeyman, then you are right. Saakashvili’s pitches frequently vilify Russia as a looming menace. Much of this is understandable, of course, given last year’s war and Russia’s general track record of inserting itself into neighboring republics’ politics.

But a large part of it is also rhetorical. Reform is what the opposition has wanted all along, and Saakashvili is purporting to give it to them. But how to acquiesce without looking like he is acquiescing? Find an outside enemy and portray the reform agenda as a banishment of that enemy from your country’s midst.

Saakashvili is saving face, finding a foreign scapegoat, and pitching a final appeal to the West, all at the same time. He may be an inept politician, but he is a politician all the same.

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