Ivanishvili set to consolidate power in Georgia with presidential election

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Georgians go to the polls on October 27 to elect their new president — almost exactly one decade after the ‘Rose Revolution’ swept Mikheil Saakashvili to power.Georgia Flag Icon

But while everyone expects the candidate of the Georgian Dream (ქართული ოცნება) coalition, former education and science minister Giorgi Margvelashvili, to become Georgia’s next president, Georgian are really waiting to hear the next move of Georgian Dream’s leader and Georgia’s prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili (pictured above, with Margvelashvili in background).

That’s because under the reforms passed by Saakashvili in 2010, many of the significant powers of Georgia’s presidency will be transferred to Georgia’s parliament.  So when Saakashvili hands over power to his successor, his successor will be more of a figurehead and the prime minister will become the key figure in Georgia’s government.

That will give Ivanishvili political control over Georgia’s government, ending the divided government that’s ensued since the October 2012 parliamentary elections, when Georgian Dream won 85 seats to just 65 seats for Saakashvili’s United National Movement (ENM, ერთიანი ნაციონალური მოძრაობა) in the 150-unicameral Georgian parliament.  (In addition, 13 deputies have bolted the ENM since last year, leaving the ENM with just 52 seats today).

Over the past year, Saakashvili retained the power of the executive branch (the new reforms don’t take hold until after the new president is sworn in), while Ivanishvili has controlled Georgia’s parliament.  Though one of the highlights of Saakashvili’s decade in power was his graceful concession that his party had lost the 2012 legislative elections, Ivanishvili called on Saakashvili to resign shortly after the election, establishing the tit-for-tat aggression between the two leaders that’s dominated the past 12 months.

Ivanishvili, Georgia’s richest businessman, long ago supported Saakashvili.  But a falling-out between the two led Ivanishvili to create his own opposition coalition in 2012 and even Ivanishvili’s dominant win in last year’s election hasn’t brought much in the way of reconciliation between the two.  Earlier this week, Ivanishvili said that Saakashvili may be prosecuted after he leaves office — it’s a real possibility, especially considering the imprisonment of Ukraine’s former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko in recent years.

In the best-case instance, the past year would have provided Saakashvili and Ivanishvili time to coordinate the full transfer of power that will take place following this weekend’s presidential election.  But the poor personal relations between the two leader means that Georgia’s transition hasn’t  gone as smoothly as possible.

The race for the presidency

Margvelashvili, like Ivanishvili, was a newcomer to high-level Georgian politics in 2012.  Margvelashvili came to government from the academic and nonprofit sector.  With a doctorate in philosophy from Tbilisi State University in 1998, Margvelashvili served twice as the rector of the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs, a joint Georgian-American institute, from 2000 to 2006 and from 2010 to 2012, after five years with the well-known US-based National Democratic Institute.  Saakashvili, missing no opportunity for a snide remark, compared Margvelashvili’s to Caligula’s horse (of all things!) in May:

“I will say nothing specifically about this candidacy [of Margvelashvili], but generally speaking, when the Roman Emperor decided to demonstrate his dominance over the Roman society, he appointed his horse to the senate,” Saakashvili told journalists in Poti where he attended opening of a new Orthodox church.

Recently, Margvelashvili (and Ivanishvili) has claimed that he will end his candidacy if the election goes to a second round (i.e., if no candidate wins a 50% majority of the votes).  As Bret Barrowman at The Monkey Cage explains, that seems like less of a sacrosanct promise than either an idle threat or bluster meant to to maximize Margvelashvili’s support.

One helpful goalpost is the previous 2012 election, when the Georgian Dream coalition won 54.97% of the vote nationwide.

While polling in Georgia remains somewhat imprecise, a September NDI poll shows Margvelashvili with a wide lead of 39% to 18% over the UNM’s candidate, Davit Bakradze, a Saakashvili ally and a former foreign minister in 2008 who tried to negotiate a settlement with the breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia before the situation escalated into confrontation with Russia.  Bakradze subsequently served as speaker of Georgia’s parliament from 2008 to 2012.  In third place with 7% is Nino Burjanadze, a former Saakashvili ally who served as speaker of the Georgian parliament from 2001 to 2008, when she formed her own opposition party.

Whither Ivanishvili?

But a more baffling question is why Ivanishvili has been talking about stepping down as prime minister shortly after the presidential election — it’s all the more baffling given that after the presidential election, the prime minister will have most of the powers previously held by Saakashvili:

In an opaque scheme that no one but he understands entirely, Ivanishvili plans to appoint a new prime minister shortly after the presidential elections and retreat from politics, becoming a kind of omnipresent benefactor, providing cash and “control” to the government.

It sounds a bit ominous. Does he accept that, as a clearly partisan political figure, it will be hard for him to accept the role of a neutral benefactor of civil society?  “But I won’t be a politician any more,” he says, matter of factly, as if by stepping away from the fiercely political battle of which he has been one half, he can suddenly acquire neutrality.

Perhaps Ivanishvili wants to appoint a ‘new’ Saakashvili, a policy-oriented technocrat that will pursue Ivanishvili’s preferred policies — Ivanishvili will return to his glass castle overlooking the capital city of Tbilisi with a behind-the-scenes role not unlike the role he once played advising and financing Saakashvili’s revolution.

