The end of an era in Georgia
The presidential election in Georgia on Oct. 27 ended a decade of pro-Western Mikheil Saakashvili’s tenure. According to the Georgian constitution, presidents can serve only two terms. Saakashvili had been in office since 2004 and was forced to transfer his powers. Although he earlier toyed with the Putin-Medvedev model, creating an all-powerful prime minister, his chances of staging a comeback to the parliament are far too slim.
In the elections, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream Coalition fielded Giorgi Margvelashvili, former rector of the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs, who won a landslide victory in the first round with 62 percent of the votes. Among the 23 candidates, David Bakradze, former parliamentary speaker and candidate of Saakashvili’s United National Movement, got 22 percent, while Nino Burjanadze, the former chairperson of the parliament, got 10 percent. Despite the low turnout with 46.6 percent of electors attending to cast their ballot (compared to 56.1 percent in the 2008 presidential elections and 61 percent in last year’s parliamentary elections) the transition of power with the public vote was a crucial step for Georgian democracy.
The turnout was low, mostly because presidential post is now a mostly ceremonial office after last year’s constitutional amendments. Although the president remains as head of the state and commander in chief, his political presence and gravity was reduced reduced in favor of prime minister.
Saakashvili’s end was already decided by the results of last year’s parliamentary elections, where the Georgian Dream bested others and Bidzina Ivanishvili, the wealthiest man in the country with an estimated wealth of $5.5 billion, became Prime Minister. Ivanishvili’s election stand was to end the Saakashvili era in Georgia. As he now completed his mission with the election of Margvelashvili, he started to talk about his step-down as per his pledge last year. Nobody knows what exactly this stepping down would mean; whether he would completely leave the political scene or pull strings behind the scenes. In any case, the more important question is whether the Georgian Dream Coalition could survive Ivanishvili’s departure and produce viable team at the top for the future.
Although the Saakashvili decade has come to an end, his legacy has been pivotal in Georgian transformation toward a more representative governance model. His ousting of former president Edward Shevardnadze in the 2003 Rose Revolution proved to be a key watershed in turning the country decisively to the West and diminishing Russia’s influence. He cultivated a European identity for the country and strongly sought NATO membership and, to a lesser extent, accession to the EU. He also pushed for the actualization of energy projects such as Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum natural gas pipelines to break Georgia’s dependency on Russian energy and earn much needed hard currency. Domestically, he boosted the economy with liberal reforms, increased foreign direct investments, reduced corruption and fought with organized crime.
The Russia-Georgia War of August 2008 was another milestone in Saakashvili’s political career. His decision to attack secessionists in South Ossetia turned into an embarrassing defeat for Georgia against the Russians with their involvement and led to the Russian State’s recognition of the South Ossetian and Abkhazian breakaway republics. It also paved the way for ending his influence felt within the county alongside other critical issues such as using the judiciary against his opponents.
Georgia’s fate now depends on Ivanishvili, who has moved the country to a more nuanced position between the West and the Russia. He has not named his successor yet, but whoever comes next will be under heavy pressure to follow his policies, as his influence will no doubt continue behind the scenes as a “faceless” powerbroker. One hopes for Georgian democracy to receive a makeover to ensure a more fair, level political playing field.