So even putting aside the disturbing prison abuse videos and ensuing protests, there is a tangible tension in the atmosphere, particularly in Tbilisi, that might actually be stronger than that on the threshold of the Rose Revolution. At least in 2003, there was no popular support for President Shevardnadze’s old regime—even his closest aides did not ultimately defend him. Today’s tension arises from a much different situation, in which the public has polarized into two major camps: UNM (United National Movement ruling party under Saakashvili) and Georgian Dream (opposition party headed by Bidzina Ivanishvili).
Those familiar with politics in the Caucasus know that political parties are generally characterized by a lack of clear ideology, values, or vision. In all three countries, political parties are elite-driven , with a distinct lack of political culture on the basis of party programs, and a lack of debate in parliament on the basis of arguments. Instead, personal charisma dominates by far, with clan politics and clan rewards as a structural incentive. The opposite of America’s entrenched two-party system, Georgia suffers from volatility in its political sphere as a result of a continuously changing supply of these clannish parties, which tend to serve as vehicles of elite actors, rather than means of representation with clear policy platforms. And the leader-centric nature of these parties was found to be reinforced by voter preferences–of Georgian voters, more than half admitted to voting primarily for a party because of its leader, while only ¼ reported the opinion that a party’s program is more important than its leader(s) (Bader 2011). As a result, many “undecided” Georgians are unsure of what even distinguishes one from the other, as both UNM and Georgian Dream have failed to present coherent programs to voters. And the voters who have decided often did so for widely varying reasons. So aside from power, what exactly do these two sides want?
Since independence, Georgia has been referred to by some as a “gray democracy.” Its first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, showed traits of megalomania and dictatorship, and kicked off the time-honored tradition of accusing any opposition parties of treason and/or involvement with the KGB. Shevardnadze and his regime, although allowing for the development of civil society and freer media, was hindered by corruption, weak rule of law, and rigged elections.
There were high hopes for Saakashvili when he “cleaned house” after taking power in 2003, effectively ending the public service culture of bribery and corruption. But while a democrat in name, he has forced reforms forward on executive orders, made possible by a constitution that temporarily granted more power to the president (some of which will be handed down to the prime minister next year). Even with all his reforms and modernization, he has been accused of trampling civil society (and any political opposition) underfoot, surrounding himself with cronies as a buffer against external input.
As this week’s events brought to light, human rights, particularly those of prisoners, were considered irrelevant to Saakashvili’s grand national project. The shoot-the-messenger attitude set by Gamsakhurdia reared its ugly head in his televised comments, once again lowering the quality of political debate–rather than taking full responsibility for problems within the system, the ruling party’s instinctive response is still to question the motives of whoever made the criticism. Effective leaders know that they can become isolated, and welcome views from outside the inner circle. If they don’t, (and in this case, concerns about treatment of prisoners were ignored for years) then the case will be stated more forcefully, for example…in videos that come out twelve days before an election, rather than in a report.
Last month, Saakashvili reportedly made the following unnerving comment during a Shuamtoba event in the Adjaran village of Beshumi: “I am not planning on giving the country we built to you to destroy.” So the answer to what Misha wants is perfectly clear–he wants to keep the present government and modernization projects going even without his personal involvement.
More ambiguous is what Bidzina Ivanishvili plans if his party assumes majority status. Ivanishvili, a Georgian oligarch who built his fortune in Russia’s metals industry during the heady privatization period in the 1990s–Forbes values him at $6.4 billion, a figure that exceeds Georgia’s entire national budget–is an enigmatic and colorful figure. Something of a hermit (his hobbies include rearing exotic animals, modern art connoisseurship , and lavish philanthropy), Ivanishvili abruptly entered politics last year with a vow to rescue his country from the current regime–even referring to President Saakashvili as a “son of a dog” in both domestic and international media. He has since built a coalition of six very diverse parties (named Georgian Dream after a song by his albino rapper son), thus unifying Georgia’s long-fragmented opposition.
The coalition is dedicated not dedicated to a coherent ideology, and Ivanishvili still can’t answer why he is superior to any other candidate or what policy alternatives he offers. His party has support in Tbilisi from urban democratic professionals who want to see the current governing party’s monopoly on power broken, and from teenagers who want to stick it to the Man. Outside the capital, it frequently plays on economic populism and barely-concealed xenophobia. A third group in the alliance comprises former bureaucrats who evidently see Georgian Dream as their route back to power.
This makes for mixed messages: Georgian Dream has attracted some of Georgia’s most pro-Western opposition members and puts forward a foreign-policy platform that commits them to EU and NATO membership, while its new television station, Channel 9, has lashed out at local Western-funded organizations such as the National Democratic Institute and Transparency International for alleged covert support of the current regime. Ivanishvili has also called for better relations with Moscow, which has fueled UNM-hyped rumors that he is in fact a “Russian agent.” As a result, Georgian Dream manages to have broad appeal in that it has only one supreme goal: wresting parliamentary control away from Saakashvili’s UNM.
In sum, Saakashvili’s governing UNM combines a free market Westernizing ideology with the bureaucratic steamrolling of a typical post-Soviet ruling party. Georgian Dream is an even more diverse alliance whose constituents’ only common connection is loyalty to Ivanishvili and opposition to Saakashvili. An obvious concern for voters and observers is that at present, no party fulfills all three fundamental roles of 1.) aggregating the public interest 2.) offering realistic policy alternatives, or 3.) organizing meaningful debate over political concerns. But if the election proceeds peacefully, there may be room for one to develop in the future.