I like to think so, at least from my own, foreign, perspective. However, not many Georgians will agree with me that my ideas and thoughts on politics in this are accurate, for the sole reason that I’m not Georgian. I’d like to examine a few things here and try and set the record straight…more or less.
Georgians are a passionate folk, and any criticism directed towards anything Georgian will be met with fierce resistance. It doesn’t really matter what it is you’re criticising; it could be anything from Georgian food to national athletes. The point is, despite how Georgians are usually flattered that a foreigner has deigned to visit or live in their country, they are mostly of the opinion that Georgia can only ever be understood by Georgians.
There is, however, a danger in this mentality. It is very, very insular, and not likely to help Georgia become part of any international body, such as the EU or NATO. First off, let’s begin with the criticism issue. Criticism is inevitable during political debates, even if you’re a party-neutral foreigner like me; I neither support Saakashvili or Ivanishvili. However, I had a very hard time convincing anyone of that during the election time, since even questioning the motives of either candidate was seen the same way as if I’d been highly critical.
It was true for either side. I’ve never liked the way Saakashvili has fawned to the Americans, the way every item of his administration has been stamped with a USA sticker of approval. It’s odd that, on the one hand, he was always very patriotic and nationalistic, and on the other wilfully sold this country out in the hopes of NATO and EU membership that the two organisations’ leaderships have (rightly) been fearful to grant.
People ask me if I think Saakashvili is a Western-style politician. God no. But then I wonder if any Georgian politician truly can be. As a people, Georgians are fiery, impulsive and passionate, as well as often being irrational; a world away from the cold Germans, cunning Americans or ruthless British. Whether you believe or not the rumours that Saakashvili locked up or killed people who didn’t like him, the fact that such rumours exist says a lot. There are no such whispers that David Cameron is plotting to kill Ed Miliband, and despite the aggressive nature of the US Presidential elections, it was always unlikely that Mitt Romney would suffer an ‘accident’ as he lampooned the Democrats for their failing economic strategies.
The point is, Saakashvili takes things very personally; the good and the bad. If you’ve read any of my other posts on this site, you’ll know that I think he took George Bush’s statement of ‘The Georgians are our brothers!’ rather too literally (this has to be the only country that ever liked George Bush). Never was this more apparent during the Georgian elections this year.
I got a measure of the supporters of both parties during the summer, and was astounded by both groups. Saakashvili supporters were blind to the fact that God alone knows how many battalions of troops were waiting over the Ossetian and Abkhaz borders all year, likely planning to intervene if Saakashvili rendered any more assistance to the US military with regards to the Iranian question. Ivanishvili supporters were, I think, even worse. ‘Bidzina did everything for us,’ said my brother-in-law’s girlfriend, ‘he paid for Sameba cathedral’. Quite how the construction of one building constituted an ‘everything’ was anyone’s guess, but she grew very angry when I reminded her that she didn’t even know Ivanishvili’s name at the same time of the previous year (he came to the public eye in November 2011, I think we were talking in August).
You have to give credit where credit is due, and Saakashvili is the one who eradicated the corruption in this country. Bidzina Ivanishvili has been rich for a very long time; several decades, I believe. If he had really wanted to help, I find it hard to believe he couldn’t have done it in the 1990s, when he was arguably needed the most. I put this point to Bidzina supporters, and was immediately branded as a Saakashvili follower, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
Policy didn’t come into the elections even remotely. I would ask Bidzina believers, ‘What will he do with Georgia’s economy?’ and got only blank stares, before being told ‘Misha is evil! We are in Hell!’ (I wish I was joking). They had no idea of his foreign policy, and seemed to think Georgia’s economy was going to improve and they would all become richer because the man himself has over half of Georgia’s GDP in his personal wealth. It was all very, very personal. In Europe, politicians argue over economic strategy and foreign policy; in Georgia, they simply traded insults.
I do not understand how they could be so stupid and short-sighted. Didn’t they know how many foreign observers were watching? Did they honestly think that was good for Georgia’s image on the international stage? I can say the same about his supporters. I’m not a professional diplomat, but it doesn’t look good to any Western person when they see people parading in the street, screaming and shouting for a man whose policies are vague at best and whose political experience is non-existant. It reeks of fanaticism, exactly the extreme kind of behaviour that is not wanted in the EU.
You might say that ‘Oh, these people, they weren’t university educated, they weren’t professionals, they were just ordinary people who didn’t know any better’. You would be right; but in a democracy, it’s ordinary people who decide the vote. University professors and educated people are always in the minority.
