Putin may be starting to win Georgia away from the West – The Washington Post

11:35 • 27.01.16



By Michael Hikari Cecir


Is Georgia on the verge of a Kremlin-inspired political takeover? No. But neither is growing Russian influence a fantasy, as a December post by Dustin Gilbreath in The Monkey Cage appears to suggest.
Gilbreath makes some good points about political tendencies in Georgia. Georgians’ views of Russia are indeed complicated. But pro-Eurasian Union sentiment is growing, and there’s a significant chance that Russian influence is growing as well.


Polling data taken regularly over the last several years shows a clear and steady increase in Georgian support for the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). That roughly tracks with increasing political support for anti-West and pro-Russia political factions within Georgia.


Why should the West care?


Getting a feel for Georgia’s geopolitical trajectory is too important to get wrong. Georgia is arguably the stablest and most democratic of the post-Soviet republics outside of the Baltics, and plausibly the last hope in a region that has seen years of political stagnation and regression. The United States and Europe have poured billions into promoting democracy and economic development there, and Tbilisi has consistently responded with an enthusiastic embrace of Westernization.


The government in Tbilisi is doing just about everything right. But expansion fatigue in the United States and especially Europe is breeding fatalism in Georgia, and incubating a political environment where pro-Russia factions’ anti-west crusades are gaining traction.


If Georgia turned away from the West, it would not only be a blow to the country’s nascent democracy, but it would also sew up the Eurasian interior for Moscow, give Russia a direct corridor to the Middle East, lop off Western access to Eurasian energy sources and kill off any hope for regional democratization for the foreseeable future.


Under Russian domination, Georgia might fall back into a mirror image of its 1990s past: a failed state and open air market for illicit trade. Racked by civil war and warlordism, it could be a fertile ground for radicalism.


Georgian support for the EEU “hasn’t changed since 2013,” Gilbreath wrote, referring to a 2013 Caucasus Barometer poll.


But his organization’s polls tell a different story. Gilbreath’s Caucasus Research Resource Centers (CRRC) conducted polls for the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in 2013, 2014 and 2015. Those show steady growth in reported pro-EEU sentiment between 2013 and the present — from 11 percent in August 2013 to 20 percent in August 2014 to 31 percent in April 2015. That’s a marked increase.
So why the discrepancy between the 2013 Caucasus Barometer poll and the NDI polls over support for the EEU? In 2013, the EEU was still a glimmer in Putin’s eye, and would not actually be formally launched until January 2015 — so public reactions at that point were to a theoretical organization. In fact, a closer look at the numbers shows that 44 percent in the Caucasus Barometer poll would not (or could not) make a firm determination on the EEU either way.


The remaining 56 percent broke down very interestingly. Only 24 percent opposed the EEU; 17 percent went with “equally support and don’t support”; and 27 percent chose “don’t know” or refused to answer. Under the hood, those 2013 Caucasus Barometer numbers suggest that folks were undecided or even unaware of the EEU.


The ways the questions are posed also matters. For example, the Caucasus Barometer asked the question, “To what extent would you support Georgia’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Community?” That’s quite different from the questions posed by the NDI polls.


In the August 2013 and August 2014 NDI polls, respondents are asked, “Which of the following two statements do you agree with?” They could choose joining the EEU, joining the European Union, agreeing with neither, don’t know, and refusing to respond. Such different questions and answers makes it hard to compare the responses. Similarly, the April 2015 NDI poll that showed 31 percent support for the EEU was yet another twist on the question (“do you approve or disapprove of the following?”), although it’s arguably the most straightforward question of the four polls.


From this point of view, it is hard to say that Georgian support for the EEU —a  vehicle for Russian hegemony — is not trending upwards. But this is not the only sign of creeping Russian influence.
Another way of tracking Georgian attitudes toward Russia is to look at election results. Using election results to measure attitudes have their own problems. Georgia’s three most recent national elections — the 2014 local elections, the 2013 presidential elections, and the 2012 parliamentary elections — don’t tell us as much as we would like, for three reasons. They’re a little dated; they represent the opinions only of those citizens who actually voted; and the election results don’t really tell us much about why a voter chose one slate or another. Nonetheless, in an electoral democracy like Georgia (albeit a rough one), elections are the final arena for gauging political power.


In 2014, several parties that could be fairly described as pro-Russia received approximately 20 percent of the nationwide proportional vote. Ex-Speaker Nino Burjanadze’s “United Opposition” plus the populist Alliance of Patriots drew about 15 percent; another 5 percent voted for several other minor parties with anti-west tendencies. This total does not include other voters who cast ballots for the anti-UNM opposition (and now ruling) Georgian Dream (GD) coalition, which has its own anti-west factions.
That’s a solid bump from the 2013 presidential elections, when anti-West parties got only 13 percent of the vote. And in the 2012 parliamentary elections, the largest non-GD or UNM vote share was the 1.2 percent of the vote that went to the quixotic Labor Party, the vehicle for Georgian political gadfly Shalva Natelashvili.


In other words, over a handful of years, pro-Russia parties have been steadily bringing in more Georgian votes.
 





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