While Bidzina Ivanishvili’s victorious “Georgian Dream” coalition wishes to “normalize” relations with Russia, President Saakashvili will be in office for another year.
By Paweł Piotr Styrna l October 3, 2012
The Georgian election results by district: Blue districts represent GD victories, while red districts are UNM wins.
The Georgian parliamentary elections, held on October 1, were a victory for billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s opposition “Georgian Dream” (GD) coalition over the incumbent president Mikheil Saakashvili’s governing United National Movement (UNM). The former won 55 percent of the popular vote, while the latter had to content itself with 40.3 percent. This was undoubtedly a serious defeat for the party associated with President Saakashvili, for the UNM’s support plummeted by 19 percentage points (i.e. a loss of one-third of the popular backing) since the last parliamentary election in 2008. In response, Georgia’s current head of state has conceded and Bidzina Ivanishvili will, in all probability, become the country’s next prime minister.
The tycoon-turned-politician is the richest Georgian in the world. Forbes estimates his worth at 6.4 billion dollars, which exceeds Tbilisi’s annual budget (c. 4.7 billion). The 56-year-old Ivanishvili studied in Moscow and made his fortune in Russia during the kleptocratic feast following in the wake of the implosion of the Soviet Union. Hence, he was often known as “Boris.” This Russian connection—both financial and personal—worried many Georgians and was emphasized by his rivals from the UNM.
The Georgian election has been considered fair, unlike the parliamentary and presidential contests in Putin’s Russia in 2011/2012. Ivanishvili has cynically claimed that the only reason the UNM government refrained from stuffing the ballot boxes was the presence of international observers. Whether the Saakashviliites would have rigged the election is debatable, however. They certainly need the West more than the West needs them, and Western governments frown upon such stifling of the Vox Populi…unless the violator in question is Putin’s Russia, of course. Either way, the governing party conceded the parliamentary majority without obstruction, making the October 2012 election the first peaceful transfer of power since independence.
Various explanations have been offered to account for the election results. Some argue that a video of torture in a Georgian prison made a huge impact on the voters. Others claim that the Georgians have grown fatigued with Saakashvili and his party. Invanishvili has accused the UNM government—which revoked his Georgian citizenship and fined him under the allegation of buying votes—of authoritarianism and a disregard for human rights.
In addition, the billionaire attacked the Saakashviliites for their supposed obliviousness towards the plight of the country’s poor. As was the case with any other post-Soviet country, Georgia’s economy was devastated by decades of communism. Saakashvili et consortes repaired it by introducing more economic freedom and encouraging foreign investment. Simultaneously, they fought corruption, cracked down on the ossified post-communist good-old-comrade network, and conducted a pro-Georgian-sovereignty public diplomacy campaign throughout the West. Georgia certainly pulled herself up by the proverbial bootstraps, although “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” and ordinary citizenry still faced many economic hardships. The wealthy Ivanishvili, who returned to Georgia only a year ago, hammered away at the government, simultaneously promising to cut utility costs, increase pensions, and provide government healthcare. Such hope-and-change populism certainly resonates with voters, particularly in post-communist societies, which tend to value security and entitlements over freedom and independence.
Last but not least, we underestimate the role of the Russian theme at our peril. Putin nurses a deep hatred of Saakashvili for placing Georgian sovereignty first. The Russian invasion of the Caucasian state in August 2008 was a clear warning to Tbilisi. The Russian-connected tycoon vowed to “normalize” and improve relations with Moscow. Ivanishvili naturally blames the incumbent president for Russia’s bullying. It seems that quite a few Georgians have grown tired of the threats, insecurity, and hardships which have become the price for defying Moscow’s post-Soviet neo-imperialism. While Ivanishvili’s declarations of commitment to Georgia’s eventual NATO and EU membership may be mere rhetoric, they might also suggest a return to the Shevardnadze-era policy of straddling the fence between the Russia and the West. In any case, it is overly premature to issue a verdict on the richest Georgian’s likely foreign policy. It should be mentioned, however, that the Russian media has struggled to contain its contentment. As reported by Moscow’s official mouthpiece, the ITAR-TASS agency, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, expressed the Kremlin’s happiness in a somewhat restrained and diplomatic manner: “This is only positive, as, most likely, this means more constructive and responsible forces will appear in the parliament.” Translation: Moscow is ready for the new leadership in Tbilisi to pay homage and fall in line. Only time can tell whether a new Georgian cabinet will, thus, submit. However, President Saakashvili will be in office for one more year—in spite of Ivanishvili’s demand that he resign – placing the incumbent in a position to veto any potential attempts to placate Russia at the price of Georgian sovereignty.
Note: For a more thorough analysis of Georgia’s current situation from the perspective of history and geopolitics, please see Paweł Piotr Styrna, “The Kremlin’s premeditated aggression against the nation of Georgia,” SFPPR News & Analysis, August 12, 2012.
Paweł Styrna has an MA in modern European history from the University of Illinois, and is currently working on an MA in international affairs at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC, where he is a research assistant to the Kościuszko Chair of Polish Studies. Mr. Styrna is also a Eurasia analyst for the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.