Not far from Bulgaria, just across the Black Sea, Georgia will hold an important election on November 8. Georgia is Bulgaria’s maritime borderland, so it is also Europe’s borderland, not just some mythical far-flung geographic hinge at the junction of Europe and Asia where Jason sought the Golden Fleece. What happens in Georgia now resonates in many directions, not least toward Europe itself, with implications that should not be ignored.
Georgia has been one of the great success stories of the Soviet demise. Despite having Russian troops seize 20 percent of its territory in 2008, Georgia has remained a stable democracy and an increasingly prosperous free market. It ranks high on just about every index Europeans hold dear. Independent media, a vibrant democracy, low corruption, and strong human rights protections are all features of today’s Georgia, and these have all improved under the current government. The Cato Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World index ranks Georgia sixth out of 159 countries, ahead of all EU members.
Georgia has always been a nation of traders and innovators. Today Georgia is ranked among the world leaders in the “ease of doing business” category, and it now sits in fourth place for Europe and Central Asia. Not surprisingly, direct foreign investment is up nearly 100 percent since 2012, the year the current government took office. Germany’s Henkel and France’s Bricorama are the latest of many European and American companies to establish commercial, manufacturing, or development positions in Georgia. Georgia’s GDP growth is 3-5 percent, the highest in the region, and this despite economic downturns in the larger economies around it, for example in Russia and in Turkey. From 2012-14, Georgia’s poverty rate dropped 10 percent, according to the World Bank, which translates directly to 500,000 Georgians moving decidedly upward.
In July, Georgia signed an Association Agreement with the European Union, which will open Europe’s markets to further Georgian products, especially agricultural products. Georgia is also looking East. It recently signed a free trade agreement with China, which will allow 95 percent of Georgia’s products, including its world class wine, to enter the Chinese market free of tariffs. This development is particularly important for Black Sea states, as Georgia’s ports are poised to become major entry/exit points of the New Silk Road, with strong Chinese financial backing. This “One Belt – One Road” initiative will bind Europe to Asia via transportation, communications, and other infrastructure enhancements to create the shortest and fastest overland routes between Europe and Asia.
The Georgian government’s achievements are indeed impressive, and one would think that it would be returned to power easily on November 8. Yet Georgian voters have many choices—at least 25 parties in six blocs, by current count. This conglomeration of small parties, as in many parliamentary democracies, represents much of the ideological spectrum, with the governing Georgian Dream party occupying the political center. Few of these parties will pass the five percent threshold to qualify for seats in the parliament, though a coalition government of some kind emerging from the election is possible.
Like most elections, including in Europe and the United States, today, the Georgian election has its own oddities. Perhaps the most potentially disruptive comes from the main opposition party, which the governing Georgian Dream beat decisively at the polls in 2012. That party is headed by a former president of Georgia who voluntarily gave up his Georgian citizenship to become a citizen of Ukraine several years ago, where he is currently head of one of Ukraine’s regions http://www.eurasianet.org/node/80466. Directing his party from beyond Georgia’s borders, his virtual campaign features video and skype messages that seek to mobilize his supporters in Georgia including his wife, who stayed behind to now run for parliament when he renounced his Georgian citizenship. The former president is reported to be importing lots of his party’s activists to Ukraine to train and inspire them for action in Georgia itself in the event that his party loses the election. Yet another report claims that his campaign is funded through contraband cigarette sales. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4jYZeBay0YE
Of particular importance, virtually all of Georgia’s parties have their sights firmly on Georgia becoming a full member of the EU and of NATO. An exception is a small pro-Russian party, which has advocated for Georgia declaring allegiance to no political or security bloc between East and West, a kind of “neutrality” with a strong Russian aroma. This party probably will not pass the five percent threshold.
With regard to the EU, Georgia is now high on the EU’s agenda for visa liberalization, an important step toward membership. With regard to NATO, Georgia has advanced its claim to full membership in an uncontestable way. Unknown to many Europeans, Georgia has volunteered more troops per capita to NATO’s engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan than any other country, including all other full NATO members except the United States The price has been high for such a small country: over 30 killed and more than 300 wounded.
One would think that Georgia’s location at the intersection of many critical Black Sea security dynamics would encourage existing NATO states to push for its inclusion in the organization, as Georgia’s current government has insisted. Some progress has been made in this direction. NATO continues to say good things about Georgia and its importance, but it has not yet given it a Membership Action Plan, the essential next step. Georgian voters have been notably persistent in supporting parties advocating for the EU and NATO, but their infinite patience should not be taken for granted.
The governing Georgian Dream party has much to go to the voters with. For example, several years ago it launched a program for universal health care, which now covers 99 percent of Georgia’s population. It has made great strides in eradicating Hepatitis C, a persistent public health problem. A new national e-pharmacy system intended to remove middlemen from the delivery of medicines to citizens is now being tested. An Internet-savvy population, Georgians will soon enjoy a country-wide broadband system that will reach even the most remote villages. An exciting hi-tech innovation hub has been inaugurated to attract young entrepreneurs and showcase Georgia’s uniquely well-educated population.
With real achievements to its credit, the current government must now face the reality of meeting citizens’ expectations—and the attendant impatience—that have been excited by these achievements. Most European societies, especially post-communist societies, experience this syndrome. Little evidence suggests that Georgians want to go back to the old days. This election is about how to bring more and more Georgians into the economic mainstream, and how to accelerate that process.
By S. Enders Wimbush