Category Archives: Georgia

16 in 2016: Sixteen global elections to watch in 2016


Of the most important elections in 2015, it’s a safe bet to argue that three of them took place in Greece: the January parliamentary elections, one insane roller-coaster of a referendum in July and another snap parliamentary vote again in September.

So what is the world to do in 2016, when no one expects Greeks to return to the polls? (Though, Athens being Athens, it’s impossible to rule the possibility out.)

Fear not. The new year will bring with it a fresh schedule of exciting elections on all seven continents, including in the United States, which after a marathon pair of primary campaigns, will finally choose the country’s 45th president in November 2016.

But following American politics only begins to scratch the surface.

At least two world leaders in 2016 will put ballot questions to voters  that could make or break their careers (and legacies).

New governments could emerge from elections in Taiwan, the Philippines, Morocco, Georgia, Peru, Jamaica, Ghana, Zambia and Australia.

Former president Nicolas Sarkozy will either advance or flame out in his bid for a French political comeback in 2016.

Semi-autocratic leaders in Russia, Uganda, Congo and Vietnam will seek endorsements from their voters while hoping that the veneer of elections doesn’t unleash popular protest.

An opaque series of votes in Iran could determine the country’s future Supreme Leader.

A mayoral election in London (and regional elections outside England) could reshuffle British politics with an even more important vote on the horizon in 2017.

One very special election could change the international agenda of world peace and global security altogether.

Without further ado, here is Suffragio‘s guide to the top 16 elections to watch in 2016. After a short break in the new year, your attention should turn to the South China Sea… Continue reading 16 in 2016: Sixteen global elections to watch in 2016

Garibashvili’s resignation in Georgia a reboot for ruling ‘Dream’ coalition

Prime minister Irakli Garibashvili abruptly resigned days before Christmas, amid deepening troubles for the Georgian Dream coalition. (Facebook)

Though the disparate groups who hold power today in Tbilisi rode to power three years ago as the ‘Georgian Dream’ coalition, life for them is quickly devolving into something more like a nightmare.Georgia Flag Icon

With fresh elections due in October 2016, prime minister Irakli Garibashvili resigned abruptly on December 23 after just over two years in office (and at the ripe old age of 33). The political crisis has left Georgia, including both the government’s supporters and detractors, stunned. Giorgi Kvirikashvili, foreign minister only since September 2015 and, formerly, the minister of economy and sustainable development, became Georgia’s new prime minister-designate on Christmas Day. Like Garibashvili, he’s a political unknown with longtime ties to Ivanishvili, formerly the head of the Ivanishvili-owned Cartu Bank.

Before ascending to power, Garibashvili was a longtime employee of Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire who financed the Georgian Dream (ქართული ოცნება) coalition, united mostly by its opposition to the policies and anti-Russian orientation of Georgia’s former president Mikheil Saakashvili. Garibashvili rose quickly in the new order after the Georgian Dream coalition won the 2012 parliamentary elections. While Ivanishvili himself held the premiership between October 2012 and November 2013, it was Garibashvili, by then a trusted Ivanishvili adviser, who took the pivotal role of minister for internal affairs. In that position, barely out of his twenties, Garibashvili was tasked with ‘reforming’ the Georgian police forces, though he spent more time throwing several former Saakashvili era officials in prison.

When Ivanishvili decided to step aside from frontline politics, no one believed that he was necessarily ceding control of Georgia’s new government, and Garibashvili never truly shook the impression that he was really just a puppet serving at Ivanishvili’s pleasure. That impression will be even harder to shake now, with tongues wagging that it was Ivanishvili who ordered Garibashvili’s resignation.

The Garibashvili government's failures in the aftermath of devastating flash floods in June 2015 were amplified when many animals from Georgia's national zoo escaped onto the streets of Tbilisi. (Beso Gulashvili / Reuters)
The Garibashvili government’s failures in the aftermath of devastating flash floods in June 2015 were amplified when many animals from Georgia’s national zoo escaped onto the streets of Tbilisi. (Beso Gulashvili / Reuters)

It isn’t an outrageous leap to believe that Ivanishvili is still calling the shots in Georgia’s government, nor is it unrealistic that he is eager to shake up Georgian politics, above all to protect his return on investment as fresh elections beckon.

Garibashvili never had much of a political power base independent of Ivanishvili. Moreover, he often clashed with Giorgi Margvelashvili, Gerogia’s president, who easily won the October 2013 presidential election (to what is now a mostly ceremonial office, thanks to reforms in the last year of the Saakashvili era that transferred power from the presidency to the parliament). Margvelashvili, formerly a little-known academic and former education and science minister, owes his position, like Garibashvili, mostly to Ivanishvili and his bankroll, though he is nominally an independent and he has demonstrated his willingness to disagree with Ivanishvili publicly from time to time.

