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Breaking the monopoly on power in Georgia, one step at a time
Breaking the monopoly on power in Georgia, one step at a time
After a Summer of Protests, Can Georgia’s Government Regain Its Lost Trust?
After a Summer of Protests, Can Georgia’s Government Regain Its Lost Trust?

Breaking the monopoly on power in Georgia, one step at a time

Originally published in Today's Zaman

For the past nine years, one party and one man have dominated political life in the South Caucasus Republic of Georgia.

That has now changed.

Since coming to power in November 2003, the United National Movement (UNM), led by President Mikhail Saakashvili, has controlled all levels of government, from the smallest municipalities and all regional authorities to the parliament, government and of course the presidency. The judiciary, police, media and many sectors of business have maintained close ties with the UNM.

The record number of voters who turned out on Monday to elect a new parliament and overwhelmingly chose the Georgian Dream (GD) coalition, headed by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, have now cracked that monopoly.

In a rare gesture in the former Soviet sphere, and as results were still coming in, President Saakashvili conceded that his party would go into parliamentary opposition and he would allow the Georgian Dream coalition to take the lead in forming a new government.

It was a dramatic turnaround. Until the release two weeks ago of sordid video footage of torture occurring in jail, few predicted the UNM’s defeat. But with almost all the votes now counted, the UNM has won 41.1 per cent to the GD’s massive 55.1 per cent.

GD enters a parliament that has largely been moribund, where dominance by the ruling party has meant that the legislature has shied away from aggressively overseeing public institutions and democratic debate has been limited.

Under the current constitution, the president appoints the prime minister and gives him permission to form a government. If parliament turns down the proposed government three times, the president can dissolve parliament and call fresh elections, which would cause a political and constitutional crisis. The president also retains control over key ministries: justice, interior, defence and foreign affairs.

The country is thus entering a tricky period. Until 2013 and the next presidential elections, the newly elected and President Saakashvili will have to cooperate closely. This is a big challenge considering how, according to the election observation mission of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the campaign environment was “polarized and tense, characterized by the use of harsh rhetoric and some instances of violence.”

Cooperation was made more difficult by Ivanishvili’s calls on Tuesday for Saakashvili to resign, coming just hours after the president promised to help launch the new parliament’s work.

A change in the presidency is unlikely, as GD won a majority but did not garner the two thirds needed in parliament to start the complicated process of impeaching the president.

Ivanishvili’s inflammatory statement was quickly condemned by the head of the biggest group in the European Parliament and by several members of the US Congress. Georgia’s foreign friends should continue to follow the situation closely, encouraging over the next year the kind of difficult co-habitation many of them work under in their own countries.

In the weeks until the new parliament is convened, the sides should build bridges and identify candidates for ministerial posts that both the president and the new parliamentary majority can agree on, a difficult enough task considering the lack of ideological cohesiveness of both the GD and the UNM. It is not time for finger-pointing and threats.

This is also not a time for revolutionary changes. While the GD has many highly competent personalities among its ranks, it is a coalition of six parties with no experience in governance.

In 2003, after the Rose Revolution, Saakashvili and his team fired not only high-level officials but also mid-ranking bureaucrats. For months, many of the country’s ministries’ long halls rang largely empty. Much of the backbone of the GD’s current support is made up of those who lost their positions in 2003. The country does not need another generation of left-outs.

Justice will be a key issue in the coming months. The recent prison scandal demonstrated how impunity fosters abuse, and underlined the importance of reforming a judiciary where less than 1 percent of all trials end in acquittals. Justice will not be served by a witch hunt against former UNM members. But it will if the new government can break judicial subordination to the executive and the prosecution, and not replace it with new allegiances.

The people of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia did not vote in the Georgia elections, and even a new government led by Georgians who have reached out to them over the years is unlikely to make them any more keen on rejoining Georgia. Ivanishvili realizes the challenges, but explains: “We will start talks with our brothers, of course with the involvement of Russia too. We cannot promise success, but the key is in Georgia and will be found if we build real democratic institutions.”

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has said that his party is ready for dialogue. But the divisions between the two countries are deep -- not least because Ivanishvili also emphasizes his commitment to Euro-Atlantic integration.

Many are heralding a rare, peaceful transition in the former Soviet sphere between the UNM and the GD, but change in the parliament is only a first step in what remains a highly centralized presidential system. In 2013, a new constitution is expected to come into force, taking away some presidential powers. Saakashvili cannot run, and Georgians will once again go to the polls.

For the stability of Georgia and its neighborhood, the best way to get there is through transition, not revolution, one step at a time.

After a Summer of Protests, Can Georgia’s Government Regain Its Lost Trust?

Originally published in World Politics Review

This summer’s protests in Georgia led to changes to the country’s electoral system. But the country’s new Prime Minister, Giorgi Gakharia, is a man protesters wanted ousted from the last government, in which he led the Interior Ministry. In this interview with World Politics Review, Europe & Central Asia Program Director Olga Oliker and Analyst for EU Eastern Neighbourhood Olesya Vartanyan consider what Gakharia’s tenure will bring, and how the parliamentary elections next year might play out in this atmosphere.

