Volume I, Number 2; 30 April 2012

Eurasia Analyst

A publication of independent researchers

Volume I, Number 2; 30 April 2012

In this Issue:

Troubled succession and the Georgian Political System by Robyn Angley

The Republic of Georgia has experienced only two changes in executive leadership since the Soviet collapse, with a third scheduled to take place next spring. The legacies of the two earlier leadership transitions continue to have an impact on Georgian politics.  The absence of a consistently implemented norm for succession in Georgia generates uncertainty and instability in the political system, which, in turn, produces negative consequences in the way that both the ruling party and the political opposition conduct themselves.

Post-Soviet Georgia never has experienced a constitutional change of power. Independent Georgia’s first president, the former dissident and strident nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was driven from power by street protests that eventually developed into a militia-led coup, with several of his former allies, including Defense Minister Tengiz Kitovani and his former prime minister Tengiz Sigua, at the forefront of the resistance. Gamsakhurdia’s ouster spurred a civil war in the western part of the country that lasted for several years.

Gamsakhurdia’s successor, former First Secretary of Georgia and Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze ruled as the unopposed chairman of parliament and “head of state” from 1992 until 1995, when Georgia held a presidential election and drafted a new constitution. Shevardnadze’s second presidential election in 2000 was compromised by a pact with Aslan Abashidze, in which Shevardnadze persuaded the Ajarian strongman, his closest rival, to withdraw from the contest in return for concessions from the center.

Subsequently, Shevardnadze, despite having stated his intention to step down at the end of his second presidential term in 2005, resigned after peaceful street demonstrations following flawed parliamentary elections in 2003. At one point during the “Rose Revolution,” the situation was extremely precarious. Protesters, again led by former allies of the president—in this case Mikheil Saakashvili, Zurab Zhvania, and Nino Burjanadze—had taken over parliament. At Saakashvili’s urging, Nino Burjanadze, the Chair of Parliament assumed the position of interim president. Announcing that Shevardnadze had “ignored the will of his own people,”  (1)  Burjanadze declared that she was assuming the position of interim president “until the issue of the president’s capacity is finally resolved.” (2)  Since Shevardnadze had not actually tendered his resignation as president, this created a conflicting situation in which both politicians claimed to be leading the country. Eventually Shevardnadze’s resignation cleared the way for new elections, but his opponents’ preemptive declaration of an interim president clearly transgressed constitutional norms.

After Shevardnadze stepped down, his successor, Mikheil Saakashvili, won fresh elections in 2004. Saakashvili did not complete his full five-year term as president. As a result of a political crisis in November 2007, when the government cracked down on newly emerged opposition protesters, Saakashvili called early elections in January 2008. While he won those elections, there is debate about whether there should have been a run-off between Saakashvili and his primary challenger Levan Gachechiladze.

What can be concluded from this overview is that Georgia has consistently witnessed executive turnover as a result of street demonstrations and protests, some of which have had violent elements or have been repressed by the government. Even the Rose Revolution, hailed as a democratic achievement and the most peaceful transition independent Georgia has had to date, nevertheless constituted the extra-constitutional removal of a sitting president during parliamentary elections held only partway through his second term.

There is also a pattern of challenge from divided elites. Despite the consistent presence of public protests as a factor, both Gamsakhurdia and Shevardnadze actually were ousted by former members of their own inner circle. Gamsakhurdia’s rebranded opponents included former officials in his government and Shevardnadze’s major challenge came from a young cadre of reformers that he had groomed. Several years earlier, one of the leaders of the Rose Revolution, Zurab Zhvania, often was mentioned as one of Shevardnadze’s possible successors. The resistance of the ruling party to the participation of viable opposition parties in politics, as opposed to quiescent factions, seems to force elites, once they have been excised from the inner circle, to pose a new challenge from outside the system if they want to exert political influence.

If Georgia never has experienced a constitutional transfer of power, it does at least seem to be growing more peaceful and formalized. In a sense, Georgia’s transitions have been on a progressive trajectory after Gamaskhurdia’s removal – from violent coup to peaceful extraconstitutional protests to what looks like it will be, in 2013, a manipulation of the system to maintain formal adherence to democratic norms. When considering Gamsakhurdia’s coup and subsequent civil war, Shevardnadze’s resignation after weeks of street protests, and Saakashvili’s call for early elections following brief demonstrations and a government crackdown in 2007, a trend of increasingly quick and relatively non-violent resolution of succession conflict seems to be emerging. The preliminary preparations for the end of Saakashvili’s second term in 2013 seem to suggest that the next transfer of power technically will conform to Georgian legislation, a post-independence first. The constitution was amended in 2010 to shift the preponderance of power from the president to the prime minister, effective in 2013. The prime minister will be selected by the party that garners the most votes in the parliamentary elections this fall, and many people suspect that Saakashvili may become prime minister. Though the constitution and political system have been altered in ways that clearly are intended to benefit the ruling party, establishing and following a formal procedure for selecting the country’s most influential politicians would still constitute a significant step for Georgia, given its post-Soviet history. Even better, given the government’s claims to be a democracy, would be if the ruling party allowed a legitimate political opposition to contest the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections without undue state interference.

This trend of extra-constitutional succession— the absence of a clearly defined, publicly accepted, and routinely implemented norm for the transfer of power in Georgia—injects an element of uncertainty that makes it very difficult for either the government, the opposition, or the citizenry to predict exactly how succession will be handled.