It’s no surprise to anyone that the Garibashvili-led government has struggled for the past two years. The economic expansion of the Saakashvili years, with its technocratic zeal for improving infrastructure and attracting foreign development, are now a long-faded memory. Inflation is up, GDP growth is stagnant by the standard recent trends (now expected to be less than 3% and far below the 5% prediction earlier this year) and Georgia’s currency, the lari, is down — by nearly 40%, compared to the US dollar in the last 15 months. Garibashvili’s government has lurched between the rhetoric of reform and a far more unfocused reality, given the varied perspectives among the nationalists, socialists and liberals that comprise the many parties that comprise the Georgian Dream coalition.

His government is also tainted with the appearance of incompetence. Flash flooding in June 2015 caused a devastating humanitarian crisis in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, but it also wiped out the national zoo, killing many animals and letting many others escape, leading to surreal photos throughout the international media of a hippopotamus (among other beasts) stomping through city streets. Continue reading Garibashvili’s resignation in Georgia a reboot for ruling ‘Dream’ coalition

Saakashvili makes a political return — to Odessa

poroshenko saakashvili

The last we’d heard of former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, he was enjoying a hipster lifestyle in Williamsburg. Georgia Flag IconUkraine Flag Icon

Increasingly, though, Saakashvili has become a persona non grata in Georgia, where he held power between 2004 and 2013, ushering in liberal reforms to a country sorely in need of liberalization. When an umbrella coalition of opponents, led and financed by Bidzina Ivanishvili defeated his ruling party in late 2013, Saakashvili recognized the loss and facilitated the ensuing political transition, which coincided with the constitutional change from a strong presidential system to a parliamentary system.

So it was quite a surprise to see Saakashvili emerge last weekend in Saturday as the newly minted governor of the Odessa region.

We live in an era where Stanley Fischer can obtain Israeli citizenship, lead its central bank and then return to the United States to become vice chair of the Federal Reserve — or where Mark Carney can switch roles from heading the Bank of Canada to the Bank of England. So why shouldn’t a well-regarded former president be permitted, especially at the young age of 47, to take on a politically difficult role in a nearby country — especially when the struggles facing Georgia and Ukraine are so similar?

In order to assume the role as Odessa’s new governor, Saakashvili was obligated to give up his Georgian citizenship and accept from Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko an offer of Ukrainian citizenship. Saakashvili previously refused to do so when Poroshenko earlier offered him a position as deputy prime minister.

A post-presidential exile from Georgia

As Saakashvili himself has noted, however, Georgian citizenship entitles him to little more than six square meters in prison. That’s because the current government has charged Saakashvili with multiple offenses, all of which seem precariously motivated by politics, not the rule of law. Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev called the announcement a ‘circus,’ but the reaction from Georgia’s current leadership was even more incendiary. Tina Khidasheli, the country’s defense minister, attached Saakashvili for treason, and the country’s president, Giorgi Margvelashvili, called the move an ‘insult’ to Georgia and its government.

The step could complicate Saakashvili’s plans to lead the opposition in the 2016 parliamentary elections in Georgia or compete for the presidency in 2018.

As president, there’s no doubt that Saakashvili reduced corruption and improved the underlying Georgian economy and, in stepping down with grace, established a strong precedent for democratic transition and the rule of law. His largest miscalculation came in 2007 and 2008, when he escalated military and diplomatic tensions with Russia. With high hopes for NATO and European Union membership, and believing Western forces would ultimately come to his aid, Saakashvili’s clash with the Russian military led to the quasi-annexation of two breakaway republics — Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Many of the current government’s criminal charges against Saakashvili today spring from the debacle. Continue reading Saakashvili makes a political return — to Odessa

What if Abkhazia held a presidential election and no one cared?


Last Sunday, the breakaway Georgian republic of Abkhazia elected a new president.Russia Flag IconabkhaziaGeorgia Flag Icon

But Abkhazia’s new leader, former opposition leader Raul Khadzhimba (pictured above), didn’t receive the traditional cascade of congratulatory telephone calls from world leaders. Instead, he’ll face a world almost wholly united in non-recognition of his victory. None of NATO, the United States, the European Union nor Georgia’s prime minister Irakli Garibashvili consider the elections legitimate.

