Wednesday, October 10, 2012

All change in Georgia’s landmark election – but little change on foreign policy

Niall Ahern

Now the post-election euphoria has settled in Georgia, it is worth thinking about what, if anything, the election of a businessman with little or no desire to be in politics prior to the election means for Georgian foreign policy. It is worth remembering that Bidzina Ivanishvili only made the pledge to a handful of coalition partners a year ago to challenge President Mikheil Saakashvili at the ballot box. Yet on October 1st he kept his pledge by defeating Mr Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) by getting 55% of the popular vote. Although it has become clearer in recent days that Mr Saakashvili will probably not be stepping down as President before his term runs out towards the end of 2013, the questions remain as to which direction Georgia’s foreign policy will now take.

Most importantly, Mr Ivanishvili has already stated in a press conference that Mr Saakashviki’s attempts to make Georgia a world player were a mistake and in the future ‘we are going to become a regional player and improve relations with neighbours, including Russia’ Considering the two nations went to war in 2008, this should be seen as a positive sign. However this is not to say that relations with the US will now be cast aside. At the same press conference Mr Ivanishvili said that his first visit would be to the US, demonstrating that fears his election would tilt influence significantly in Russia’s direction may be far fetched. It is important not to forget that Georgia is an unusual country in a region full of contrasts. Unlike some western European nations, this is a country where the EU flag flies on nearly every government building. It is a country that holds institutions such as the EU and NATO in high regard as a guarantee of security and stability. Despite the fact Mr Ivanishvili disagrees with how Mr Saakashvili went about conducting Georgia’s foreign relations, he is unlikely to completely change course with the relations already built. It is more likely Mr Ivanishvili will continue on the same path Georgia has been on since the end of the 2008 war. This is because even if Mr Ivanishvili wanted to press ahead further with EU and NATO membership at the end of 2013 as the Constitutional changes which give him more power come into effect, he would find reluctant partners to reciprocate in Brussels. With Putin back in power and making louder noises already about NATO expansion, it is highly unlikely he would ever allow this expansion on Russia’s border. In addition there are several NATO members who are unlikely to allow Georgia to join purely for not wanting to stoke tensions with Russia. Similarly, should Mr Ivanishvili go to the EU he is likely to get a cold response as the continent is still likely to be scraping through one of the most challenging periods in its history. Few if any EU leaders will have the appetite to explain to voters why we should be enlarging the EU further still.

Ultimately foreign policy under Mr Ivanishvilli is likely to be a combination of trying to pleasing all. He will continue to have negotiations with the EU and particularly NATO about future membership. He will visit the US and maintain strong ties with the nation, yet it is Russian relations where Mr Ivanishvili’s election may have the largest impact. The two countries have had no diplomatic relations following the 2008 war and this can arguably be down to the fact Mr Saakashvili is still in power. Although Russia’s Foreign Minister has said encouraging words about working with Georgia’s new Prime Minister, there is still a lot to disagree about. These disagreements are most likely to be seen on the status of the two breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia which Russia now recognises as independent states. The two countries both have a long way to go until relations are back to their pre-2008 levels.

Therefore despite the fact this election really was remarkable and will go down in regions history as one of the most significant, Georgia’s foreign policy will change little over the next few years. This isn’t to suggest Mr Ivanishvili will achieve little during his period in office. Georgia still faces huge problems domestically on several issues such as unemployment which has remained stubbornly high since the ‘rose revolution’. Yet on foreign issues, the international community shouldn’t expect too many differences under Mr Ivanishvili.