Georgia’s existing political culture is a terminal cancer on its Western ambitions

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While I will happily stand by the words I have written on these pages concerning the West’s failures in dealing with matters in the East, I will admit that Brussels and Washington do not have it easy – not only with their openly-declared rivals, but also with their partners and allies.

As a Tbilisi resident, I write all of this with the upcoming Georgian elections very much in mind, although the sentiment can somewhat be applied to the broader region. But first, I hope you’ll forgive me if I set the scene with a small tangential sporting analogy.

Georgia’s successes in rugby, wrestling and judo are not at all helpful in providing metaphors for the country’s political life. Boxing, however, is another matter, specifically in the form of Avtandil Khurtsidze, an erstwhile middleweight contender. He managed to do what no other Georgian boxer had yet done when he defeated a European opponent, Tommy Langford, a rising British star. Not to make this about boxing, but Georgian fighters who travel to Europe are invariably unsuccessful, mostly because their tactics of lead with the face and hope for the first are not, in fact, true tactics (if you’re interested and would like to find out more, I refer you to a piece I wrote for The Sun in early ’17).

Against all expectations, Khurtsidze knocked Langford out, and the stage was set for the unlikely Georgian to challenge another Briton, Billy Joe Saunders, for the world middleweight championship. I marked Saunders to win – Khurtsidze was riding the success of a series of lucky punches, while Saunders is a slick stylist who can stick and move with the best of them.

Of course, the bout never happened. Khurtsidze was arrested soon after his victory for working as an enforcer for Russian organised crime in New York, his adopted home. He was sentenced to a substantial spell in prison, where he remains today.

I mention this because the Khurtsidze tale is so typical of Georgian politics, especially the ability to snatch catastrophe from the jaws of triumph. The country’s first democratic elections were followed by the release of ‘political prisoners’, most of whom just turned out to be common criminals of the most dangerous sort, as well as the persecution of former opponents, against whom the accusations were vague and the evidence thin.

The man who was elected, a billionaire recluse, soon grew tired of the spotlight and left his post after a year, but neither he nor the party that he created bothered to try and conceal that he was (and is), in fact, still pulling the strings.

Not that the opposition factions show any greater political intelligence. Their ranks are mostly filled with the same faces who, a generation ago, helped former President Mikheil Saakashvili execute his Rose Revolution in 2003. The polls released this week do not rate their chances particularly highly. This is not because the government is particularly loved, but is instead due to the opposition putting forward people the public is heartily sick of. It is the equivalent to the Labour Party trying to convince the British public that Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson should be given yet another chance, or the French exhuming Jacques Chirac to take another stab at power.

I’ve often been shocked at how apparently oblivious Western politicians are to how they’re perceived by the public, but their Georgian counterparts could give them ten yards in the hundred and win screaming. One of the principal opposition factions has once again convinced itself that the now much-maligned Saakashvili should make a political comeback, eight years after he fled the country in 2012 to escape certain arrest by the new authorities.

Although Saakashvili is either worshipped or loathed with equal passion, I’m not sure that his supporters aren’t more frightening, in their own way, than those who hate him. They have yet to spot the paradox in wanting to establish a Western-style democracy, but only if one man, and one man alone, can lead the thing. There is a point at which support for a politician takes on a fervent enough tone so that it more closely resembles worship of a deity.

Former Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili (C) celebrates an election win of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition. EPA-EFE//ZURAB KURTSIKIDZE

Hold on, I hear you say – take a step back there, Ogden. Just a few weeks ago you were imploring the West to include Georgia, and now you’re telling us that their idea of democracy is closer to some lunatic sort of kingship, and their public figures are increasingly old and seedy men who have no idea how they’re viewed, or what fools they continue to make of themselves in asking for votes.

I did indeed argue for Georgia’s inclusion into NATO since the country has militarily proved itself (as some former NATO officials have also admitted). I did not make the same case for Europe. Too often the EU and NATO are seen as part of some buy-one-get-one-free package deal, and not only in the case of Georgia; prior to the Brexit vote, the Remain campaign kept repeating the point ‘We are safer in Europe’. They did not justify that claim any further, but at the time I was wondering what on earth they meant. After all, security is guaranteed by NATO, not the EU. It is entirely feasible that Georgia can tick the box for one but not the other.

Perhaps that may be the way forward. Let the country into NATO, as I argued, but hold fire on admission to the EU. That way Georgia will receive tangible evidence that the West is prepared to live up to its promises, but Brussels doesn’t have to worry about a sudden exodus of Georgians who will scatter themselves around the continent.

Still, I will concede that it isn’t easy dealing with the politicians of Western-aspirant countries. As critical as I am of European politicians, I’m happy to admit that dealing with their foreign counterparts would not be easy. If I were them, I think I would propose, ever so gently, like a kindergarten teacher looking after a particularly boisterous group of children, that unless they let someone else have a turn at playing politics and stop hogging the spotlight, then membership in Club West is going to have to wait for another day.

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