That’s because only four countries currently recognize Abkhazia’s sovereignty: Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru. Nicaragua and Venezuela are governed by socialist presidents friendly to Russia. Nauru, an 8.1 square-mile island northwest of Australia with just over 9,000 residents, established diplomatic relations with Abkhazia in 2009, allegedly after demanding from Russia $50 million in funding for economic and social projects. 

Since the 2008 military showdown between Russian president Vladimir Putin and former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, Abkhazia has existed in a state of international limbo, essentially occupied by Russian soldiers and governed by separatists.

But the cause of Abkhazian independence goes back to the breakup of the Soviet Union when Abkhazia, an autonomous republic within Georgia, wanted its own state and when Abkhaz separatists fought and won a bloody 13-month war in 1992 and 1993 against the newly independent Georgian state.  Continue reading What if Abkhazia held a presidential election and no one cared?

Shevardnadze’s legacy to Russia, to Georgia and to the world


Depending on your age, your nationality and your perspective, you’ll remember Eduard Shevardnadze, who died three days ago, as either a progressive reformer who, as the Soviet Union’s last foreign minister, helped usher in the period of glasnost and perestroika under Mikhail Gorbachev that ultimately ended the Cold War, or a regressive autocrat who drove Georgia into the ground, left unresolved its internal conflicts, and ultimately found himself tossed out,  unloved, by the Georgian people after trying to rig a fraudulent election in a country was so corrupt by his ouster that the capital city, Tbilisi, suffered endemic power outages.Georgia Flag IconGSSR

Both are essentially correct, which made Shevardnadze (pictured above) one of the most fascinating among the final generation of Soviet leadership. It’s not just a ‘mixed‘ legacy, as The Moscow Times writes, but a downright schizophrenic legacy.


His 2006 memoirs, ‘Thoughts about the Past and the Future,’ have been sitting on my bookshelf for a few months — I ordered the book from a Ukrainian bookstore, and I hoped to find a Georgian language scholar to help translate them. I would still like to read an English translation someday, because I wonder if his own words might offer clues on how to reconcile Shevardnadze-as-visionary and Shevardnadze-as-tyrant.

Gorbachev and Russian president Vladimir Putin had stronger praise for Shevardnadze than many of his native Georgians:

Gorbachev, who called Shevardnadze his friend, said Monday that he had made “an important contribution to the foreign policy of perestroika and was an ardent supporter of new thinking in world affairs,” Interfax reported. The former Soviet leader also underlined Shevardnadze’s role in putting an end to the Cold War nuclear arms race.

President Vladimir Putin expressed his “deep condolences to [Shevardnadze’s] relatives and loved ones, and to all the people of Georgia,” his spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. Russia’s Foreign Ministry also issued a statement on Shevardnadze’s passing, saying the former Georgian leader had been “directly involved in social and historical processes on a global scale.”

Even Mikheil Saakashvili, who came to power after Georgians ousted Shevardnadze in 2003’s so-called ‘Rose Revolution’ had somewhat generous, if begrudging, words for the former leader: Continue reading Shevardnadze’s legacy to Russia, to Georgia and to the world

Margvelashvili wins Georgia’s presidential election, but all eyes are on Ivanishvili


It wasn’t a surprise that Giorgi Margvelashvili won such an overwhelming first-round victory in Georgia’s Sunday presidential election.Georgia Flag Icon

Preliminary results showed that Margvelashvili, a relatively little-known academic and most recently Georgia’s minister of education and science, won 63.82% of the vote — an incredibly strong result for Margvelashvili and the coalition he represents, Georgian Dream (ქართული ოცნება).

But the real transition of power won’t be from outgoing president Mikheil Saakashvili to Margvelashvili — rather, it will be from the office of the presidency to the office of the prime minister.

Under constitutional reforms adopted two years ago, Margvelashvili will hold a vastly less powerful presidency.  When Saakashvili leaves office, many of the duties of the presidency will pass instead to the head of government — prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream coalition, which took power after winning the October 2012 parliamentary elections.  Georgian Dream won 85 of the unicameral parliament’s 150 seats, and it’s won over a few more Saakashvili supporters in the past year.

That means that the result of the presidential election isn’t as important as the fact that, upon Margvelashvili’s inauguration, Georgia will essentially transform from a presidential republic into more of a parliamentary republic.  While Ivanishvili and Saakashvili have held power jointly for the past year with a divided government, Ivanishvili will now control Georgia’s government in its entirety.

But it doesn’t mean Margvelashvili’s victory is meaningless — it’s a vote of confidence in Ivanishvili and the current government.  Georgian Dream won 54.97% of the national vote last year, so its win in the presidential election is a significant increase in voter support.

