The media are buzzing about how and why the “era of Saakashvili” came to an end. Some say that his page in history has been turned forever. Others are confident that the 45-year old is too young to bow out of politics.
Two months ago, I had a chance to ask Mikheil Saakashvili what he would do once he leaves the president’s palace. He said that he would remain in politics since he has many proactive supporters and unused potential. He even said that he wouldn’t mind returning to the government, however he would continue to make radical reforms there, not just sit patiently in his office.
CHOOSING A WEAK PRESIDENT
This year’s presidential campaign was very different from previous ones. First, constitutional reforms made Georgia a parliamentary republic and gave the legislature control over appointing the premier. The president no longer affects appointments in government, nor can he dissolve the legislature. Secondly, Georgians viewed the October 27 election as the final chord in the transfer of all power from Saakashvili and his party to the Georgian Dream coalition.
Right after last year’s parliamentary election won by Georgian Dream, the party of Russian-French billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, the president still maintained a good deal of de jure and de facto power. Saakashvili was entitled by the Constitution to appointing his ministers of defence, internal and foreign affairs. This would mean a way into the government. So he allowed his opponents to appoint their people to these offices. In return, he expected respect for the rights of the opposition minority and himself, the President and leader of the United National Movement.
However, Ivanishvili put many officials from Saakashvili’s team behind bars. One was Vano Merabishvili, Secretary General in Saakashvili’s party and the architect of the successful police reforms. When he was accused of several absurd episodes, his lawyers fended off the prosecutors’ attacks and the case began to fall apart. But he soon faced new charges.
Thus, the attempt to introduce a practice in which several antagonistic forces would co-exist in Georgian politics failed. Saakashvili’s voters criticized him for giving up, allowing bandits and Russian agents into the government. Ivanishvili’s electorate were equally outraged: in their eyes, Saakashvili was a tyrant, a criminal and there was no way that the new government could coordinate its policies with him.
The top parties got to the final phase of the election with opposite motivations. Ivanishvili’s supporters struggled to eliminate legislative dualism and give all power to Premier Ivanishvili. Saakashvili’s electorate struggled to prove that they exist despite repressions, and remain the main opposition party in the country. Both fulfilled their tasks on October 27.
THE END OF THE RACE
Nino Burjanadze, ex-speaker of the Georgian parliament and former member of the opposition team of the 2003 Revolution of Roses, is the best-known candidate in Ukraine. She was not satisfied with anything less than a leading role in Georgian politics. Moreover, Saakashvili did not take into account the economic interests of her husband, ex-deputy prosecutor general and head of the border police. After the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, Burjanadze was the first Georgian politician to visit Vladimir Putin and subsequently met with him several more times. She is considered the primary facilitator of Russian politics in Georgia – sort of a local Viktor Medvedchuk, but with more charisma and willingness to take political risks.
She spent many years on the sidelines and stayed away from local and parliamentary elections. Now is her time. Part of the Georgian electorate is growing increasingly weary of their once-beloved Georgian Dream idols, but will never vote for a candidate from Saakashvili’s party. “Soviets” would be the best name for them.
Their choice is purely emotional, based on post-Soviet and post-Russian nostalgia. They naively believe that Russia still loves and awaits them, that it is willing to allow Georgian agricultural products into its markets, and that Putin is ready to help Georgia restore its territorial integrity. For them, the conflicts with Russia were all the fault of “stupid Mikheil”.
Thanks to lavish funding attained right before the election, Burjanadze managed to come in third. Her portraits were everywhere – in the subway, on the yellow city buses, on billboards and in shop windows.
Davit Bakradze is a somewhat reluctant candidate from the United National Movement. After Vano Merabishvili ended up in jail, Saakashvili was left without a charismatic and electable candidate. Then, ex-speaker Bakradze won the primaries. He had an impressive career, first as chairman of the European Integration Committee, then the Minister of Conflict Regulation in charge of the reintegration of occupied territories, and finally as Interior Minister. He was the one to bear the negative aspects of the United National Movement’s eight years in government.
Giorgi Margvelashvili is Ivanishvili’s candidate. This gave the little-known former professor of philosophy-turned Education Minister a pass to the president’s office. Unlike his predecessors, he has nothing much to show the voters. He has no highs or lows—a grey mouse that has accidentally found himself in an atypical role. But that was Ivanishvili’s decision – and that is enough.
There is a much stronger candidate on Ivanishvili’s team. Irakli Alasania is a charismatic 40-year old European and NATO oriented Defence Minister who speaks English. He is one of the few principled people in the Georgian Dream and the leader of the Our Georgia – Free Democrats party. He is an independent politician with good contacts in Washington and Brussels, and very different from his boss who remains a dark horse for the world after a year as premier. That is why Alasania received no blessing from Ivanishvili while Margvelashvili did.
GEORGIANS VOTE WITH THEIR FEET
This year, 46.6% of Georgians showed up at polling stations. This was the lowest turnout ever. Half of the voters voted “against all” with their feet rather than ballots. As a result, the winner is the president of the minority.
The electorate was predictably most proactive in Sachkhere, home region of Premier Ivanishvili. For many years, he was a real father for his region in deeds, not just words. He paid for all utilities, covered college tuition for local children, gave TV antennas and fertilizer to local families and provided them with clothes. However, he did not create any jobs despite his assets. Over 94% of his countrymen voted for a continuation of the “hand-outs” –yet another record set in this election.
The winners are not judged. The defeated may well be Giorgi Margvelashvili, who will become the fourth president of Georgia in mid-November, gained 62% of the overall vote. Davit Bakradze came in second with 21.7%, while Nino Burjanadze ended up with just 10.16%.
Bidzina Ivanishvili has concentrated enormous executive and legislative power in his hands. He will now have no one else on which to blame his political problems and mistakes. The newly-elected Margvelashvili was happy about the election outcome but knew his place and waited for the Premier to finish his speech at the briefing. This is not a place for independent political games or ambitions. An era of public politics is followed by an epoch of Byzantinism. Moreover, the oligarch Ivanishvili has promised to resign from the premier’s office only to control the government from outside. This suggests that his spin-doctors are tasked with weakening Georgia as much as possible. Efforts to this end are sadly easy to see.
Bakradze, following Saakashvili’s suit a year ago, did not wait for the official results of the election. He greeted his opponent on the victory and offered to work for Georgia together with him, yet this civilized gesture remained unnoticed.
A few hours later, President Mikheil Saakashvili spoke his piece: “I am deeply convinced that Georgia is moving toward Europe and the voters support this course… All those who do not like the outcome of the election should not give up; any retreat is always temporary. Georgia has a good future”.
These are nice words, but is the victorious party willing to halt the acts of repression that threaten to reach Saakashvili? Some alarm bells are already sounding. The investigation into the death of Zurab Zhvania, former parliament speaker and a top activist in the Revolution of Roses, has been resumed. The media is buzzing with potential attempts to blame this on Saakashvili, but we will soon see where this story is headed.