Despite critical assessments of Georgia’s November 28 runoff presidential election from much of the international community – observers expressed alarm about political violence, intimidation, vote-buying on an “unprecedented” scale, and outright electoral fraud – the victory of ruling party candidate Salome Zurabishvili largely made headlines for a more positive reason: As the fifth president of Georgia, she is the first woman to hold the office.

Though Zurabishvili’s win is indeed a milestone for Georgia’s political development, it does not mark progress, but a massive step backward. Not long ago, the country was perceived as a heartening outlier in a difficult region: Following the peaceful Rose Revolution of 2003, then-President Mikheil Saakashvili embarked on an ambitious reform program that transformed Georgia from a failed state into a pro-Western democracy. Unsurprisingly, Russian President Vladimir Putin viewed such a success story in Russia’s backyard as a threat to his regime. Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and occupies about a fifth of the country’s territory to this day. According to then-US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a central objective of Russia’s intervention in Georgia was to depose Saakashvili.

In a peaceful transition of power – the first in the country’s history – Saakashvili stepped down in 2012, following his party’s loss to oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition. But in the years since, Georgia’s democratic institutions have eroded, and Zurabishvili’s election stands out as the most dramatic example yet of this backsliding. Not only did her campaign seriously damage Georgia’s democratic credentials – which now stand in stark contrast to monitors’ glowing assessment of the December 9 snap parliamentary elections in neighbouring Armenia– but Zurabishvili’s Pyrrhic victory was welcomed by Putin’s allies.

United Russia member Konstantin Kosachev, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Duma’s upper house, said in a comment carried by Russian state-run broadcaster TASS on November 29 that the contested Georgian election result was “positive” and expressed hope that “the space for dialogue” between Moscow and Tbilisi, presumably over the status of the Russian-occupied Georgian territories, “would enlarge.”

Anton Morozov, a Duma member from the far-right Liberal Democratic Party, predicted that Georgian-Russian relations would “markedly improve” with Zurabishvili’s presidency, and Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin echoed this optimism to members of the media from Ria Novosti, a tightly controlled state news agency, also on November 29.

The warm response from Moscow is not surprising – Zurabishvili has long pushed the Kremlin’s narrative about Georgia, claiming that the Georgian side provoked the Russian invasion in 2008 and that the US shares the blame. Indeed, Putin himself has quoted Zurabishvili’s writing to justify Russian aggression in Georgia. Perhaps this is why the most regressive political forces in Georgia – including the fringe pro-Kremlin party “Alliance of Patriots of Georgia” and the ultra-nationalist “Georgian March” movement, both of which receive funding from Moscow – voiced support for Zurabishvili in the runoff. According to Tbilisi-based journalist Natalia Antelava, the powers that pushed Zurabishvili to victory “are among the most xenophobic and sexist on Georgia’s political spectrum.”

Thus, it is a mistake to praise Zurabishvili’s campaign as a victory for women in politics. Shortly before the runoff, portraits of male Georgian Dream leaders – including Ivanishvili himself – replaced Zurabishvili’s face on billboards across the country. Not only did this move shatter any remaining illusion of Zurabishvili as an “independent” candidate, but it drew criticism from a coalition of Georgia’s most reputable gender equality NGOs, who stated that Zurabishvili’s campaign “damaged the ideals of gender equality and further marginalised female politicians”. Women’s rights groups also criticised the ruling party for attempting to present Zurabishvili as “a victim of gender-based discrimination, without being able to point to specific facts.” 

In short, the election of the first woman president merely serves as a fig-leaf to distract from the uncomfortable reality: Georgia has lost its position as the regional leader in democratic development. What’s more, the country’s once-unimpeachable credentials as a steadfast ally of the West are now under question. If Georgia’s international partners want to salvage any of the country’s hard-won progress, they would do well to look beyond the headlines.