The bottom line is that the real transition from the Saakashvili era to the Ivanishvili era is only about to begin — and no one really knows what that entails, because there are more questions than answers at this point.

The first question is whether Ivanishvili will actually stay on as prime minister — he’s indicated that he would prefer to step down and appoint another individual to succeed him.  Ivanishvili is Georgia’s wealthiest businessman, and he came to frontline politics only last year after falling out with Saakashvili.  But if he steps down, he would do so at exactly the moment when the office of the prime minister is set to become the most important office in Georgia, and it’s hard to believe he would do so unless he could install a relatively pliable replacement.  There seems to be little doubt that Ivanishvili will continue calling the shots, either as prime minister or behind the scenes, and he will remain by far the most important political figure in Georgia due to his massive wealth and his role in founding Georgian Dream.

The second question is whether Georgian Dream can truly govern as a united force.  The coalition is an unwieldy melange of nationalists, liberals and populists and it includes both pro-Western and pro-Russian forces.  During the 2012 campaign, and even over the past year in parliament, opposition to Saakashvili was sufficient to keep its disparate elements mostly united.  But when Saakashvili is no longer in power, and Georgian Dream is responsible for coherent policymaking, it may prove more difficult to maintain that unity.  That could be especially difficult if Ivanishvili steps down as prime minister.  Continue reading Margvelashvili wins Georgia’s presidential election, but all eyes are on Ivanishvili

Ivanishvili set to consolidate power in Georgia with presidential election


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: Continue reading Ivanishvili set to consolidate power in Georgia with presidential election

13 in ’13: Thirteen world elections to watch in 2013


Welcome back and a happy new year to all of Suffragio‘s readers.

With 2013 off and running, here are the 13 world elections that will undoubtedly make a difference to the course of world affairs this year — and a key number of them are coming very soon, too. Continue reading 13 in ’13: Thirteen world elections to watch in 2013

Red October? Four autumn elections boost Moscow’s influence in Russian ‘near-abroad’

It’s been a good October for Moscow.

In each of the four former Soviet republics with elections scheduled for late September and October 2012 (Belarus, Georgia, Lithuania and Ukraine), Russia has reason to believe that its relations with each such country will strengthen.  The elections have ranged in character from incredibly free, open and fair to completely rigged, and the countries fall across the spectrum of geography, economics and political development.

The one factor they have in common is the success of political leaders who aim to nudge their country’s foreign relations some degree friendlier with Russia:

  • In Belarus on September 23, Alexander Lukashenko and his allies ‘won’ all of the seats in the House of Representatives in an unfair and unfree election.  Lukashenko, in power since 1994, is one of the most pro-Russian leaders among former Soviet republics; Belarus and Russia share very tight-knit economic ties, a common approach to rule of law and human rights (not particularly progressive), and Lukashenko has at various times contemplated bringing Belarus and Russia back into some form of union.  Belarus and Kazakhstan, for instance, joined a formal customs union with Russia in January 2012.
  • In Georgia on October 1, an opposition coalition led by Georgia’s richest man Bidzina Ivanishvili took control of the Georgian parliament from the party of Georgia’s president Mikheil Saakashvili.  Ivanishvili, an oligarch who made his fortune in the 1990s and 2000s in post-Soviet Russia, has argued that Georgia can remain committed to economic and democratic reforms and the rule of law and strive for better relations with Russia (though Ivanishvili says he’d still like to seek Georgian membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization).  Under Saakashvili, Russia imposed a trade ban on many Georgian exports, including wine, agricultural products and mineral water; in 2008, after provocation from Saakashvili, Russian president Vladimir Putin sent Russian troops to the breakway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which remain occupied by Russian forces.
  • In Lithuania on October 14, in the first round of parliamentary elections, the Labour Party of Russian-born Viktor Uspaskich narrowly won the largest share of the vote and will likely form part of the next government coalition.  Uspaskich’s party also finished first in 2004, but since then, Uspaskich has been charged with corruption and spent parts of 2006 and 2007 in apparent hiding in Russia.  In any event, Uspaskich’s presence in the government could bring about more favorable relations with Russia, and it could possibly slow Lithuanian accession into the eurozone.
  • In Ukraine on October 28, pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, who narrowly defeated the more pro-Western Yulia Tymoshenko in the 2010 election (who was promptly charged, tried and imprisoned on politically motivated charges relating to the 2009 pipeline crisis with Russia) is leading his largely united pro-Russian Party of Regions in parliamentary elections, while the various pro-Western political parties remain split.

