Throughout its independent history, since 1991, Georgia has never witnessed a democratic transfer of power.
The Georgian government will have to pass a ‘litmus test’ with the upcoming 2012 parliamentary and 2013 presidential elections, as the Secretary General of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, stated last November.
Since 2004 Georgia has embarked on an ambitious democratic reform agenda. Many of the reforms implemented are outstanding. Good progress was made on fighting low-level corruption, reforming the police and building infrastructure, but many core democratic reforms still need to take root.
The poor track-record on media freedom, high-level corruption, political pluralism, transparency and accountability and spending remain problematic in Georgia’s progression towards a mature democracy.
The current Georgian leadership is young and ambitious. They believe they are the only ones who can carry forward the ‘democracy agenda’ they initiated. This narrative has been further reinforced by the notoriously weak and divided Georgian opposition.
But in October 2011, the unexpected appearance of Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili on the scene has changed the political cards. Although his wealth is estimated at $6.4 billion – roughly half of Georgian GDP – Ivanishvili has kept a very low profile throughout the past years. He is hardly known abroad and many look at his political goals with skepticism, asking “who is he” and inquiring about his agenda. Georgians however, know him well, although because of his charity actions, not his political views.
On 11 October 2011 Ivanishvili was stripped off his Georgian citizenship (he also has French citizenship and had Russian citizenship until October 2011). His application to obtain Georgian citizenship through naturalisation was submitted on 5 January 2012. In early April Civil Registry Agency of the Ministry of Justice rejected his application. However, on 5 April Georgian law-makers came forward with a ‘groundbreaking’ proposal for constitutional amendment ‘to grant a Georgian-born EU citizen, who has lived at least ten years in Georgia, political rights, including the right to be elected as lawmakers, as President or the right to become PM.’
Next year Georgia is moving from a presidential to a parliamentary system. Parliament will be elected in October 2012 and will have increased powers and at the same time will appoint a Prime Minister. The roles of the President and Prime Minister will change, giving the latter increased power over the former.
The constitution of Georgia does not allow President Saakashvili to run for a third term. Many wonder what the young President will do. Will he opt for the Prime-Minister post or will he leave politics all together?
A small country like Georgia, located in a very complicated geopolitical context, is largely dependent on political and economic support from the West. This makes it imperative for Georgia to convince European and American allies that the long way Georgia has come since 2004 will be kept in the right direction and the stalled democratisation process will gain momentum again.
This gives democracy-reform watchdogs, the EU and US some leverage to urge Georgia to continue its reforms, or even better, re-start real democratic reforms. This year’s parliamentary elections should be closely scrutinized by Georgia’s western friends. Transparency, accountability and free and fair elections should not be measured ex post by technical reports alone, but also by assessing the pre-electoral process and campaigning including the level of pluralism and the freedom of media in the run up to the elections.
A democratic change of power would be a novelty in Georgia and thus an essential piece of the Georgian ‘democratic reform puzzle’.