Earlier this month, Georgia’s Parliament approved a new government led by Giorgi Gakharia, a controversial former interior minister who was nominated by the ruling Georgian Dream party despite his role in a violent crackdown on anti-government protests that rocked the capital, Tbilisi, this summer. Gakharia will now try to restore public confidence in the government ahead of parliamentary elections that are expected to be held early next year. Meanwhile, the main opposition party, the United National Movement, or UNM, also has work to do if it hopes to retake power. In an email interview with WPR, Olga Oliker and Olesya Vartanyan of the International Crisis Group discuss the challenges facing both the ruling party and the opposition in Georgia.

What kind of message does the approval of Giorgi Gakharia as prime minister send to the opposition?

It’s something of a “put up and shut up” message from Georgian Dream, not just to the opposition in Parliament but also to protesters. During the mass demonstrations that took place last summer, protesters demanded changes to the electoral system to allow for more proportional representation, which the government agreed to. Protesters also subsequently demanded that Gakharia step down as interior minister, a role from which he had ordered the violent dispersal of the protests. But instead of being ousted, he was promoted to prime minister, in a vote boycotted by opposition parties. That’s a pretty clear message.

Gakharia’s appointment is also a message to the opposition and to the country as a whole that Georgian Dream is planning to win the parliamentary elections that are expected early next year. The party’s popularity has been declining for some time; in the 2018 presidential election, Georgian Dream’s preferred candidate, Salome Zourabichvili, only won after being forced into a runoff, a far cry from the landslide victories of years past. Gakharia is close to Georgian Dream’s founder and chairman, Bidzina Ivanishvili, as are the new defense minister, Irakli Gharibashvili, and the interior minister, Vakhtang Gomelauri. With these personnel moves, the ruling party is ensuring that the government is united going into the campaign.

The next election will be an important test for Georgian Dream. The recently passed electoral reforms eliminated the required minimum threshold for parties to enter Parliament, which means there will be a greater diversity of parties. The majority party will therefore need to work harder to secure majorities for its laws. But a unified party will not be enough for Georgian Dream to secure a win; it will also need a policy agenda that rebuilds its popularity. Whether its leaders have a real plan for that is unclear.

What policy issues is Gakharia likely to focus on as prime minister? What are the most pressing challenges he faces in implementing his agenda?

Gakharia and his team have two goals that don’t fully align with one another. First is to win in the upcoming parliamentary elections, which means we can expect the government to focus on social programs to help the most vulnerable. But voters are frustrated that Georgian Dream has failed to spur the economic development and growth they expected during the party’s seven years in power. Finally making good on that promise would require a different sort of reform agenda: one that could attract foreign investment but might also involve public sector spending cuts, which could prove less popular in the short term.

Implementing reforms in the midst of an election campaign would be difficult, but Gakharia may be up to the task. He forcefully pushed through reforms during his time as interior minister, including the creation of a human rights department, the professionalization of regional law enforcement investigators, and increased transparency for crime statistics.

He will still have to deal with the fact that protesters and the opposition blame him for the violent crackdown on protests, which caused several injuries and resulted in the prosecutions of some demonstrators. More protests are likely, and would test the government’s ability to respond appropriately.

The other question for Gakharia is how to deal with simmering disputes in the Russian-backed breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Tensions have risen again this year over a police observation station that Georgia placed along its administrative boundary with South Ossetia. The latter responded by closing border crossings and a war of words erupted between leaders on both sides, tempered only by Russian and European efforts to mediate. Gakharia and his team will need to prevent the dispute from escalating, while at the same time standing up to Moscow and repairing economic ties with Russia. Balancing those priorities will be a tall order.

Given Georgian Dream’s declining popularity, how well-positioned is the United National Movement to prevail in the upcoming elections?

The UNM has loyal supporters, especially in the western regions of the country. It hasn’t been able to garner enough support to win previous elections, but its fortunes could turn next year, depending on the strength of opposition to the Georgian Dream-led government.

But the UNM has its own problems. It remains unofficially helmed by the divisive Mikheil Saakashvili, who served as president of Georgia from 2004 until 2013. His supporters remember him fondly for the sweeping democratic reforms he implemented during the 2000s, but his detractors blame him for the many domestic challenges facing Georgia in the aftermath of the five-day war with Russia in 2008.

He has also been away from Georgia for more than five years, and during that time he has fallen out of touch with the country he once led, while gaining considerable international notoriety. In 2015, he switched his citizenship to Ukraine in order to serve as governor of the Odessa region under then-President Petro Poroshenko, but the two subsequently had a falling-out and Saakashvili was deported last year. His Ukrainian citizenship has now been restored by President Volodymyr Zelensky, but a Georgian court convicted him in absentia of charges related to abuse of power last year, so he cannot return to his country of birth. A UNM victory next year would likely result in that conviction being reversed, but Saakashvili’s personal travails do not help the party’s chances.

The UNM has a good chance at maintaining its position as the dominant opposition force, but in order to win, it will need to cooperate with other parties. In some ways, this could be easier with the new electoral system, as there will be more parties to align with after the elections. But those parties’ members and leadership will balk at diktats from Saakashvili, so the UNM will need to find a way to become more independent of his influence.


Program Director, Europe and Central Asia
Senior Analyst, South Caucasus