Doom and gloom have dominated the narrative during the nine months since Georgia's October 2012 parliamentary elections. Since the Georgian Dream (GD) coalition won a surprise victory at the polls over the incumbent United National Movement (UNM), chaos and polarization have characterized the political landscape. Cohabitation, in which GD's Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili must share power with UNM rival President Mikheil Saakashvili, is frequently blamed. But what if cohabitation has actually been a net positive?
Progress remains uneven, but Georgia has managed to create the rudiments of a democracy. The new government was elected with a strong public mandate; the political opposition is vibrant, strong, and credible; the judiciary is less pliant; and the media environment is lively. At the same time, the country still suffers from many of the same structural deficiencies as its neighbors, including a chronic lack of checks and balances and underdeveloped institutions, making any change of government fraught with risks. Even necessary reforms, if implemented without care, can inadvertently impede democratic progress and undermine political competition.
Georgia needs stability and continuity in government in order to carry forward its ambitious reform program and its agenda of forming closer ties to the European Union and NATO. If the country's leaders can tone down the political infighting, Georgia will be in a strong position to solidify its path towards democracy.
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One particular challenge has been precisely the awkward cohabitation between Ivanishvili and Saakashvili, where both command significant executive powers but lead rival political parties. Predictably, this has led to dysfunction, public spats, and policies that sometimes appear to have more to do with settling political scores than addressing the country's substantial internal and external challenges.
And yet, while Western media have produced a steady diet of bad news from Georgia since the October elections, the reality hasn't been all bad. Despite the May 17 anti-gay riots and the arrest of ex-Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili, Georgia today is neither a minority-hunting theocracy in embryo nor in the throes of an anti-democratic crackdown. Similarly, cohabitation has become a byword among Georgia-watchers for the seemingly endless faceoff between the energetic-but-diminished Saakashvili and his enigmatic rival Ivanishvili. But beneath the hood, Georgia's cohabitation has been quietly effective.
Before last October, Georgian politics was characterized by periodic cycles of winner-take-all politics. While the changes from the nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia era (1990-1992) to Eduard Shevardnadze's kleptocracy (1995-2003) to reformist Saakashvili's rise to power in 2004 showed progress, each power change -- invariably extra-constitutional -- was accompanied by a purge of the old guard. Gamsakhurdia, a Soviet dissident turned nationalist agitator, presided over a comprehensive sacking of the Soviet bureaucracy. Shevardnadze, a former Soviet foreign minister, at least partially restored the pre-independence elite -- only to take a pro-West turn later in his rule that paved the way for Saakashvili's rise in 2003's Rose Revolution. Saakashvili, seeking to take a cudgel to pervasive corruption and the kanonieri kurdebi ("thieves in law"), whose writ rivaled that of the state's, unleashed Vano Merabishvili's interior ministry in the (sometimes legally dubious) mother of all house-cleanings.
Because of the democratic nature of the most recent transfer of power, the new government is necessarily more restrained. Still, its motives regarding its predecessors remain unclear -- as illustrated by the arrest of a number of former high-ranking officials within weeks of the new government coming into power. Some observers have seen this as evidence that the new prime minister is pursuing his own version of the familiar winner-take-all pattern, while others have defended his actions as an effort to observe the rule of law in a judiciary system that has been historically weak and politicized. It is, of course, important to hold individuals accountable for crimes and abuses committed in the past, but it is equally vital that justice is seen to be fair and apolitical. The presence of a vibrant multi-party democracy is essential to Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations.