As Georgia gets ready for runoff elections, tensions are high. The opposition and incumbents are at odds, and calls continue for the top election official to resign. Much is at stake in the outcome of the second round. Critics of the first round are calling for recounts, if not outright new elections. For Americans, recent developments in the Caucasus nation sound awfully familiar.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is due to arrive in Tbilisi, Georgia, Tuesday evening for meetings Wednesday. Pompeo’s trip, the most high-level visit to the country since Vice President Mike Pence was there in the summer of 2017, comes at a volatile time for both Georgia and the United States and risks undermining U.S. policy toward Georgia if not handled carefully.
Georgia, the most pro-Western state in the Eurasia region, has been an island of fragile democracy in a sea of authoritarianism and instability. An important strategic partner of the United States, Georgian troops have fought with Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan. Together with Ukraine, Georgia is the only country in Eurasia that aspires to join NATO and the EU. The U.S. Army and Marines have train-and-equip programs in Georgia to help its military to deploy with us, and to deter further Russian aggression. (After the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, Russia still occupies about 20 percent of Georgian territory in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.) The recent fighting between Georgia’s neighbors, Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the deployment of a nearly 2,000-member Russian peacekeeping force to the South Caucasus, highlight the precarious position in which Georgia finds itself.
For the past two weeks, Georgia, a country of 3.7 million people, has become embroiled in a political crisis over contested parliamentary elections. The party in power, Georgian Dream, claims to have won the October 31 elections with 48 percent of the vote for their party list. (Of the 150 members of the parliament, 120 are elected by at-large party lists while 30 are elected from single-member districts.) At the same time, eight opposition parties received enough votes to be represented in the parliament.
Opposition parties, disunited before the election, have come together to accuse Georgian Dream of rigging the election and have vowed to boycott upcoming runoff races. They have also declared that they will not take their seats in the new parliament unless Georgia Dream yields to their demands, which include holding new elections, the removal of the head of the Central Election Commission, and release of all those detained in protests in the aftermath of the election.
The October 31 elections were indeed flawed, as reflected in assessments by both domestic and international observers. According to the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, “Georgia’s parliamentary elections were competitive and, overall, fundamental freedoms were respected. Nevertheless, pervasive allegations of pressure on voters and blurring of the line between the ruling party and the state reduced public confidence in some aspects of the process.”
While commending Georgians for voting during the coronavirus pandemic, the OSCE observers noted that “the dominance of the ruling party in the election commissions negatively affected the perception of their impartiality and independence, especially at the lower levels.” Reputable domestic observers such as Transparency International were even harsher in their assessments.
Protests over the past week were met with an overly forceful response from the authorities, with more than 300 people arrested and a number injured by water cannons, used without any warning to disperse. Tensions in the country are running high.
The United States, of course, is in the middle of its own controversy, with President Trump refusing to concede defeat to President-elect Joe Biden. That doesn’t leave U.S. officials on the strongest grounds to opine on other countries’ elections. Pompeo, who is the subject of several investigations by the State Department Inspector General, didn’t help matters last week when he absurdly claimed that the United States would see a “smooth transition to a second Trump administration.” Such statements in defiance of the duly recognized results of the U.S. election undermine his credibility to advance democracy and human rights in other countries. He hasn’t earned the swagger he promised he would bring to the State Department, and should consider instead a strong dose of humility instead.
Yet Georgians will be hanging on Pompeo’s every word. His schedule for Tbilisi includes meetings only with government representatives, civil society activists, and the Georgian Patriarch; he has no meetings scheduled with the Georgian opposition. This is a major mistake.
Pompeo should meet with representatives of all parties (except for the pro-Russian Alliance of Patriots). Arriving as he is between rounds of a contested election—the second round for single-member district races is set for this Saturday—and failing to meet with all key political players will create the impression that Pompeo and the United States side with the ruling Georgian Dream party. Pompeo risks badly discrediting America’s standing among the more than 50 percent of the population who did not vote for Georgian Dream.
He is also missing an opportunity to play a key role in encouraging the main parties toward compromise. The United States has long had outsized influence over the situation in Georgia, dating back to the restoration of its independence in 1991, and can ill afford to allow a nascent democracy in an unstable region to become a one-party government, making it even more vulnerable to Russian dictates.
It doesn’t help that Georgian politics have become hyper-personalized, with the Georgian Dream faction dominated by oligarch and former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, and the main opposition party, United National Movement, centered around former president (and former governor of the Odesa Oblast in Ukraine) Mikheil Saakashvili. Indeed, the key challenges facing the country, including the pandemic, the economy, Russia’s continuing threat, and Georgia’s aspirations to join Euro-Atlantic institutions, are often overshadowed by just a couple of personalities. (This too may seem familiar to Americans.)
Over the past few days, Georgian Dream officials and representatives of the opposition parties have met at the residence of the U.S. Ambassador to Tbilisi, Kelly Degnan, along with envoys from the European Union, raising hopes of a compromise. Parachuting into the tense situation in Tbilisi, Pompeo can’t treat his visit as part of some vain farewell tour. He needs to keep America’s support for democracy foremost in mind, expand his itinerary, meet with all major political leaders, not just government representatives, and encourage all parties to reach a satisfactory resolution. American interests in Georgia and the wider region, as well as Georgia’s future, are riding on it.