This autumn’s elections follow the September 2011 Latvian parliamentary elections, in which the Harmony Centre party won the largest share of the vote, a watershed for a party that derives much of its support from ethnic Russians and which actually signed an electoral pact with Putin’s ‘United Russia’ party in 2009.  The result caused alarm in Washington and Brussels — Latvia joined NATO in 2004 along with Lithuania and Estonia, so a pro-Putin government in a NATO government would naturally be alarming.  But despite some legitimate doubts about Harmony Centre, its anti-austerity platform attracted even not just ethnic Russians, but ethnic Latvians, and it seems more interested in elevating Russian as an official language in Latvia (one-fourth of Latvia’s population speaks Russian) than reconstituting a political union with Russia. In any event, other Latvian parties united to keep Harmony Centre out of the government.

Although some Western media have already started pearl-clutching about this month’s elections, it’s important to keep some perspective — it’s not exactly the second coming of the Warsaw Pact.

Putin, in 2011 as Russian prime minister, proposed a ‘Eurasian Union,’ although it’s unclear whether that has any chance of succeeding — the Commonwealth of Independent States, which incorporates nine of the 15 former Soviet republics, has not exactly prospered (and ask former French president Nicolas Sarkozy how his proposed ‘Mediterranean Union’ is doing).  In recent years, Russia has reduced energy subsidies to Ukraine and Belarus, despite clearly pro-Putin governments, and it took a curiously lackadaisical approach to the 2010 coup in Kyrgyzstan.  Except for perhaps Belarus, none of the Soviet republics seem to have the stomach to return to a ‘Soviet Union light’ alliance with Russia.

Rather, there’s a more pragmatic realization in the former Soviet republics that even if Russia isn’t quite the superpower that it was in the 20th century, the inevitability of geography suggests that it will continue to exert some influence, for good or for ill, in its ‘near-abroad’ — in terms of economics, energy, security, and in some cases, continued cultural and political ties.  As the Cold War recedes further into history, though, it’s becoming less necessary to think of having to choose between ‘the West’ and Russia as a binary matter.  If former Soviet republics overlearned the lessons of 1990 and 1991, perhaps they are now learning the countervailing lessons of Saakashvili’s mistakes — needlessly antagonizing Russia (not to mention ethnic Russians within former Soviet republics) is probably counterproductive, even for more pro-reform, pro-Western leaders.

Continue reading Red October? Four autumn elections boost Moscow’s influence in Russian ‘near-abroad’

Who is Bidzina Ivanishvili?

Bidzina Ivanishvili, the leader of what appears to be the winning coalition in Georgia’s parliamentary election yesterday, is Georgia’s wealthiest man, with an alleged net worth of $6.4 billion, but until he formed his opposition group last year, however, Ivanishvili was not an incredibly well-known public figure.

Now, however, as the head of what is expected to be the largest group in Georgia’s parliament, the Georgian Dream — Democratic Georgia party (k’art’uli ots’neba–demokratiuli sak’art’velo, ქართული ოცნება–დემოკრატიული საქართველო), Ivanishvili (pictured above) is set to become the most important political player in Georgia.

Diplomats from Brussels to Berlin and from Moscow to Washington, D.C. are now attempting to discern where Bidzina hopes to take Georgia.

Although the small nation in the Caucuses has a population of just 4.5 million, it is an incredibly strategic country and has played an outsized role in world affairs.  That role has been especially outsized since current president Mikheil Saakashvili came to power in 2003 in the wake of the ‘Rose Revolution’ that ushered former president Eduard Shevardnadze out of power and brought to Georgia a new era of legal and democratic reforms, however imperfect, and a liberalized and dynamic economy where corruption has been much reduced.

Saakashvili has pushed aggressively for his country to be a member of both the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the United States and Europe both consider Georgia a vital element in energy geopolitics as a conduit for oil and gas from Russia.  Russia, meanwhile, has had frosty relations with Saakashvili from the start — Russian president Vladimir Putin’s administration imposed an embargo on mineral water, wine and other agricultural products on Georgia in 2006, and the two countries clashed in a small war in 2008 over the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

So since Saakashvili conceded defeat to Ivanishvili’s coalition earlier Tuesday, the entire world — to say nothing of Georgia — is now left wondering what Ivanishvili actually wants to do with Georgia’s domestic and foreign policy after a polarizing campaign that was waged mostly against the excesses and problems of Saakashvili’s current government.

The world will have some time to gauge Ivanishvili’s agenda — although he and his Georgian Dream will now direct the selection of a new prime minister, Saakashvili will retain much of the government’s power until the end of his term.  So for at least the next year — the next presidential election is set for October 2013 — Saakashvili, however weakened, will still call the shots.  In late 2013, however, under constitutional reforms agreed in 2010, much of the executive power in Georgia’s government will flow to the prime minister.  Accordingly, Ivanishvili and Georgian Dream are set to assume real power, eventually.

