A Mexican Standoff in Georgia

Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition has only held power for a few weeks since its surprise win in last month’s parliamentary elections, but some of its first steps already have me worried about the risk of a reversion to authoritarian rule there. A week ago, Georgian authorities brought criminal charges against Bacho Akhalaia, a former defense minister and close ally of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s, along with two sitting officials in the Defense Ministry. This week, we hear that authorities have arrested five senior officials in the Interior Ministry on charges linked to the October election.

I’m worried about these arrests because I’m watching them through the lens of a theory that sees strategic uncertainty as one the leading killers of new democracies. In my mental model, democracies can revert to authoritarian rule three ways: 1) an executive coup, whereby the ruling party quashes its rivals or otherwise rigs the political system in its own favor; 2) a military coup, whereby state security forces install themselves in government; or 3) a rebellion, whereby one or more opposition parties successfully seizes power by means other than a fair election. Rebellions occur rarely and almost never succeed, but executive and military coups are historically common, and most attempts at democracy worldwide have failed within a decade or two of their start by one or the other of these means (see here, here, and here for some previous posts on these broader points).

The spoils of state power often play a strong role in enticing incumbent officials and military officers to attempt coups, but they aren’t the only force at work. Political factions may also be lured into undemocratic behavior by uncertainty about their rivals’ intentions and fear of the steep costs of guessing wrong.

A game-theoretic model demonstrates this point in a formal way, but you can get the same idea by thinking about a Mexican standoff (and if you don’t know what that is, watch the embedded clip below from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly for the classic cinematic example). In democracies, the three gunfighters are the ruling party, the opposition, and the military. In some cases, each of these factions may be itching to knock off its rivals as a way to win sole control of some treasure at hand. In other cases, though, some or all of the dueling pistoleros might genuinely prefer to cooperate with the others. Maybe there’s an even bigger treasure up the road that they can only capture if they work together, or maybe they’re just tired of shooting. Whatever the reason, the problem is that this desire for cooperation can’t always overcome the fundamental problem of mutual distrust. Because the stakes are so high, every little turn of the eyes or twitch of the finger is liable to get misinterpreted as a sign of bad intentions, and no one wants to be the sucker who waits a little too long to shoot in hopes that things will work out okay on their own.

Turning back to Tbilisi, the early arrests of Saakashvili loyalists in the state security apparatus are raising concerns that Georgian Dream means to punish its former overlords in ways that push the boundaries of democratic practice. An executive coup is the typical trajectory for new democracies in the post-Cold War period, especially in countries, like Georgia, where politics is sharply polarized. Even if they aren’t aware of those general facts, many observers seem quite sensitive to this risk. “The gloves are off in Tbilisi as the new ruling power takes aim at President Mikheil Saakashvili’s allies,” Molly Corso wrote of the arrests in Business News Europe. According to the New York Times, “some lawmakers feared [the arrests] presaged a wave of reprisals against members of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s defeated government.” And on today’s TBLPOD podcast from Tbilisi, Camrin Christensen noted that, “People here are now probably thinking, ‘Oh, no, am I also on this list?’ and thinking about taking family vacations.”

It’s not the handful of arrests themselves that are so worrisome, of course. It’s what they imply about Georgian Dream’s underlying intentions. In the Mexican standoff metaphor, these arrests are a menacing turn of the eyes and hips in the direction of Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) and its sympathizers in the police and defense establishment.

Maybe those fears are overblown. Maybe Georgian Dream is being straight with us when it says it’s just pursuing legitimate investigations into abuses of power during President Saakashvili’s tenure. Even if that’s the case, though, the resulting uncertainty about its true intentions and growing fear of a self-coup will increase the risk of a military coup or a rebellion by the UNM as these factions grow more concerned about their fading prospects under Georgian Dream. The stronger their belief that Ivanishvili has it in for them, the stronger their incentive to respond fast, before the bullets arrive and score some serious damage.