My wife voted for Saakashvili, while her brother voted for Bidzina. They screamed and shouted at each other on more than one occasion, and even though my Natia knows I don’t like Saakashvili, she respects my opinion. Her brother Giorgi does not. Anyone who doesn’t support Bidzina is an enemy to him, and he’s not alone; I, along with an international political observer from America I spoke to, found it to be the case with most GD supporters. Giorgi and his friends and fellow Bidzina believers were mostly deaf to the irony that while they were screaming, shouting and throwing things around the room all in the name of democracy, democracy itself means that everyone has the right to believe whatever they want. In my own country, I can’t stand Labour Party supporters, but I don’t behave in an aggressive manner when one says they’d rather Miliband was Prime Minister than Cameron. They had absolutely no idea of the damage they were doing in the eyes of the foreigners sent to watch things.
It is now acknowledged by the Georgian newspapers that what tipped the balance in Bidzina’s favour was the prison-rape scandal. I agree it was terrible, and I agree that urgent reform was needed within Georgia’s justice and prison services, but nobody seemed able to admit that it came at a very, very convenient time. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw that no one was thinking ‘Well, yes, this is terrible, but…it’s two weeks before the election, and this is something very damaging to Saakashvili…maybe a little too convenient?’.
I would have supported Ivanishvili if he had done something like, say, put forward a new plan for energy efficiency. Georgia has more mountains than it knows what to do with, as well as a coast; why not construct some wind turbines and begin harnessing wave power from the Black Sea? I would support him if he said he was open to restoring relations with Russia; ah, I hear you say, but he did say that! Well, yes, he did, but he refused to criticise Putin or his government; another reason I don’t understand his followers, since even the people who blame Saakashvili for the 2008 war can surely acknowledge the appalling crimes committed by Cossack mercenaries in Russian employ against Georgian civilians.
The reason I’m writing so much about Ivanishvili and not Misha is because I’ve done Saakashvili to death on this blog. You know I don’t like his politics, you know I don’t like the way he’s turned this country into an American playground. I’d like to make an important point about the Georgian Dream coalition that, again, none of their supporters seemed to appreciate. It’s a coalition of five parties all across the political spectrum. How on Earth can any government succeed when the Prime Minister is a conservative, the Minister of Defence a Liberal, the Minister of Justice a member of Green Peace and the Minister of Foreign Affairs a Communist? (Not the real posts, just examples).
‘You’re foreign,’ they say, ‘you don’t understand Georgia or Georgian politics’. No, well, maybe not. I don’t understand it like a Georgian, at least. I don’t understand why it’s so personal and unprofessional between politicians. I don’t understand why voters are so ignorant as to what they’re voting for; becoming an American slave-state or a returning to a vassal state of Russia being brought further away than ever from the West. I read today a spokeswoman from the Ivanishvili GD coalition has said that ‘We do not care what Western news outlets say. We act like they do not exist’. Since Georgian Dream say they want EU membership, I cannot imagine anything more stupid.
As of today, the Georgian Journal has published an article detailing the opinions of foreign governments on Ivanishvili’s rule. Since the recent arrests of previous members of Saakashvili’s cabinet, the Western response is very negative. They are not happy with the return of known corrupt politicians from the Shevardnadze era, nor the way the government is seeking to replace all foreign ambassadors who began their work before Ivanishvili came into office.
As for my own beliefs…well, I don’t much like anybody or anything when it comes to politics. I don’t like the way Georgians are so passionate and personal with their politics. I don’t like Saakashvili’s American fawning and I don’t like Ivanishvili’s obvious corruption. I don’t like the idea that Georgia needs to be in NATO; it only antagonises Moscow, and NATO was never worth a damn thing, anyway. I do agree that Georgia needs to be in the EU, but it won’t happen for a long time. After the Rose Revolution, Saakasvhili got far too involved with the Americans, who aren’t trusted by Paris or Berlin. If he’d got into bed with the Germans or French instead, things might be different today…but it does no good to speak of roads not taken. To a Georgian who believes I don’t understand Georgian political mentality, I can just as easily say they have no real idea about the way Westerners think.
So when a Georgian says to me, ‘You Westerners do not understand Georgia’, I can actually reply positively; yes, you’re right. We don’t understand Georgia as you do. You may have read my words and think ‘What you say is true, but you don’t see it the way we do. It’s different for us’. I can agree with you; we don’t see it the same way, we think differently. But if Georgia really wants membership into the EU, into NATO, if it wants membership into a future away from the mess of the post-Soviet era, then what Georgians think and believe about politics does not matter.
It’s what we think that will decide your future.