One option is Irakli Alasania, the current pro-Western defense minister and leader of the ‘Our Georgia — Free Democrats’ party, which holds 10 of Georgian Dream’s 85 seats in the Georgian parliament, though Ivanishvili overruled him in the search for a presidential candidate.  Another is David Usupashvili, the current speaker of the Georgian parliament and chairman of the Republican Party, which holds nine of the Georgian Dream’s seats.

Saakashvili’s legacy

The Saakashvili record, after a decade, seems fairly clear.  After inheriting a dysfunctional political and economic situation from the neo-Soviet president Eduard Shevardnadze in 2003, Saakashvili and a merry band of libertarian-leaning, US-educated technocrats set about remaking Georgia, marking a clean sweep of Soviet-era personnel, practices and policy.  When Saakashvili took power, corruption was so rife that electricity barely worked in Tbilisi.  Not only did Saakashvili turn the lights back on, his administration cracked down on corruption, cracked down on drug use, and transformed Georgia into a darling of the US and global investment community — it’s ranked ninth in the World Bank’s Doing Business rankings and 51st in the Transparency International corruption perceptions index.  That Saakashvili held free and fair elections, recognized his opponents’ electoral win, and assented to a peaceful transfer of power, is perhaps the most admirable of all his accomplishments.  Make no mistake, there’s no doubt that the Georgia that Saakashvili willed into existence is a much improved country than the one he inherited.

But the intensity that powered Saakashvili’s push to transform Georgia also caused significant problems.  Saakashvili steamrolled political opponents throughout his time in office, disregarded press freedom, and Georgia’s judiciary and prison system remains less reformed than Georgia’s economy — a prison torture scandal that broke days before the parliamentary election turned voters massively against Saakashvili and the ENM.  Furthermore, by turning so stridently to the West, with hopes of NATO and, ultimately, European Union membership, Saakashvili alienated Russian president Vladimir Putin, a move that even Saakashvili’s Western allies found unduly rash, given the importance of Russia throughout the Caucasus.  Saakashvili’s hot-headed military incursions into South Ossetia and Abkhazia led to Russia’s occupation of the two breakaway republics — a humiliation for Georgia and Saakashvili. Though the Ossetian and Abhkaz peoples are a majority in their respective republics, there are more Georgians in each republic than Russians.

Georgia’s future

While Georgia waits to see what Ivanishvili has in store, we can look to the prime minister’s mixed record after a year in divided government — and perhaps incomplete record, given the checks that Saakashvili has held while retaining the presidency for the last 12 months.

Ivanishvili, who made much of his fortune in Russia (and not in Georgia), hasn’t become the Russian puppet that his critics charged he was, and while he could make even more progress than Saakashvili on Georgia’s eventual NATO accession, he’s taken a more gentle approach to Russian relations.  Though Russian troops still occupy South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russia earlier this summer relaxed its embargo on Georgian wine and mineral water, which had been in place since 2006.  Georgian wine, in particular, is a growth industry for the country, and Russians generally agree that Georgian vineyards produce the best wine within all of the former Soviet Union.

But Ivanishvili hasn’t been able to rise above his petty squabbles with Saakashvili, which could bode ominously for the day when Georgian Dream takes the full reins of power — will Ivanishvili use his unfettered power to pursue grudges against Saakashvili?  Saakashvili’s former longtime interior minister Vano Merabishvili is already under investigation, and threats to prosecute Saakashvili could dent Georgia’s image as a country with an increasingly robust rule of law.  Like Saakashvili, Ivanishvili doesn’t seem to have much regard for the free press.

Georgian Dream is also losing some of its popularity because of the weakening economy — it grew at just 1.7% in the first seven months of 2013, versus 6% to 7% growth in the past three years, though increased trade with Russia could help boost GDP growth in both the short term and the long term.

Perhaps most ominous are the nagging doubts from 2012 about the unity of Georgian Dream — as a coalition defined solely by its opposition to Saakashvili, and with Ivanishvili bankrolling its campaign, Georgian Dream won a landslide last year, winning 68% of the vote in Tbilisi, where most of the country’s professionals, academics and other elites reside.  But the coalition remains a disparate mixture of a half-dozen parties with very different views — the anti-Western (National Forum), the nationalist, (Conservative Party of Georgia), the industrialist (Industry Will Save Georgia), liberal  liberal opponents (Our Georgia — Free Democrats) and liberals who have been fighting for free markets since the Soviet era (the Republican Party of Georgia).  So what happens when Saakashvili is actually gone?  What will be left to unite Georgian Dream, especially if Ivanishvili steps down as prime minister, as promised?

That divergence of opinion was on display in May, when LGBT activists were attacked during the Tbilisi pride parade.  Though Ivanishvili admirably stated that sexual minorities have equal rights in Georgia, more conservative elements within the Georgian Dream coalition disagreed, including deputy speaker Manana Kobakhidze and party elements close to the Georgian Orthodox Church.

If Ivanishvili steps down anytime soon as prime minister, he risks creating a vacuum that no other Georgian leader could fill.  That, in turn, could provide an opening to the Georgian Orthodox Church or any number of parties or elements within Georgian Dream (including the more neo-Soviet and nationalist ones) to wield more power in the years ahead.

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