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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

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.