Guram SHARIA – Independent analyst and researcher
The US State Secretary Hillary Clinton ended up her Georgian leg of the Caucasian tour on June 5. The hosts chose Batumi as the right place to greet the high ranking guest from the USA. Saakashvili has made it a tradition trying to make Batumi a showcase of the “Georgian miracle”. It’s not a secret the official Tbilisi conducts a propaganda and advertisement campaign inside the country and abroad to bolster the image of Georgia as a country going through successful reforms, the one that has eliminated corruption and created ideal business conditions – the factors that spur economic growth changing the look of Georgian cities.
They had renovated the heart of Batumi, painted facades, built (mainly thanks to Turkish investments) a few new hotels. Now the city has become an “unofficial capital” for Saakashvii. The real capital evokes mixed feelings in him, something one can conclude listening to what he says. Tbilisi offers him the same treatment, especially the heart of the city, where large scale protests have become a regular occasion (at least once a year) the last four-five years. He is more comfortable in provincial urban areas – like Batumi or Kutaisi, for instance, where the national parliament has moved recently.
The internal situation in Georgia was the major storyline of the visit. The parliamentary election is to take place in autumn. For the first time the parliamentary majority will elect prime minister at large while the presidential powers are significantly reduced according to the recent amendments to the constitution. By the middle of 2011 the political situation in Georgia appeared to be in a deadlock after tough measures taken to break up the rally on Rustaveli avenue on May 26. Before that, a number of political parties, for instance the Labor, the National Forum, the party of Nino Burjanadze, and some others, boycotted the local elections in 2010. But unexpectedly intensified activities of oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili gave an abrupt impetus to the reinvigoration of political life and gave hope to those who supported peaceful power transition through elections.
Ivanishvili started buoyant political activities, a few parties joined him. It gave birth to political coalition called Georgian Dream. The newly born politician was confident saying no matter unequal conditions his coalition was going to hold a landslide victory and gain constitutional majority in parliament. On May 27 Tbilisi saw a rally unprecedented in scope in recent years, the number of protesters went up to 100 thousand people. It was organized by Ivanishvili and his supporters. Encouraged by such a wide support the Georgian Dream backers were ready to celebrate the election victory in advance, being sure it was a cut and dried outcome.
But as everyone knows the USA has been actively intervening into the internal politics in Georgia for over 15 years. It has gone as far as to make many Georgian citizens and social networks participants guess who’d get the US support at the next election to be sure about the winner. “The lord will come, the lord will judge us” kind of mentality has become deeply rooted in some segments of Georgian society or even the major part of it. Looks like taking having it in mind, Ivanishvili launched a mass lobbyist campaign in the USA trying to get the support of the Washington’s influential circles. Lobbyist and PR agencies were recruited, articles published in US newspapers, the Georgian Dream envoys went to America. These intensive activities even caused exasperation among some elements of the US elite that appears to look with favor at the ruling Georgian regime. For instance, some media outlets reported that Senator Durbin, who visited Georgia some time ago, gave Ivanishvili an advice not to waste funds in the USA. The rhetoric of Ivanishvili and his supporters has become too pro-Western in recent months hardly lagging behind the verbiage of Saakashvili and his colleagues.
Looks like the USA is not going to reject the “time tested” Saakashvili. Failures add to experience. Though an elegant gesture of getting rid of “our sons of bitches” (going back to F. Roosevelt expressing his attitude towards one of Latin American dictators) has always been a favorite policy of Americans, this is not the case as yet. The public opinion polls conducted by two American agencies: IRI and NDI indirectly make the USA abstain from doing so. The polls may be considered as indicators of the election results in Georgia. They say the ruling party is leading by a large margin leaving the Georgian Dream political coalition and others far behind. The Ivanishvili camp’s reaction was negative, they published the results of other polls proving there is a narrow gap between the two opposing forces. But the Americans will hardly take these objections into account and stop conducting such surveys, at least not in the near future.