Ivanishvili is the youngest of five children, who grew up the poor son of a miner in Chorvila in western Georgia.  He made his fortune in Russia like many oligarchs in the post-Soviet era — by buying formerly state-owned assets on the cheap from the new Russian government of president Boris Yeltsin in banking and then in the metals industry.  Until last year, when he announced his political ambitions, he had been a quiet, if not necessarily ‘shadowy’ figure in Georgian life, content to settle in a glass-and-steel palace (designed by cutting-edge Japanese architect Shin Takamatsu) overlooking Tbilisi,  engaged in philanthropic projects throughout his native Georgia and especially Chorvila, where Ivanishvili has lavished money on the local residents — a move that some have compared to Bill Gates-style philanthropy and others have called 21st-century feudalism.

And yes, he owns zebras and other exotic pets, and yes, two of his four children are albinos, one of whom is a rapper.

But who is Bidzina Ivanishvili — and what is his vision for Georgia?

The best place to start may be with a profile in Forbes from March 2012 (read it all), which is the source of many of the details I’ve seen today in the media about Ivanishvili:

The best way to fathom the influence and impact Bid­zina Ivanishvili has in the former Soviet republic of Georgia would be to imagine that a businessman worth $8 trillion—Ivanishvili’s $6 billion net worth is half of Georgia’s GDP—had established a statewide system of philanthropic patronage in, say, West Virginia and the whole state was subservient to him. He has paid to repair the state university in Tbilisi and refurbish its biggest theaters. His name is on national parks, ski resorts and medical clinics.

Ivanishvili returned to Georgia shortly before 2003’s Rose Revolution after living, first in Russia, then in France, and he was an initial supporter — politically as well as financially — of Saakashvili’s project for Georgia: Continue reading Who is Bidzina Ivanishvili?

Georgian election results: Georgian Dream leads and Saakashvili concedes

UPDATE: As of 9:30 p.m. in Tbilisi, preliminary results (85% reporting) show Georgian Dream leading the ‘party-list’ vote (proportional representation) with 54.89% to just 42.42% for the United National Movement, which would give Georgian Dream an edge among the 77 seats in the Georgian parliament allocated by proportional representation.  Meanwhile, among the single-mandate constituencies, the United National Movement leads in 37 districts, but Georgian Dream leads in 35 (with one district outstanding).  That tiny lead among the single-mandate constituencies is narrower than expected and it would not be enough to offset the gains made by Georgian Dream in the ‘party-list’ vote.  It explains why Saakashvili was so quick to concede defeat earlier today.

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As election results roll slowly in, Georgia’s president Mikheil Saakashvili (pictured above) has apparently conceded the defeat of his governing United National Movement (Ertiani Natsionaluri Modzraoba, ერთიანი ნაციონალური მოძრაობა) to the new opposition group founded by Georgia’s wealthiest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili, the Georgian Dream — Democratic Georgia party (k’art’uli ots’neba–demokratiuli sak’art’velo, ქართული ოცნება–დემოკრატიული საქართველო).

The 150 seats to the Georgian parliament are selected pursuant to a parallel voting system, whereby 77 seats are allocated pursuant to proportional representation (the ‘party-list’ vote) and 73 seats are determined in single-district constituencies.

Currently, with around 30% of the votes counted on the ‘party-list’ vote, Georgian Dream has 53.11% and Saakashvili’s United National Movement just 41.57%.  A parallel vote tabulation by the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy shows a similar result — with Georgian Dream winning about 54.6% of the ‘party list’ vote to just 40.7% for the United National Movement.

Saakashvili conceded earlier today, despite his insistence late yesterday that United National Movement would win significantly more single-district constituencies, notwithstanding the ‘party-list’ vote.  Liz Fuller, writing for The Atlantic, questions whether he actually conceded prematurely.

Saakashvili’s statement leaves fairly little wiggle room — he declares that his party will now go into opposition, despite some harsh words for Georgian Dream at the conclusion of a campaign that’s seen heated rhetoric:

You know well that the views of this coalition were and still are fundamentally unacceptable for me. There are very deep differences between us and we believe that their views are extremely wrong, but democracy works in a way that Georgian people makes decisions by majority. That’s what we of course respect very much….

So as the opposition force, we will struggle for the future of our country; we will struggle for everything what has been created in recent years in terms of struggle against corruption, crime, in terms of Georgia’s modernization, building of new institutions, to protect them as much as possible and to preserve them for future generations and to further develop Georgia as a result of all the constitutional and political processes.