This element of uncertainty encourages the ruling party to interfere with the electoral process in order to preserve its dominant position, since the established pattern thus far is that once you leave power, you are out permanently. A system has not developed in Georgia where a party could leave power and then return in the next election. The fact that governance is essentially a “one shot deal” means that politicians have incentives to manipulate elections and the rules of the game in order to stay in power. It also influences how they implement their policy objectives. The risk of removal fosters an inclination to rush to accomplish as much as they can in the short term, with or without public input and support, because the fulfillment of their elected mandate is not fully guaranteed. This short time horizon, while endemic to many political systems, is particularly pronounced in Saakashvili’s Georgia. The recent debate regarding changing the constitution to permit foreign nationals to run for parliament (apparently aimed at allowing opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili to participate without being granted Georgian citizenship) provides an example of this trend.

Uncertainty regarding political tenure also can lead, perversely, to reduced public accountability and feelings of impunity. If politicians think they may potentially face prosecution once they’re out of power, they have more incentives to exploit the perquisites of power while they still have them. The parties themselves seem to operate on the assumption that once they leave, they will be, at the least, in a state of political exile, if not actually prosecuted.

This sense of uncertainty concerns not just the process of succession (whether it is extra-constitutional, whether it involves an election, etc.) but also the object of succession, i.e., the president or, it may soon be, the prime minister himself. Gamsakhurdia’s erratic leadership did little to support the impression that Georgia would collapse in his absence. Indeed, his nationalistic policies often contributed to unraveling the fragile ties that held it together. Shevardnadze and Saakashvili, however, both have conveyed, to some extent, the impression that, to borrow from the French, “Après moi le déluge.” They position themselves as essential to Georgia’s national security and as the only ones capable of keeping Georgia on the right path. While these leaders are in power, it is hard to picture someone succeeding them, and thoughts of selecting a new leader are tinged with risk.

Political opposition in Georgia often resort to operating outside the established system, a contributing factor to Georgia’s trend of extra-legal power transfers. This tendency to work outside the political system is at least partly due to the ruling party’s use of the state. If the opposition chooses to compete within the system, the odds are in the ruling party’s favor, since it is widely anticipated (and often born out) that politicians and officials will use state resources to contribute to ruling party objectives. Not just the government, but unelected posts are presumed to be the domain of the ruling party and this automatically creates a situation in which attempts to monitor and regulate are seen as promoting the interests of the party in power. Georgia still lacks a professionalized civil service, in the sense of a body of bureaucrats with loyalty to the long-term development of a given institution, rather than a political or economic patron. The patronage system and the lack of a professionalized bureaucracy ensure that the loyalty of state cadres is to the ruling party and, more particularly, to officials close to the chief executive, rather than to a particular bureaucratic objective or to the state. The objectives of the ruling party have become the prerogatives of the state. The entanglement of the ruling party and the state compromises the legitimacy of legal rulings designed to promote “fair” elections and the ability of the state to position itself as an impartial arbiter in disputes between incumbents and challengers. This conflation of party and state, not surprisingly, fosters distrust from opposition politicians and undermines the credibility of state organs, such as the Chamber of Control, which has been tasked with monitoring political party financing.

The pattern of reliance on extra-constitutional means to effect a transfer of power has encouraged a reliance on street tactics like demonstrations and political theater, since the system cannot be relied on as a mechanism for political contestation. The prevalence of street protests as an opposition tactic is interesting given the role of protests in Georgia’s first post-Soviet power transfer, which began as protests and ended in civil war. Part of Gamaskhurdia’s legacy included a mistrust of major demonstrations because of the association not only with the civil war, but also with the reinforced memory of the Soviet massacre of April 9, 1989, which started as a street protest. Activists in the Rose Revolution were very aware of the associations Georgians had with street protests and took significant measures to address the reluctance Georgians felt about engaging in street demonstrations. Their major tactic for overcoming this legacy was to stress the non-violent nature of their planned demonstrations and to train their members in non-violent activism. In some ways, one can interpret the resurgence of protests as a tactic after the Rose Revolution – particularly dating from the autumn of 2007 – as a tribute to their efforts to rehabilitate protests as a viable political gambit.

What does it mean that all of Georgia’s post-Soviet power transfers have involved protests? This phenomenon is indicative of the fact that Georgians do not trust the current electoral system to reflect their choices and also suggests a lack of confidence that incumbents will leave power at the appointed time, at least without tampering with the result in favor of a designated successor.

In Georgia, there is a willingness on both sides to make their own rules: at their demonstrations, opposition groups have historically been willing to demand that the president resign before his term ends and incumbents have been willing to shape and use the system to their own ends through electoral manipulation and favorable legislation. There is not an established norm for succession by which all political elites abide. Instead, the constitution is malleable, with posts such as the prime minister added, abandoned, or enhanced to suit the current regime. In order to reduce the considerable uncertainty endemic in the Georgian political system, Georgian leaders need to establish, in the words of Uri Ra’anan, a “transparent, consistently implemented, non-arbitrary”— and democratic— “transfer of power mechanism.” (3)

* This essay is based on a presentation to the Association for the Study of Nationalities conference, April 19, 2012 as part of the roundtable “Politics of Regime and State in Georgia.”

Source Notes:

1) “Georgian Speaker Blames Crisis on President,” Rustavi 2, 1322 gmt, 22 November 2003; BBC Monitoring in Lexis-Nexis Academic (accessed 21 September 2009).

2) “Georgian Speaker Says She Assumes Presidency, Calls for Stability,” Rustavi 2, 1454 gmt, 22 November 2003; BBC Monitoring in Lexis-Nexis Academic (accessed 21 September 2009).

3) Uri Ra’anan, Flawed Succession: Russia’s Power Transfer Crises, Lexington Books, 2005, pp. xvi-xvii.

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