As I mentioned above, the despondency in the Georgian billionaire’s camp caused by the polls gave place to inspiration as a result of the May 27 protest. Then the Clinton’s visit could have shifted the balance in theory, Had the State Secretary met privately Ivanishvili or, at least, the representatives of the coalition, she could have tipped it. Or had she hinted that the USA would not support Saakashvili holding a position in power structures after 2013, when his term expires, that would do. But nothing like this happened. In Batumi Clinton met four opposition representatives together. True, two of them belonged to the Ivanishvili’s coalition, but Usupashvili, the Republican leader, almost never misses this kind of events for being one of the most pro-Western politicians. The pattern of the meeting with the presence of so called “pocket” opposition happened to be a frustration for the Georgian Dream activists.
The words of the State Secretary about a need for democratic transition of power through elections most captured the attention. She was expected to say so, the statement has become kind of a mantra for US politicians repeated constantly for already a few months. But Saakashvii was unperturbed saying he did agree and that’s what he was going to do, adding bashfully that the ‘democratic” election bringing to power the very same party is exactly the “democratic transition of power”.
One more intriguing thing was the attitude of the US guest towards the possibility of Saakashvili becoming prime minister after 2013. It would put the USA into a kind of awkward position for since the Bush, Jr times Georgia has been called a “democracy lighthouse” in the Caucasus and an example for all the countries of post-Soviet space. This time Clinton by and large repeated the very same thing causing discontent among experts leaning to the opposition. For instance, S. Ciskarishvili, the one near to the Ivanishvili’s coalition, said the USA should apply to Georgia the same standards as to itself. According to him it’s unacceptable to talk about democracy in Georgia or its leadership in this field at the regional level at the time “democracy in the country is based on absolute lie”.
The pro-government media grasped at the statement assuring the public that it was the way the USA supported the ruling regime and Saakashvili personally. The loyal TV channels news broadcasts were full of pictures showing Saakashvili and the State Secretary walking the streets of Batumi cracking jokes etc. The mood of “Misha’s” rank and file supporters, called the MIshists in Georgia, went up again after dropping low during the recent weeks before the visit.
Clinton never mentioned directly the possibility of Saakashvili becoming prime minister but a Reuter correspondent asked the Georgian President about it. He answered in a diplomatic way saying it was not individuals but rather government institutions that were important. Clinton interfered stressing the role of individuals in shaping the institutions. Expert R. Sakwarelidze construed the remark as a hint saying the Americans were not satisfied with this scenario. According to him Saakashvili strives to hold the position but cannot say so openly trying to avoid comparison with Putin.
These are the issues the Georgian public and political circles were interested in while international agenda paled in significance. For instance, the Chicago NATO summit took no drastic decision on potential Georgian membership, so the issue was not raised during the visit. Nothing substantial was said on the issue. The vivid interest of the press was evoked by statements about the participation of the Russia armed forces in the Caucasus – 2012 exercise to take place in autumn in North Caucasus. Clinton and Saakashvii stressed the exercises wouldn’t influence free expression of Georgian people taking independent decisions to define their fate. Clinton asked Russia again to adhere to the conditions of ceasefire agreed to in August 2008, though Russia had said it considered all conditions fulfilled.
To emphasize the progress in the field of military cooperation the ceremony was held to transfer a small patrol boat to the Georgian border guards, a deal funded by the USA. It was met ironically in social networks. Many remember the USA rendered no real military support to Georgia in August 2008.
At last, a few words about a concrete result of the visit concerning the recognition of “neutral passports” that Georgia plans to give to the citizens of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Trying to make part of the population take its side, Tbilisi comes with inventions of different kinds. One of them is the idea to issue “neutral passports” to those who live in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The documents will allow traveling around the world and will lack any symbols of Georgia. The authors of the idea hope it’ll make people become the passport holders. Then Clinton would say the USA is ready to recognize the passports and let in young people coming from the regions to the USA to study or for any other reasons.
The Georgian experts expressed scepticism concerning the issue. P. Zakareishvili, D. Khutsishvii and others said the people in South Ossetia and Abkhazia will hold neither Georgian, nor “neutral” passports because the people and leadership of the republics are against cooperation with official Tbilisi till the dividing issues are not solved. The USA will hardly change anything here. It’s about the general policy of Georgia based on tough anti-Russian stance while Russia strives for improvement of relations with all the peoples of the North Caucasus.
In general the Clinton’s visit played into the hands of the ruling authorities that managed to make it look like the USA “blessing” for the prolongation of the Saakashvili and his party’s hold on power. The dream of Georgian opposition to replace the “nationals” from the chosen position of American favorites failed to come true…