Of course, I express my respect towards the decision of the majority participating in the elections, but at the same time, I thank those numerous supporters who expressed their support towards the governmental course, presidential course and I am sure that in the future there will be no alternative to the progress, to Georgia’s development and we will all continue our struggle with this belief regardless of what the challenges of present day might be.

It appears, then, as if Saakashvili has seen the numbers or exit polls for the single-district constituencies and no longer believes that his party can pull through against the strength of Ivanishvili’s victory on the ‘party list’ vote, although preliminary results are expected later today.

As such, Saakashvili’s statement and the peaceful transfer of power to Ivanishvili and Georgian Dream will now rank among the most significant accomplishments of Saakashvili’s tenure — possibly more important than the economic reforms that have liberalized Georgia’s economy and the crack-down on government corruption.  Saakashvili’s government has not always been incredibly respectful of dissent — in 2009, it forcibly shut down protests in Tbilisi, and it has been accused of using prosecutorial and tax authorities to harass the opposition.  Saakashvili’s government was rocked by allegations of rape, beatings and other brutality throughout the Georgian prison system two weeks before the election.

Ivanishvili wasted no time today in attacking Saakashvili’s reforms as a farce and called on the president to resign and call an early presidential election.  His Georgian Dream coalition brings together Georgians of many different ideological stripes, from pro-Western free-market liberals to xenophobic nationalists, all united essentially only in their opposition to Saakashvili and the excesses of his government in the past eight years.  Ivanishvili has, however, stressed that he would like to normalize relations with Russia, while also indicating he is in no way anti-Europe or anti-Western.

Short of Saakashvili’s resignation, there will be plenty of time to effect the transfer, however, given the constitutional reforms approved in 2010 and set to take effect in October 2013.  Much of the power that Saakashvili now wields as president will be transferred to the prime minister (who is appointed by the Georgian parliament) under Georgia’s new constitution.  But that transfer will not occur until the end of Saakashvili’s current term — the next presidential election is scheduled for October 2013 — so Saakashvili, as a lame-duck president, will largely remain in control of the government until that time. Continue reading Georgian election results: Georgian Dream leads and Saakashvili concedes

Saakashvili and Ivanishvili both claim victory in parliamentary elections in Georgia

Georgians went to the polls today to elect members to the 150-member Georgia parliament today.

Both of the main contenders — the United National Movement (Ertiani Natsionaluri Modzraoba, ერთიანი ნაციონალური მოძრაობა) of president Mikheil Saakashvili and the Georgian Dream — Democratic Georgia party (k’art’uli ots’neba–demokratiuli sak’art’velo, ქართული ოცნება–დემოკრატიული საქართველო) of Georgia’s wealthiest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili, have claimed victory in the race.

Exit polls show Georgian Dream and the United National Movement either tied or with Georgian Dream narrowly ahead.  A little over half (77) of the 150 seats are determined by proportional representation and the rest (73) are determined by single-majority constituencies across Georgia.  Although Georgia Dream may lead among the 75 seats allocated by party list, it is believed that Saakashvili’s United National Movement has a significant edge among the individual first-past-the-post constituencies.

The race pits two very strong-minded personalities against one another — and two very different narratives of the past eight years since Saakashvili took power following the so-called ‘Rose Revolution’ — a series of protests that ushered Eduard Shevardnadze out of office after 12 years in power since the fall of the Soviet Union and ushered in a new wave of leadership under Saakashvili and his free-market, technocratic, pro-Western followers.

The election has taken on increased urgency due to constitutional reforms, which transfer much of the institutional power from the office of the president to the prime minister when Saakashvili — or ‘Misha,’ his nickname — completes his presidential term next year.  While it is too early to know if Saakashvili will run for reelection, if his party loses control of Georgia’s parliament this year, much of his current powers will flow to Ivanishvili’s coalition by next year.

Given Ivanishvili’s resources, however, the race has also been the most competitive since Saakashvili was elected president in 2004, and Ivanishvili has zeroed in on the failures and excesses of the Saakashvili era (of which there have been many).

Saakashvili (pictured above, top) and his supporters can point to a country that has developed a more dynamic economy — whereas corruption was so bad at the end of the Shevardnadze era that Tbilisi only had intermittent electricity, the Georgian economy at around 6% in 2010 and nearer to 7% in 2011.  If Saakashvili can boast a Georgia with less crime and corruption and a much more functional and thriving economy, he can also point to clear, if imperfect, trends toward greater rule of law and democratic norms.  Today’s election — and the credible chance of an opposition win, or significant gains, is a testament to progress.  If Saakashvili loses today’s election, a peaceful transfer of power to the opposition would likewise mark one of the highest points of his eight years in office — the protests that saw Shevardnadze fall began after the fraudulent result of the November 2003 parliamentary elections.

