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3 November 2016

Russia’s Role in Georgia’s Elections

Spectre of Russian influence in Georgian elections muddles its actual role

The powerful neighbor to Georgia’s north looms heavily in its political discourse. The legacy of the 2008 war, its importance as an export destination for Georgian goods, shared history and Moscow’s regular interventions in Georgia’s domestic politics after independence make it an unavoidable topic. In Georgia’s October  elections, the situation was little different. However, far too much coverage of the vote, particularly in the West, focused on identifying who Russia’s proxies are in Georgia rather than understanding how Georgian politicians themselves instrumentalize such accusations or how Russia does intervene in Georgian politics. The focus on potential proxies rather than the reality both distracts from Russian interference and hinders a proper understanding of Georgia’s democratic development.

As the only country in Central Asia or the Caucasus to undergo a democratic transition of power Georgia’s elections are unique. The October 8 vote was dominated by the Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia (GD-DG) and the United National Movement, which sought to return to power four years after being defeated by a coalition led by GD-DG but including many smaller parties that ran independently in the 2016 vote. None of the GD-DG’s former partners crossed the 5 per cent threshold while GD-DG took 48.7% – 44 of the 77 proportional representation seats – to the UNM's 27.1%. GD-DG also won 71 of 73 single member district seats for a total of 115 of the legislature’s 150 seats, a constitutional majority. The Patriots’ Alliance (whose pro-Russian characterization is discussed at length below) also narrowly made it into parliament with 5.01% of votes, a result that will likely be the source of significant contention over the legislature’s 4 year term as it grants the party six seats, the minimum to form an parliamentary bloc.

One regrettable fact of coverage of elections in the former-Soviet Union in general, and Georgia in particular, is that most coverage, particularly in the West, focuses only on whether Moscow and its alleged proxies are winning or losing. This has led to such misleading reports as a claiming ‘several pro-Russian parties' would make it into parliament in a major U.S. newspaper or description of the Voice of America headline that a “Pro-Russian Party Wins Toe-hold in Georgia's New Parliament” in reference to the Patriots’ Alliance.

The Patriots’ Alliance is certainly religious, populist and conservative, but this should not be mistaken for support for Moscow, particularly in Georgia. In fact the PA’s leadership includes Emzar Kvitsiani, who effectively held the Kodori Gorge out of Abkhaz control –the Patriots’ Alliance website refers to him as the valley’s warlord - with the backing of former president Mikheil Saakashvili, arguably Georgia’s most anti-Kremlin figure. Kvitsiani later fled to Russia when falling out with Saakashvili but describing him, and especially his electoral appeal, merely as pro-Russian is a gross oversimplification. The Patriots’ Alliance also includes the son of Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Moscow's original bête-noire in Tbilisi, and Kakha Kukava, who helped lead Georgia out of the Russian-led CIS. Analyst Michael Cecire’s description of the party as ‘neo-Mkhedrioni,’ a reference to the extreme nationalist Georgian militia of the 1990’s – which, yes, occasionally collaborated with Russian interests – is far more apt.

A similar phenomenon occurred after the 2012 election, when the Georgian Dream was often labelled pro-Russian, although many recognized this was an attempt by Saakashvili’s then-ruling United National Movement (UNM).  That is not to say there are not pro-Russian parties in Georgia, there are. Examples include Nino Burjanadze's Democratic Movement-United Georgia and the Industrialists-Our Homeland bloc. The minuscule Centrists Party could also technically be included, but it was banned in August after openly calling for Russian pensions and calls for the 'legalization' of Russian military bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. 

None of the above-mentioned parties – those that are openly pro-Moscow – cleared the parliamentary threshold, with support for Burjanadze’s party falling to 3.54% from just over 10% in the 2014 local elections. The Industrialists held six seats in the incumbent parliament, as they ran as under the united Georgian Dream coalition in 2012. The Patriots’ Alliance is the only party other than the UNM or the ruling Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia party to clear the parliamentary threshold, and only by 115 votes, according to the Central Electoral Commission’s latest results.

