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Polling place in Rustavi. Photo: Dave Lawler/Axios
TBILISI and RUSTAVI, Georgia — The strength of Georgia's democracy and of its all-powerful ruling party will be put to the test over the next two weeks after a deadlocked presidential election on Sunday necessitated what is sure to be a bitter runoff.
Why it matters: In Georgia, it goes almost without saying that Moscow is the enemy, the West provides the path forward and strengthening democracy is the way to get there. But leading figures in the former Soviet republic's politics and society are fearful that this consensus is beginning to break down. In four days here I heard the phrase "existential crisis" more than once. As always, one chief fear is Russia. Another is that the fragile system will begin to implode through some combination of corruption, hopelessness and political score-settling.
Sunday's election was supposed to be just a show of strength ahead of crucial parliamentary elections in two years' time. Georgia's next president will have greatly reduced powers as the country transitions to a new political system, and the ruling party — Georgian Dream (GD) — was expected to win fairly easily.
The election was ultimately a proxy war between one man who lost power and wants it back — UNM leader-in-exile Mikheil Saakashvili — and another who has tremendous power and exerts it largely from the shadows — Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Unlike in much of the former Soviet Union, there is real suspense to Georgian democracy. I found myself on an elevator with Vashadze after a pre-election meeting in which he exuded all the anger and exhaustion of a man who believed he would be robbed of an election. I mumbled a question about the polls and whether they'd match the official results. He grabbed me by the arm as I went to leave and said:
"You're in Georgia! Anything can happen."
Members of the Georgian security services on the occupation line with South Ossetia. Photo: Dave Lawler/Axios
We were escorted to the "occupation line" by a convoy of trucks. When we arrived, 10 heavily armed members of the Georgian security services fanned out along the barrier that divides Georgia from Georgia — or, if you ask Moscow, from the Republic of South Ossetia.
The bigger picture: South Ossetia is one of several "frozen zones" in the post-Soviet space. Those living there have almost no contact with the rest of Georgia, except when they are allowed to travel south for medical treatment. Policymakers told us making contact wherever possible — business ties, humanitarian support — is the best way to begin to resolve the conflict. They also said the Russians know that and are determined to prevent it.
"Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia’s international military operations have focused almost exclusively on its neighbors, former Soviet republics," the New York Times' Liam Stack and Karen Zraick write in "Frozen Zones: How Russia Maintains Influence in the Post-Cold War Era."
"One pattern is clear: interventions that inflame conflict and create permanently tense and unstable 'frozen zones,' allowing Russia to exert influence and confound its opponents and, often, its rivals in the West. The Kremlin has said that it is protecting its own interests and those of ethnic Russians in those areas."
An ethnic Georgian man who lives just on the far side of the occupation line. He chose not to leave his home before the barrier went up. Photo: Dave Lawler/Axios
Soviet-era apartment buildings in Rustavi. Photo: Dave Lawler/Axios
An enormous winged insect buzzed through the room, causing continual disruptions and hovering close to the conversation. Parliamentary Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze, who had been addressing us in a low monotone about constitutional reform, deadpanned: "It's Russian."
It's not just politics. Many priests and members of the Georgian Orthodox Church hierarchy trained in Russia. Some almost certainly had (or have) links to Russian intelligence. The church tends to be closer to socially conservative Russia, and more suspicious of Europe, than the population at large.
Meanwhile, exports to Russia have been gradually rising. Zurab Kachkachishvili, director of the International Chamber of Commerce, says Russia is viewed as "a savior" by some in the agricultural sector, but he's urging them to diversify.
The bottom line: David Usupashvili, a presidential candidate who ultimately finished fifth, put it this way: "The fragmentation of society is reaching a very dangerous level. And there is Mr. Putin. And he is waiting."
Photo: Evaristo Sa/AFP/Getty Images
Two looks at Brazil's far-right President-elect Jair Bolsonaro via Axios Expert Voices ...
Bolsonaro won for a simple reason, writes Michael McCarthy of American University’s CLALS: He credibly promised to turn Brazilian politics upside down.
But while Bolsonaro's victory has upended Brazil’s political establishment, the country's beleaguered business community has greeted it with surging support, writes Blue Star Strategies' Daniel Erikson.
Photo: Sean Gallup via Getty Images
German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced Monday she would not be running for re-election in 2021 and that she would step down as party chair of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in December.
Why it matters: Long considered a bulwark of liberal democracy and a guiding force on the international stage, Merkel's longevity is unrivaled in the free world, writes Axios' Zach Basu. In her 13 years in office, the other 18 G-20 countries (not including the EU) have cycled through a combined 70 heads of state. But Merkel's unraveling, as inconceivable as it may have once seemed, was a fate foretold.
The backdrop: The first hints of Merkel’s political demise came during last September's elections, when her center-right CDU/CSU alliance earned just 32.9% of the vote (down 8.6% from 2013) and failed to form a coalition government for nearly 6 months.
The bottom line: As political commentator Nina Schick notes in an insightful Twitter thread, "[Merkel] has been Chancellor during the 2008 financial crash, the Eurozone crisis, the Arab Spring, Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the migrant crisis, the Syrian war and Brexit. Her exit will have meaning for not only Germany, but for the EU and the world."
Photo: Siddharaj Solanki/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
"India’s new Statue of Unity, to be formally unveiled Wednesday, depicts Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, an independence-era leader credited with uniting the fledgling nation in the 1940s when he served as India’s first home minister," reports the Washington Post.
The big picture: "It is considered a trifecta for Prime Minister Narendra Modi: a nod to his Hindu political base, a landmark site in his home state, and a showcase of the nation’s growing prosperity and status as a rising global power."
The bottom line, via Sengupta: "[T]his is Modi’s Lincoln Memorial."
“Failure of any one nation to adhere to international norms and the rule of law undermines regional stability at a time when it is needed most."— James Mattis on Saudi Arabia
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