- By Emily TamkinEmily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. She writes for FP’s The Cable, a real-time take on the news in Washington and the wider world. She has been at FP since the fall of 2016, before which she was an associate editor at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. She has a B.A. in Russian literature from Columbia University, an M.Phil. in Russian and East European studies from the University of Oxford, and studied Soviet dissidence in archival centers in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, on a Fulbright, in Bremen — all of which means that at FP, she writes when she can on Russia and Central and Eastern Europe.
For over a decade, Georgia’s United National Movement (UNM) was associated with one man: Mikheil Saakashvili. Until Thursday, that is, when the party split in two.
As EurasiaNet reported, several key figures all broke away from Georgia’s primary — and arguably most fervently “pro-Western” — opposition party. The split, it seems, is due to a clash between Saakashvili’s agenda and that of the party he founded, forcing even personal confidants of the former president out of the party.
The departures include Giga Bokeria, formerly national security council secretary; Gigi Ugulava, former mayor of Tbilisi; and Davit Bakradze, former foreign minister. They announced, but did not name, a new party.
“The UNM split was bound to happen sooner than later, and probably should have taken place years ago,” Michael Cecire, an expert at New America, told Foreign Policy.
“The fundamental issue is that Saakashvili’s personal political agenda is often at cross purposes with that of the party he started. It’s interesting that Ugulava and Bokeria are the ones leading the split, as they were long considered UNM hardliners and among the few personal confidants of Saakashvili’s,” he said.
But even they needed to face the music of Georgian politics. Ugulava, who until recently was serving a year and nine month sentence in prison for misusing public funds, said, “Saakashvili was the party’s founder, but he has become its undoing … We need to look forward. If you turn back, you turn into a pillar of salt.” 21 of the 27 UNM members in parliament evidently agreed with him and left.
Ugulava said the opposition needs to focus its efforts against Bidzina Ivanishvili, the founder of Georgia Dream, the party that gained a parliamentary supermajority in 2016. And, indeed, per Nika Nasrashvili, formerly of the nonprofit CRRC Georgia, this may make life more difficult for Georgian Dream and Ivanishvili, who will no longer be able to use UNM “as an excuse to justify their failures.”
Still, though Georgian Dream is considered less avidly pro-Western than UNM (certainly, Ivanishvili is considered less pro-Western than Saakashvili), the West is still “the only game in town” for Georgia. Experts think this split is unlikely to change that.
“I do not expect any major shifts in the geopolitical leaning of the country, at least in the immediate future,” says Alexi Gugushvili, a research associate at the University of Cambridge. Even those who left have pro-Western inclinations, he said, and they’ve offered to work with UNM. And while the collapse of the UNM might worry those who want to wrap Georgia closer in a Western embrace, he said, as an opposition party it didn’t have much say in foreign affairs anyway.
Saakashvili came to power through the Rose Revolution of 2003 and ruled Georgia until 2012, when he lost to Ivanishvili and Georgian Dream. Some remember him for much needed pro-Western reforms; others, for abuse of power. Since then, he made his way to Ukraine, where he was governor of Odessa until last November, when he resigned, calling out corruption and threatening to challenge that country’s powers that be. From Ukraine, he reportedly called his party’s defectors “losers,” and declared Jan. 12 the day of UNM’s “return for freedom and the people.”
But the defection could instead end up jumpstarting Georgia’s opposition forces. If the departed faction can grow and appeal to the “anti-Saakashvili, pro-Western” electorate, they could challenge Georgian Dream for power in 2020, said Gugushvili.
Update, Jan. 12 2017, 2:48 pm ET: This post was updated to include comment from Nasrashvili.
Photo credit: VANO SHLAMOV/AFP/Getty Images