The Patriots’ Alliance will clearly face major challenges in gaining an electoral foothold, despite the fact that former prime minister and billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili - the grey-cardinal behind the GD-DG despite his public denials -  has said he wants to see the party emerge as a third political force. Its supporters allege the pro-Russian label is merely the work of its longstanding opponents in the UNM and Saakashvili personally. Whether or not there is any truth to these claims, it is clear that the narrative of the party as pro-Russian, or alternatively as a neo-Mkhedrioni movement, or as nationalists as the party describes itself is extremely important to its electoral chances.

Meanwhile, far less-attention has been paid to the Industrialst’s candidate, Simon Nozadze, who won the majoritarian race for Khashuri. The Industrialists are increasingly openly pro-Russian but will go down from the six parliamentary seats to at most one, hardly a success for pro-Russian parties in the Georgian legislature, despite the aforementioned headlines. Burjanadze’s party did secure representation in the legislature of the autonomous Adjara region, a development that may well deserve further attention in the future.

The hunt for pro-Russian bogeymen not only distracts from a sober analysis of these developments but has also meant less attention to the areas in which Russia does actively intervene in Georgian politics, in order to thereby later address claims that it does so. First and foremost, Moscow’s recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia puts it at direct odds with Tbilisi, hindering the possibility of a full resumption of diplomatic relations. The inability of residents of the two separatist regions to vote in Georgian elections also strips Moscow of a likely loyal electoral block but the Kremlin appears more than willing to exchange for the guarantee of a seat at the table in any eventual reconciliation. The Kremlin does use the separatist regions to influence Georgian politics, however, most notably through the ‘borderisation’ process around South Ossetia. The inability of 230,000+ internally displaced persons (IDPs) to return to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and Tbilisi’s ability to provide for them, is another major resulting political issue. Some in Georgia believe the May 19 shooting incident at one of the few crossing points into Abkhaz-controlled territory, and an uptick in the number of detentions of Georgian nationals by Russian and Abkhaz border guards, was an attempt to highlight the government’s inability to make progress on Abkhazia as well as South Ossetia ahead of the vote.

A related example of how Moscow influences political discourse in Georgia is its refusal to supply Abkhazia, which it recognizes as independent, with electricity, instead having Georgia pay for it this year when the electricity from the joint Abkhaz-Georgian operated Inguri hydropower plant proved insufficient earlier this year. Russia then also highlighted this in its regional news agencies. While to many it would seem that highlighting this could help support Abkhaz-Georgian reconciliation, the issue of the Georgian government paying for electricity in Abkhazia is extremely controversial amongst IDPs, who do not support Tbilisi paying for electricity for the homes they cannot return to, inhabited by the people they allege prevent them from doing so.

Russia will continue to play a significant role in Georgian politics for the foreseeable future, even if its outright proxy parties remain unelectable. Political issues about how to steer Georgia will remain divisive even if all parties share the ultimate goal of Euro-Atlantic integration – yes, even the Patriots’ Alliance. Security issues will also remain outside Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as highlighted by the attempted assassination of UNM deputy Givi Targamadze just days before the first-round vote or the unprecedented 23 October attack by an unknown gunman on the NATO-Georgia Joint Training and Evaluation Center. Remarkably, these have generated far less headlines about potential Russian involvement. While there is presently no evidence to Russian involvement, Targamadze is wanted in Moscow for allegedly attempting to provoke a revolution, and the Kremlin also viciously opposes the training center. As witnessed by the aforementioned Abkhaz and South Ossetia border incidents, there is precedent for the Kremlin to engage in such forms of political violence to bolster its political aims. While speculation is always dangerous, better to spend the precious publication space afforded to the South Caucasus to that for which there is precedent, not that Georgia’s democracy has been coopted by Russia, for which there is none.  

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