When You Call Georgia, Who Picks Up the Phone?


Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, courtesy of wikicommons

As Europe increasingly began integrating the European Union and becoming more of a bloc than a constellation of self-interested nations, Henry Kissinger once famously retorted, “When you call Europe, who picks up the phone?”

Georgia, which is now going through its first experience with divided government, faces a similar problem with its foreign policy.

Although the Georgian Dream government, which won parliamentary elections last fall, has formed its own cabinet and staffed the Foreign Ministry itself, that hasn’t kept officials from the previous government from representing its own foreign policy vision on trips abroad and in public statements.

After all, the United National Movement party still holds the executive branch and a sizable minority in the parliament. But, after presidential elections this October, a new Constitution will take effect and transition the country into a parliament-centric system where the president is largely a figurehead. Until then, however, the country is still run by a system with a powerful executive president.

So who’s in charge?

Technically both parties are, but they have been unsuccessful thus far in coordinating their new foreign policy together, so each side has been making foreign visits, each espousing very different viewpoints on where the country should be headed. Foreign leaders and outside observers can be forgiven for being confused by the display.

The focal point of the schizophrenic statements is, of course, Russia. Since his initial election in 2004, President Mikheil Saakashvili has styled himself as an anti-Russian, pro-Western crusader. Prime Minister Ivanishvili, who took power in October, meanwhile, campaigned on a pledge to improve ties with Russia. The open disagreement has already made it awkward for a number of Georgia’s partners, who also straddle the balance between Russian and Western interests.

Azerbaijan is a perfect example. Last December, Ivanishvili began his tour of Georgia’s neighbors in Azerbaijan with a delegation from the new government. In late February, President Mikheil Saakashvili did the same, this time taking with him members of the minority. No Foreign Ministry officials accompanied him.

There, Saakashvili implied that the Georgian Dream victory in the elections was essentially a Russian coup, and that Moscow was planning the same “scenario” for Azerbaijan using “oligarchs, Russian funds, blackmailing and provocations” to create political instability in the country.

Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania immediately denounced the remarks as “anti-state” and Ivanishvili apologized for the “irresponsible” comments. A representative for the Azerbaijani president meanwhile said, “it was regrettable that President Saakashvili mentioned Azerbaijan while expressing his personal views about Russia,” according to Civil.ge.

This was hardly the first incident of this sort. Earlier, Saakashvili slammed Ivanishvili for raising doubts about Georgia’s participation in the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway project during his visit to Azerbaijan and for discussing the possibility of re-opening the Abkhazia railway in Armenia, calling the latter idea a “criminal, anti-state, anti-Georgian” act.

Meanwhile, in the West, Saakashvili and the UNM have been winning the PR battle. Despite growing frustrations with the Saakashvili government over the last few years in foreign capitals, he had become familiar as a mostly democratic and loyal, if unpredictable, leader. Ivanishvili, meanwhile, emerged from obscurity a matter of months before being elected, and Saakashvili’s PR and lobbying machine spent that time spreading the same campaign talking points – that Ivanishvili was a pro-Russian stooge bent on returning Georgia to corrupt governance and subservience to the Kremlin – abroad as it did on the streets of Tbilisi.

Many Georgian Dream officials accused Georgia’s ambassadors of also doing some of the smearing. Indeed, many of the country’s high-level diplomats were Saakashvili loyalists – especially Ambassador to the U.S. Temur Yakobashvili who served as a deputy prime minister under Saakashvili and was his chief negotiator with Abkhazia and South Ossetia during the 2008 war. Shortly after Georgian Dream won the elections, Yakobashvili resigned, saying he could not work with the new administration. Nonetheless, he wasn’t replaced for nearly four months.

In a recent profile piece (that quoted me) in the Washington Diplomat, Yakobashvili said he recognized he could not perform his duties appropriately, but that government’s current structure made that difficult to change.

“America is our biggest and strongest partner, and for a country like Georgia, this is the most important diplomatic post you can imagine,” Yakobashvili, 45, told us in a recent interview. “And because it’s such a high-profile post, it requires that whoever represents the country should have direct links with the top leadership. All my predecessors had that, and that was the case with me as well. But now it’s different.” […]

He added: “Obviously, the new government wants to have their people representing its policies. Ambassadors can be appointed and recalled only by the president. So we have a situation where we have a new prime minister, but without the president he cannot recall or appoint ambassadors.”

Although it has been slow, new ambassadors have been appointed and the situation seems to be sorting itself out, but there are bound to be more hiccups. Even as Russian food inspectors were in Georgia to decide whether Georgian products could return to the Russian market – a Georgian Dream campaign promise – Saakashvili could not help but verbally jab them. He perhaps was hoping to play spoiler and nearly succeeded as the slighted head of the delegation threatened to withdraw with the inspections incomplete.

The Economist ran a piece this week entitled “Popular only at home” about Ivanishvili and his failure thus

Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, courtesy of wikicommons

Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, courtesy of wikicommons

far to connect with the international press and Georgia’s most important partners.

This isn’t a small problem. Foreign investors – many of whom were scared off since the double whammy of the 2008 war and the global financial crisis – are still watching Georgia with caution. As long as Georgia headlines are full of personal sniping between its rulers and confusion about its direction, fears in the investment community about political instability in the country are not going to subside.

Perhaps, however, the Georgian Dream has found the key to resolving that. Cutting back on loony statements? No. Coordination with the executive branch? Lord, no.

This week, it was reported that the Georgian government has hired the services of Patton Boggs, a U.S. lobbying firm. Now that it has spent the last few months trimming the budgets that were funneling cash into pro-UNM lobbying, this new contract will at least help the new administration to get its message out.

Unfortunately for the Georgian Dream, all the lobbying in the world can’t distract all the attention away from their nemesis, the country’s frenetic and unpredictable president.

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