Tag Archives: caucasus

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?

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

Azerbaijan reelects Aliyev in doubtful presidential vote

For a country whose voting hijinks extend even to the Eurovision song contest, it should come as no surprise that Azerbaijan has something less than the best democratic pedigree. azerbaijan

Since the end of the Soviet Union, the Aliyev family has held an iron grip on Azerbaijan’s presidency — and that has not changed today, with the news that Ilham Aliyev won reelection in today’s presidential ‘election,’ less a free vote than an exercise in box-checking for a decidedly undemocratic regime.

Azerbaijani officials apparently even released election results before the voters were even counted.  Classic you, Azerbaijan!

With around 84% of the vote according to initial reports, Aliyev is down from the 87.3% he won in the prior 2008 presidential race (his nearest opponent won just 2.8% five years ago).  That’s despite the fact that a long-fractured Azerbaijani opposition united for the first time in today’s election behind the candidacy of historian Jamil Hasanli, who has won between just 8% and 10% of the vote today, according to initial reports.

First, a little background.  What is Azerbaijan and why should you care?


It’s a former Soviet republic in the Caucasus, and it’s strategically nestled south of Russia, north of Iran and near Turkey.  Oil wealth means that GDP per capita (over $7,000) is double that in neighboring Armenia and Georgia, but also that Aliyev holds a strong grip on the levers of power.

It’s fairly important because it’s a huge supplier of natural gas and oil to European markets through Georgia and Turkey, thereby bypassing Russia.  It’s also the key to any future Caspian Sea gas pipeline, because that pipeline would almost certainly run from Turkmenistan through the Caspian Sea to Baku, the Azerbaijani capital, and the through Armenia, Georgia or Russia to Turkey and then to Europe.  Its oil and its location mean that it hasn’t been subject to the same kind of Western scolding as some other countries.

Aliyev (pictured above) took power in 2003, succeeding his father, and he arranged for the constitution’s amendment to allow for a third term in office (and doubtless, he’ll find a way to a fourth term in 2018 as well).  Heydar Aliyev ruled Azerbaijan with an iron fist well before its independence, all the way back to the 1970s in what was then Soviet Azerbaijan — Aliyev not only survived the transition from the hard-line regime of Leonid Brezhnev to the era of glasnost and perestroika under Mikhail Gorbachev, he survived the transition from Soviet republic to independent state, carrying with him all of the old traditions of corruption under the Soviet regime into the post-independence era.

Aliyev was able to do so largely because of an early 1990s war with Armenia over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.  The Caucasus is a rough neighborhood, and Azerbaijan’s oil wealth hasn’t insulated it from some of the conflict that’s plagued the region.  Bilateral relations with Armenia are still frayed and Nagorno-Karabakh, ostensibly part of Azerbaijan, is a de facto self-governing region dominated by ethnic Armenians.  That’s unlikely to change with Aliyev’s reelection, nor was it likely to change with the also-contrested reelection of Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan (Սերժ Սարգսյան) in February 2013. But Azerbaijan, unlike Georgia and Armenia, is a Turkic country that’s 95% Muslim, and it looks as much east to central Asia and south to the Middle East as it does west to the rest of the Caucasus and north to Russia.

Though he founded the Yeni Azərbaycan Partiyası (YAP, New Azerbaijan Party) in 1992 to replace the old Soviet-aligned Azerbaijan Communist Party, Aliyev did nothing to modernize the country’s record on corruption, human rights or democracy.  If anything, those problems have worsened with the oil boom that accompanied post-Soviet foreign investment in the 1990s and 2000s, so you can add to that list of trends a growing and severe income inequality.

Hasanli admitted as much, acknowledging the unlikeliness of a free and fair vote, in a piece for The Guardian on Tuesday, in which he also set forth his agenda for Azerbaijan and an indication that he would continue the fight even after the election against what he sees as an illegitimate presidency:

Since the incumbent, Ilham Aliyev, inherited power from his late father 10 years ago, Azerbaijan has become mired in rampant corruption, and the ruling regime has grown ever more authoritarian and ruthless. Most importantly, the ongoing conflict with Armenia has still not been resolved and Azerbaijani territories remain under occupation….

The oil boom of the past few years has made the Aliyev family and its cronies extremely wealthy and the regime will do its utmost to keep power. Aliyev is running for an unprecedented third term, following the disputed 2009 referendum which removed presidential term limits. I believe this contravenes the Azerbaijani constitution and the European convention on human rights. I have launched a legal challenge and demanded a judicial review. Without a clear, unbiased and unequivocal constitutional court ruling on this matter, Aliyev’s third-term presidency is not legitimate.