Russia vs US: The Georgian electoral tug-of-war

A World To Win News Service, October 29, 2012

A shift in orientation after the Georgian elections

Georgia held parliamentary elections in October in an intense contest between politicians backed by the U.S. and Russia, reflecting the rivalry between those two powerful states, each seeking to influence this strategically important country. The current Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and his party suffered a humiliating defeat.

The situation was extremely tense as election day approached and the ruling and opposition party supporters prepared for a showdown. On the eve of the election, plane-loads of Western diplomats and American Congressmen arrived in Tbilisi. So did their Russian counterparts. A shuttle mission was set up to prevent a war between the two camps from igniting accidentally. Election officials in many parts of the country were beaten up.

In the middle of the preparations for this potentially explosive election, a video of torture, rape and other forms of abuse in prisons was repeatedly shown on private television channels opposed to President Saakashvili, particularly by a private channel owned by opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili. This video sparked many days of mass protests just before the election. To calm and control the situation the president sacked numerous prison officials and other functionaries, but that did not help. The release of this video showing the extreme abuse of prisoners was an exposure of the Saakashvili government and a blow to his governing party and his Western backers, because filling the country’s prison had been a central feature of Saakashvili’s “anti-corruption” campaign, which he had made his signature issue.

After the elections, Saakashvili had no choice but to admit defeat, a move that surprised many Western diplomats who had expected him to contest the results. Unless he meets demands for a snap presidential election, he will remain in office until the scheduled presidential elections next year. But with his party in control of parliament, Ivanishvili will take the reins of government.

Ranked by Forbes magazine as number 153 in its list of the world’s richest people, Ivanishvili has a personal wealth of 6.4 billion U.S. dollars. By comparison, Georgia’s entire production of goods and services in 2010 (the last year for which its GDP figures are available) was worth less than 16 billion dollars. Although Georgian, he made this massive wealth by doing business in Russia, where he took advantage of privatization over the last two decades by buying state-owned businesses for tens of millions of dollars and selling them for billions. His current holdings include businesses involved in banking, metal, imports, hotels, drug stores, construction, etc

It is no surprise that he pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into his party funds. He seemed not to care when he was imposed a fine of 90.9 million U.S. dollars in June for allegedly violating Georgian legislation on party funding.

Ivanishvili has not concealed his relationship with Russia. During the election campaign and after his victory he made it clear that in his view, the best economic option for Georgia is to re-establish economic ties with Russia, not only because they are neighbours but also because of the history of decades of close links between them. (Annexed by Russia in 1801, after the 1917 Russian Revolution Georgia became a republic and a member of the USSR until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.) However he insisted that he will not change or oppose the country’s good relations with the West and its plan to join NATO.

The defeat of Saakashvili’s party (the United Nation Movement) was also a big blow to its Western supporters and could well cost them their hold over Georgia. There is no doubt that the release of the video and its exposure of so much of the regime’s abuse and hypocrisy had a big impact on voters. But Saakashvili’s unpopularity has much deeper roots.

Saakashvili came to power after his party lost the 2003 parliamentary elections. Calling these elections rigged, and backed by international observers in that claim, he organized protests and demonstrations. Finally, with the support of the West and especially the U.S., he led the storming of the Georgian parliament, forcing  President Eduard Shevardnadze, a former top leader of the USSR, to resign. That was what was known as “the Rose Revolution”.

Active in politics under Shevardnadze, Saakashvili studied law and received a law degree from Columbia University and a fellowship from the U.S. State Department. In 2000 he was appointed vice president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. He later hired a prominent U.S. Republican Party foreign policy adviser as a lobbyist and Daniel Kunin of USAID (an American government agency often responsible for political interference in other countries and sometimes a cover for CIA activity) as a full-time advisor.

 

Saakashvili became famous for advocating that Georgia join Nato, in opposition to Shevardnadze, who seemed to want to play off the West and Russia against each other.

 

But Saakashvili promised to eliminate the widespread corruption that had made people feel helpless, and to improve living standards. Although some Western media say that he managed to reduce corruption to some extent, the release of the video helped reveal the real face of his “anti-corruption” campaign. The reduction of corruption was not due to economic reform or any real change in the economic system, or an improvement in legal rights and standards, but of harsh measures and heavy punishment for petty crimes, and the abuse of prisoners.

 

In fact the economy of the country has gone through one of its worst periods. At the same time, his “anti-corruption” policy quadrupled Georgia’s prison population, from 6,000 to more than 24,000 in less than 10 years.

 

According to Archil Gegeshidze, a senior fellow at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, “The fight against crime… has been accompanied by ‘methods of intimidation of the general public and eavesdropping… There is a general sense of almightiness of the secret services.'”

 

The mother of one prisoner said that her son “was serving 18 months on charges of stealing plates from a kindergarten.”  Another woman said her son “was serving six and a half years for stealing 16 lari, about $10, from a taxi driver.” (The New York Times, 29 September 2012)

 

According to another NYT article, “Some of the video clips shown on television were extremely explicit, showing a naked male prisoner, for instance, being sodomized with what appears to be a police baton. In another clip, a large group of uniformed guards was shown kicking and beating a prisoner on the floor. It was unclear when the videos were taken, but the authorities did not dispute their authenticity.” (19 September 2012)

 

The newly triumphant Ivanishvili, in contrast, says he wants to mend the problems with Russia created by Saakashvili. At least, he says, he hopes that Russia would lift the ban on imports of Georgian wines and mineral water, which are huge sources of income for Georgia. Russia was the main export market for Georgian wines, an industry that plays a vital role in Georgia’s economy because many other businesses and livelihoods are associated with it. Russia’s boycott of Georgian wine has led the local economy of many regions of Georgia to suffer badly.

