Eccentric Billionaire’s Victory in Georgia’s Elections Spells Changes in Foreign Policy
The parliamentary elections conducted in Georgia in October 2012 became “a referendum on the past eight years” (in the words of The Economist) of President Mikheil “Misha” Saakashvili’s rule. His economic and administrative reforms have turned the former Soviet republic into a showcase where petty corruption has all but vanished, the transport system has been transformed, and the economy is growing fast. Yet, unemployment and poverty levels remain high, while the judiciary, the state media, and big business are still often seen as indiscriminately following the official line. The frosty relations with Russia since the August 2008 war, which resulted in Georgia’s defeat and the recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia by Russia, are also viewed by many as having a negative impact on the country.
That the elections, judged by international observers as “peaceful and lawful”, took place at all is rather admirable in the context of post-Soviet regimes: in a recent election in Belarus the opposition did not win a single seat, and many pundits made claims of electoral violations in both parliamentary and presidential elections in Russia. While both sides in the Georgian elections used a harsh rhetoric, demonizing their opponents and accusing them of tyranny, treachery and bigotry, the oppositional Georgian Dream coalition, led by billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili, was allowed to campaign freely—and ultimately to win, by 55% of the vote. But the relatively small margin of victory, as well as the geographic distribution of vote (see map above), which does not coincide comfortably with either ethnic, linguistic, or religious lines, bear witness to how polarized Georgian society is. President Saakashvili has gracefully conceded his United National Movement (UNM) party’s defeat, thus “demolishing claims that his rule was Putinesque in its heavy-handedness”. Yet, the decisive factor in the election may have been videos showing rape and beatings in prisons, which surfaced in the final month of the campaign and led to a wide-spread scandal. Saakashvili promised an investigation, fired several senior officials, and designated a human-rights ombudsman in charge of the prisons. The authorities also said that the provenance of the videos was unclear and that they were leaked to coincide with the election; they also blamed bad prison conditions on the opposition’s failure to scrutinize the regime.
How exactly Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition will deal with Saakashvili’s legacy is not clear. Ivanishvili himself has no political record and was all but unknown until a year ago. Journalists call him “reclusive”, “secretive”, and “eccentric”. It is reported that he “raised penguins on his Black Sea estate and doled out money to dozens of Georgian poets and actors”. In October 2011 he declared that he would run for election, pledging that he would remain in power for only two years if elected. Because of the recent constitutional changes, for the first of these two years he will be sharing the helm with Saakashvili, as Georgia transitions from a presidential to a parliamentary democracy. Another potential difficulty is the fact that the coalition led by Ivanishvili consists of liberals, nationalists, and eccentrics; doubts have been raised as to whether it will stay together once the euphoria of victory has passed.
Ivanishvili’s main policy is better relations with Russia. The underlying cause of the tensions that resulted in a war in August 2008 is Georgia’s pro-Western orientation. Ivanishvili says that he will support his country’s bid to join NATO and that his first trip abroad may be to the United States. But he also wants to revive trade relations with Russia, which have been frozen since Moscow-imposed sanctions strangled Georgian exports such as wine, fruit, and mineral water. The change in personalities may make a thaw in diplomatic relations easier. Ivanishvili is seen by many as a pro-Russian politician, as he has lived in Russia, made his fortune there, and even had Russian citizenship (which, together with his French citizenship, caused legal difficulties during the election campaign). Both Ivanishvili himself and his pick for foreign minister, Maia Panjikidze, have spoken of reintegrating the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Among the overtures already made towards Moscow is a promise that Georgia will definitely compete in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, an event that Saakashvili had previously vowed to boycott.
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