Ivanishvili (pictured above, bottom) and the opposition, however, point to a government that treats its political opponents like enemies and that routinely exceeds the boundaries of Western norms for the rule of law and human rights.  At the top of the list of long-standing concerns in Georgia are media freedom and the abuse of government, taxation and regulation power to harass opposition figures.  Most recently, in the final two weeks of the campaign,  damaging video aired on anti-Saakashvili television channels implicated the government in a prison scandal whereby inmates have been mistreated, beaten, raped and tortured.  Although the timing of the revelations is suspicious, the extent of the abuse is unclear, and it’s unknown whether the abuse was more isolated or a systemic, organized effort within the Georgian prison system, the ‘Georgia Abu Ghraib’ has clearly turned the tide against Saakashvili in the final days of the election, notwithstanding the resignation of the interior minister, Bacho Akhalaia.

Ivanishvili, too, has attacked Saakashvili for the 2008 war with Russia that left the breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia under Russian military control.  He’s probably right — Saakashvili’s provocations gave Moscow exactly the reason it needed to justify an occupation that it had hoped to make for years.  Saakashvili mistakenly hoped that NATO and other Western forces would come to his rescue, a miscalculation that has led to the continued Russian occupation in the two provinces even today (neither South Ossetia nor Abkhazia voted in today’s election).

Saakashvili has angered the administration of Russian president Vladimir Putin for his bids to join both the European Union and NATO.  Both are a bit of a stretch, given that Tbilisi lies over 2,400 miles away from Brussels — and even 1,100 miles away from Athens, which itself rests at the periphery of the European continent.  But Saakashvili’s enthusiasm for the West remains strong, and the EU and the United States has reciprocated that interest, given Georgia’s progress on economic and other reforms and its pivotal role in transporting natural gas from Russia to Europe.  Georgia, a small nation of just 4.5 million people, would comprise much of a proposed ‘trans-Caspian’ pipeline that would link Azerbaijan, on the Caspian Sea, to Turkey, on the Black Sea.

Ivanishvili has promised better relations with Russia (while not necessarily painting himself as anti-Western), and argued that he can work with Russia to end the embargo that Russia has placed on Georgian agricultural products, wine, mineral water and other goods since 2006.

Saakashvili has painted Ivanishvili as a shadowy businessman, who in fact made his $6.4 billion fortune in Russia — like many oligarchs, by buying cheap, formerly state-owned assets following the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Before last October, Ivanishvili was a bit of a recluse in Georgia, despite ample amounts of charitable giving to Georgians throughout the country.  Saakashvili has also attacked the motley nature of Ivanishvili’s coalition, which is united over little beyond opposition to Saakashvili, and which has attracted everything from free-market liberals to religious fundamentalists and xenophobic elements.

Going into today’s election, the United National Movement controlled 119 seats, almost 80% of Georgia’s parliament.  Georgian Dream controls no seats (it’s the first election campaign for Ivanishvili’s group), various opposition control 17 seats, and two small parties, the center-right Christian-Democratic Movement and the center-left Georgian Labour Party, control six seats each.

Saakashvili still in command ahead of autumn vote

As Russia appears to settle down from its presidential election and brief moment of popular tumult, a poll released today shows that Mikheil Saakashvili’s National Movement would win parliamentary elections, scheduled for October of this year, although he may not exactly be resting comfortably with the news.

Despite his National Movement’s 45% support to just 10% for the latest opposition coalition, the opposition is being funded by Bidzina Ivanishvili, the wealthiest man in Georgia, who gave a fiery interview to Der Spiegel today with some incredibly harsh words for Saakashvili:

America has chosen Georgia as a junior partner. The United States believes that Saakashvili is creating a democratic Georgia, but these are merely facades. I want to show the Americans his true face. Saakashvili is pulling the wool over their eyes.

But I would like to ask the West to take a look at the real situation in our country and stop being fooled by Saakashvili. Europe and America should judge Georgia’s leadership on the basis of their actions, not just their words and promises. Otherwise Saakashvili will transform Georgia into a dictatorship.

Ivanishvili made his fortune in Russia and has, until recently, kept a low profile in the media and in politics in Georgia, as well described in this 2010 Prospect Magazine profileContinue reading Saakashvili still in command ahead of autumn vote