My judgment might be clouded my affection for the place—I was a Soviet area-studies major as an undergrad; one of my oldest and closest friends is an American expat now living in Tbilisi, and I loved what I saw when I traveled there for his wedding a few years ago—but I’m optimistic that this budding standoff will wind down without any grave injuries or fatal mistakes. Georgia’s rival factions might not like each other, but they hate and fear Russia even more. (The cartoon to the right sums up many Georgians’ views of their 2008 war pretty nicely.) Because of the omnipresent threat from its neighbor to the north, Georgia badly wants into Europe, and entry into NATO is seen as the first door through which it must pass. NATO has sound geostrategic reasons not to admit Georgia while the threat of renewed war with Russia lingers, but Saakashvili’s authoritarian tendencies didn’t help its case, either. The risk of further alienating Europe with a blatant demolition of democracy will probably be powerful deterrent to would-be rebels or coup plotters.

European officials are keenly aware of this desire and already making good use of their leverage. A few days after the former defense minister’s arrest, RFERL reported that NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he was “extremely concerned” about Georgia’s post-election politics. “It’s for the legal system, the judicial system in Georgia, to sort out these cases,” he told a meeting of NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly in Prague, “but of course it’s important that such trials are not undermined by political interference and we will of course follow that development very, very closely.” As will we.

Leave a comment


  1. Grant

     /  November 16, 2012

    Interesting that NATO seems to be the security against Russia and not some Eastern European/Caucasus coalition when the willingness of Western Europe and America to militarily confront Russia isn’t certain at this time. Is it simply that NATO is what there is and a gamble that Russia won’t run the risk of an embarrassing defeat by America?

  2. Mostly it’s about the Ecstasy of Gold http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yn2xSNv0TSk

  3. Comparing the situation to a “Mexican Standoff” is a nice allegory, though in Tbilisi the military seems to be well controlled by civilian politicians and there is little risk they will take over power. So the situation might be better described as a Stag Hunt Game, which seems to be the two-player analog of the Mexican Standoff.
    The fact that after a regime change many governments declare an official amnesty for the functionaries of the old regime could be interpreted as a trust building signal to the opponent faction: “We have won the fight, but we won’t take revenge”. This, in turn, may prevent the opponent faction from starting a counter revolution or civil war or whatever, and so it is a genuine interest of prudent new rulers to send such conciliatory signals.
    Yet Georgian Dream seems not to have understood this. Even if there are legitimate charges against those who now got arrested, it would have been smart to be generous here and grant amnesty, maybe removing them from their offices but not imprisoning them.
    It’s just another example of irrationality on parts of the players in real-world games…

    • Point taken about civilian control of the military. If it were a two-player game, though, I don’t think it’s clear what form that game would take. Stag Hunt presumes that the payoff each player would get from cooperation is larger than the payoff from defection, and I’m not sure that’s the case here. If political power means control over some very valuable private goods, then we would get a Prisoner’s Dilemma instead. Really, though, uncertainty about the payoff structure—not just your own sense of it, but also what your rivals perceive it to be—is a significant part of the problem.

      • Well, the assumption that cooperation of the two factions yields the highest payoffs in the long run does not look too far-fetched to me. I am not talking about cooperation between the government and the opposition with regard to specific policy issues, but rather about agreement on the fundamentals (respecting the outcomes of elections, respecting court decisions, keeping to the constitution etc). It is not only that countries like the US have become very rich based on this fundamental consensus, it is also that Romney does not need to fear to be incarcerated by Obama. Not having to be afraid of retaliations probably yields higher payoffs for both players.
        The fact that there are all kinds of uncertainties in the real world might exactly be the reason why the Georgian Dream Party apparently defects; possibly, they perceive this situation as a Stag Hunt Game and choose the safe option.
        Anyway, you are certainly right that all these stylized games just capture one particular aspect of the situation. And without game theoretic analysis, it seems to be just so much smarter for Ivanishvili to be generous now, in particular as he could only win the election due to the “playing by the rules” of the UNM. This can be seen as a kind of generosity on part of the UNM. If he now sets up the big tribunal for the old rulers, it is very likely that the Georgians will revolt. The Georgians are very sensitive when it comes to abuse of power…

      • I think it’s pretty clear that cooperation produces the greatest long-term gains for Georgia as a whole. I think the relative gains from cooperation and defection for the elites who lead the various factions are much fuzzier. As long as there are ways for those elites to lock in gains from short bouts of non-cooperative behavior—say, by cashing out real-estate investments made at favorable prices with help from friends in high places and then stashing those funds in safer overseas investments or bank accounts—then the link between public and personal payoffs will remain tenuous. That said, it would be great if some civic-minded officials decided to break this cycle and start building a reputation for trustworthiness and collaboration.

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