Georgian Dream: The Western Course as a Constant

The parliamentary elections in Georgia, which were suspenseful right up till election day on October 8, resulted in a commanding win for the ruling party, Georgian Dream, despite running against a long list of parties (19), six electoral blocs and independent candidates.

With 99.41 percent of polling stations reporting, the Georgian Central Election Committee announced that Georgian Dream had received 48.61 percent of votes, compared to 27.04 percent for the opposition party, the United National Movement (UNM).

Indicatively, according to a poll conducted by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) less than three weeks before the elections, about 57 percent of Georgian residents reported not knowing how they would vote. It was impossible to predict the outcome of the elections till the very end.

This uncertainty among voters reflects the political apathy in the country due to the lack of attractive ideas and new charismatic leaders. Analyzing the election campaign, Georgian political scientist Georgy Khukhashvili noted that it showed the weakness of the political elite. The high level of indecision shows that voters disliked both the government and the opposition.

Other parties and associations thought the elections created an opportunity for them to become an established third party. This applies to the party headed by Irakly Alasania, Our Georgia – Free Democrats, which is considered to be extremely pro-Western. The United Georgia Democratic Movement chaired by Nino Burdjanadze is actively promoting Georgia’s non-aligned status and refusal to join NATO. The party leader believes this will restart practical dialogue with Russia. There is also the Alliance of Patriots (AP) chaired by Irma Inashvili, which opposes “Mikheil Saakashvili’s bloody regime” and is considered anti-Western rather than pro-Russian. In addition, new players have recently appeared on the domestic political scene. One of them is famous opera singer and philanthropist Paata Burchuladze who leads the bloc Paata Burchuladze – State for the People, which was joined by some former members of the UNM.

However, only one of these parties managed to overcome the five percent threshold to win seats in the country’s highest legislative body, notably the Alliance of Patriots – United Opposition.   

Typically, all the major parties that contested these elections advocate Georgia joining NATO and the European Union in their election programs, thus affirming Georgia’s pro-Western foreign policy course.

The victorious Georgian Dream party positions itself as a centrist party that stands both for Georgia’s integration with the West and normalization of relations with Russia. It will not allow relations with Russia to decline dramatically and is less vocal about promoting Western values, which is popular with Georgian conservative-minded voters.

During its four years in power Georgian Dream has not managed to become a monolithic party with a clearly pronounced ideology, which explains its declining approval rating. This was hastened by the withdrawal from the ruling coalition of the Republican Party chaired by David Usupashvili (who became parliament speaker) and Alasania’s party Free Democrats, which enthusiastically advocates Georgia’s integration with West European structures, up to and including NATO. They were joined by many of its former members who held key positions. For example, former Executive Secretary of Georgian Dream Armaz Akhvlediani left the party last May after forcefully criticizing it for “taking the risk of burying Georgian democracy because of its reluctance to get rid of ‘old crocodiles.’” Responding to the charge, Georgian Dream announced its decision to get rid of “anti-Western elements” in order to bring flesh blood into its political council. These facts point to the party’s lack of a clear ideological orientation, which causes it to drift in different directions depending on the situation.

The main opponents of Georgian Dream criticize it for practicing “the politics of yesterday,” with a focus on remaining in power and ignoring the many problems that require radical measures, such as rampant corruption, poor performance of law enforcement bodies and the growing influence of conservative Orthodox clergy, which is not conducive to the development of a democratic state.

As for the UNM’s assets, its main advantage was the fact that it has preserved its main core in the national parliament, which helped it to remain afloat. The party is represented in parliament and has done well in local elections.

In May 2016, the UNM officially presented a list of 10 main candidates for the parliamentary elections. It included prominent diplomats and members of parliament, reflecting Saakashvili’s call to attract “fresh faces” to the party.

It is clear that Georgia’s Western trajectory is immutable and its future belongs not so much to the parties that won the elections as to the continuity of its foreign policy towards integration with the West and the development of a genuinely democratic society. This is conditioned by the following factors.

First, during his presidency Saakashvili managed to turn that generation of youth into real yuppies. They enthusiastically support the values of Western democracy, such as liberal reforms and democratic standards that are critical to integration with the West, but are very far removed from Russian culture and the Russian language. Apart from this conflict of the generations, with young people unanimously embracing democratic values, the main common thread uniting the nation is disapproval of what they see as Russia’s occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This factor largely explains the pro-Western views of Georgian voters as a counterweight to Russia.

Second, Georgia’s policy of pursuing closer relations with NATO and other Euro-Atlantic structures is essentially fixed. In Tbilisi’s opinion, in the past Moscow did not do a good job in its role of guarantor of Georgia’s security.

Third, support for major social programs promised by the Georgian Dream coalition that replaced Saakashvili’s UNM in 2012 revealed the limits of its capabilities and failed to ensure long-term political unity and stability in society.

Thus, the seeds of democracy sown by Saakashvili during his ten years in power, as well as the Western model of democracy had not been crushed. On the contrary, they are widely disseminated and supported by a segment of Georgian society. It was under the UNM leadership that a new Georgian nation was formed on the basis of prioritizing Western values and hatred of everything Soviet.

The parliamentary elections in Georgia in early October will have a decisive impact on the country’s future. Their outcome will determine the makeup of both the highest legislative body and the Government, which will carry out the foreign and domestic policy and will be responsible to the Georgian voters for it.

However, Georgia’s real challenges will not disappear after the elections. These are the economy and threats to security from the south, which may somewhat affect the Western trajectory of Georgian policy.

Nana Gegelashvili is Head of the Regional Problems Center, Institute for US and Canadian Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.