Georgia at the Polls

georgiagasmask.jpgIt was a fantasy come true for the Kremlin apologists. Distracted for just a moment from their diligent yet nutty work debunking the supposedly anti-Putin agenda/conspiracy in the international press (how these people reconcile that position with the Time nomination is beyond all logic), they took notice of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s terrifying brutal crackdown against opposition protesters last November – the consequences of which have led to today’s disputed snap election. The scary scenes of jackboot riot police beating the peaceful marching crowds seemed like it was pulled directly from Moscow, Myanmar, or even Kenya (apart from Georgia’s innovation of the Mickey Mouse gas mask for the riot police (pictured)). What exquisite hypocrisy!, exclaimed the apologists – here we have the golden boy of the West, a man who holds diplomas from Columbia, George Washington, and the International Institute of Human Rights, behaving like a tin-pot despot! Now no one can complain about a few imperfections in Russia, they concluded, and declared the so-called “color revolutions” to have been officially and definitively defeated.

So while double standards may be the preferred kool-aid drunk by Russia apologists, their enthusiasm must have been watered down when Saakashvili was so quickly turned upon by his friends in Western governments and in the press. It is indeed the most dramatic reversal of fortunes in terms of public profile I’ve seen in recent times – one day he is emblazoned across special takeout sections of the FT as a hero of the Rose Revolution, promoting investment opportunities in Georgia, the next, he is seen as another unfortunately entrenched autocrat.After Saakashvili shut down a Rupert Murdoch-owned television station, heads really started to roll. Anne Applebaum made a dramatic indictment against Saakashvili in the Washington Post during the crackdown, remarking that he “probably did more damage to American “democracy promotion” than a dozen Pervez Musharrafs ever could have done.” Sean McCormick of the U.S. State Department also expressed the government’s disappointment in the Georgian president, and demanded that all emergency measures be rolled back.Despite losing some friends, as controversial polls close across Georgia at the time of writing, it seems he will again be extended his mandate, raising several urgent questions, especially regarding the small nation’s relations with Russia and the West.This is no small accomplishment given the efforts from Moscow to unseat him. While it seems a stretch to believe Mr. Saakashvili’s claims that all the opposition protesters were put up to the actions from the Kremlin, there have been other more clearly visible moves designed to create instability and drive a wedge between the president and his supporters. A devastating economic boycott, several skirmishes involving flyovers and even a dropped missile, and of course Russia’s open support of secessionist regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia (which some sources say Russia is willing to officially recognize the independence of if Saakashvili wins, which will be seen as a declaration of war).There is also a paradox to Saakashvili’s political strength and confidence – without the West’s extraordinary worries over Gazprom’s monopoly of natural gas from the East to Europe, it would seem unlikely that he would have weathered the storm last November or survived the elections today. Georgia has successfully diverisified its economy away from Russia, and is betting its future on a new role an energy supply transit country, with the Western-backed BTC pipeline as the centerpiece.Indeed many in the West breathed a sigh of relief when Saakashvili “defused” the political crisis las November by calling elections a year early. However what many failed to realize was that the Georgian president was swiftly eliminating one of his most powerful competitors by calling elections before he was of legal age to compete. Irakli Okruashvili now fears for his life, and is applying for political asylum in Germany. This left Levan Gachechiladze to lead the opposition, and although it appears he will come in second place following today’s vote, he has strongly denounced the voting process to have been rigged.The controversial reelection of Saakashvili features many characteristics that other nations around Russia’s borders will have to come to terms with in future elections. To what extent should these leaders attempt to defend their sovereignty from a Kremlin that has clearly expressed its desire to reign them in? Is is possible to “needlessly antagonize” the Russian leadership in ways that does not serve the interests of citizens?Many more questions will come up as we see how the election observers will treat the Georgian contest, but the options available to emerging democracies in the post-Soviet space are indeed unattractive.