 

In a year’s time after the presidential election, Saakashvili must resign. From next year parliament and the prime minister will have more power. It is possible that the winners of this election can use it as a platform to consolidate their position even more by winning the presidential election. If it happens, the question would arise: would Ivanishvili still keep his promise of joining Nato or scrap the project?

 

It was hardly surprising that on the eve of his rival’s election victory, President Saakashvili called his opponent’s views “fundamentally unacceptable” – and that in Moscow, Russian Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev commented that the opposition victory would bring “more constructive and responsible” people to the Georgian parliament.

 

It is already clear that Moscow has moved a few more steps forward in fastening its grip on strategically important Georgia. Similar trends are already taking place in Lithuania.

 

Georgia’s strategic importance and today’s power shifts

 

The end of the “Cold War” and the collapse of the Soviet Union provided an opportunity for the U.S. imperialists to ensure and consolidate their “unchallengeable” domination over the world and start to choose allies among, influence and dominate the countries that were part of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, and even go so far as to dominate countries that were part of the Soviet Union.

 

Georgia, a small country of 4.5 million people, has strategic importance. This Caucasus mountains country is a transit route to Europe for Caspian Sea gas and oil. It is located between Russia, Turkey and Central Asia, and not far from Iran. It also has three ports on the Black Sea. Georgia is also a major transit point for mainly Western goods to Central Asia, and for these countries to export raw materials (such as metals and cotton) to the West.

 

This country at the edge of Europe has attracted the attention of the U.S. and the West, especially as the U.S. set out to encircle and isolate Russia, the most powerful component of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and not allow its re-emergence as a superpower or even as a world influential power. 

 

When Shevardnadze, a close associate of the last Soviet head of state Mikhail Gorbachev, became president of Georgia (1995-2003), he opened the door to Western and especially U.S. imperialist influence, but he and his main allies also wanted to keep their connections with Russia.

 

It seems the U.S. was happy with this, and given its powerlessness, Russia could live with it, too. But the situation did not stay the same.

 

When George W. Bush became U.S. president, his government adopted a more clear-cut and openly aggressive strategy of taking advantage of their victory over the Soviet bloc and seeking to maximise their winning position and dominate the entire world. At the same time a group of young Georgian politicians educated in the U.S., and possibly trained by the U.S. government, joined the ruling party (the Union of Citizens of Georgia), where they were able to quickly climb the ladder of power in the Georgian political hierarchy. Saakashvili was an example and the most important of them.

 

When they bullied their way to power, the Western governments and media promoted this as the “Rose Revolution”, but it had nothing to do with a revolution. In fact, it was a coup against Shevardnadze. The aim of this “Rose Revolution” was to shift Georgia’s political orientation completely towards the West and mainly the U.S., although it was non-violent in that it was carried out not by army generals but by U.S.-trained politicians. Certainly mass discontent with the country’s situation and especially hatred for Russian domination over Georgia played a big role, but it was the massive support of the Western governments and media and the powerlessness of Russia that made the so-called “Rose Revolution” a success.

 

During Saakashvili’s reign, U.S. military presence in the region rapidly increased, as did the construction and use of pipelines carrying oil and gas from the region to the world (mainly Western) market. 

 

However the Russian imperialists could not be just neutral observers. They consider Georgia Russia’s backyard, and Russian domination over it vital to Russia’s so-called “national security”.  So when the U.S. got pinned down in Iraq and later in Afghanistan, and these wars became priorities for the U.S.’s attention, Russia did its best to take advantage of the situation, recover at least partially from the damage to its empire, and emerge as a regional power.

 

As Saakashvili increasingly relied on the West, in August 2008 a war broke out between Russia and Georgia in which the Russian army occupied and annexed two Georgian provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This brought the Russian army within a few miles of Georgia’s pipelines. In fact Russia had sowed the seeds of this war in earlier years by supporting or probably prompting an anti-Georgian protest movement in these two provinces.

 

Saakashvili could not get the help from the U.S. that he had counted on, either for Georgia’s economic crisis or for his war with Russia. The humiliating defeat in the 2008 war with Russia and the loss of the two provinces had disastrous effects for Saakashvili and his allies.

 

What this election could not change is the problems the Georgian people are facing. The people suffered under the domination of Soviet social-imperialism (socialism in name but state capitalism in reality since the 1950s) before and during Shevardnadze, who wanted to be in between Russia and the West, and also during Saakashvili and the shift to Western domination. They have been suffering in terms of living standards, jobs and unemployment, and in terms of political rights. Regardless of which imperialist power casts its shadow over Georgia, the people are under the dictatorship of capital.

 

To be clear both factions are working for the same system, and both continue to share power, at least at this time. The situation in Georgia is far from settled, however. The rivalry between the Russian and U.S. imperialists might be heating up.

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