Are Georgia’s Elections a Sign of Mature Democracy?
Or, after two years of bitter political feuds, maybe there's more trouble brewing in the Caucasus.
TBILISI, Georgia — October 27 marked a major turning point in Georgia as people calmly elected an obscure philosopher, Giorgi Margvelashvili, president with a conclusive 62 percent of the vote. It was the first time in Georgia’s history an incumbent was replaced by the ballot and not by revolt.
The election of Margvelashvili, representing the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party, has effectively closed the chapter on the Saakashvili era, a decade of lightning-speed reform and economic progress at the cost of an increasing authoritarianism that applied justice selectively and harshly. This change could not have been possible without the intervention of the enigmatic Georgian billionaire, Bidzina Ivanishvili, and his GD party.
In October 2011, Ivanishvili held his very first press conference in his $50 million Tbilisi mansion after announcing his decision to enter politics and challenge President Mikheil Saakashvili’s monopoly on power. I had hoped to learn how the former recluse was different from every other Georgian messiah who promised to save the country only to get deposed in the end, but I never got the chance. The event instantly digressed into a ludicrous fracas of 200 journalists fighting over a microphone and shouting caustic questions about the billionaire’s Russian connections and his pet penguin.
My chance came the day before parliamentary elections in 2012 at a private home in an east Georgian village, at a dinner table overflowing with food, sitting across from Ivanishvili, who had just finished his last round of campaigns. Between bites of sumptuous Kakhetian fare, he spoke obliquely of judicial reform and ethnic tolerance and sounded off bluntly about Saakashvili’s failures. In the end, I didn’t learn much about the man, except that he intended to build democratic institutions without a concrete plan. For Georgians, that breath of fresh air was enough: his party won.
For Saakashvili and his United National Movement (UNM), it was a shocking loss. Misha (as Saakashvili is commonly known) swallowed his pride and acknowledged defeat, marking Georgia’s first ever democratic transfer of power. But with a year left in his term, the lame duck president was forced to share an uneasy period of cohabitation with Ivanishvili and the GD, a loose coalition of individuals bent on destroying Misha’s legacy.
The tumult of the past year was underscored by the indictments of some three dozen UNM officials, including several former ministers, most notably Vano Merabishvili, former interior minister and prime minister. Meanwhile, some ministers have escaped abroad, like former justice minister Zurab Adeishvili. Many of Georgia’s Western partners criticized the political nature of these arrests, yet Ivanishvili maintained he wasn’t settling scores — he was restoring justice and bringing democracy to the country.
Back in Ivanishvili’s futuristic mansion, one month before this year’s presidential elections, I asked him if he wasn’t trying to destroy Misha.
"Why should I destroy? I’m not a sick person. They are destroying themselves. I like to build," he replied.
In 2010, the Saakashvili government amended the constitution to increase the prime minister’s authority and decrease the president’s. Because the constitution prohibits the president from serving more than two terms, most people here thought Misha would simply change chairs to remain in power. But GD crushed such speculation when they took over parliament and elected Ivanishvili prime minister in 2013. But it’s a position the billionaire apparently doesn’t want.
In September, Ivanishvili reiterated a campaign promise to leave politics and enter civil society after elections. Next week, he will name his successor. This will leave the country in the hands of his party, a loose coalition of liberals, conservatives, and ethnic nationalists. Georgia will become the first former Soviet nation governed by a parliament and not ruled by a strong executive. And it’s a move most Georgians were against.
"That’s because when people look at things they like to hang all the responsibility on one person," Ivanishvili said. "But every single person needs to share the responsibility in order for society to evolve. Having a messiah is detrimental to a society. The longer I stay, the worse it will be."
Critics worry that parliament will fall into chaos upon Ivanishvili’s departure or, conversely, that he will simply keep pulling the strings from behind the curtain. Others, like Lincoln Mitchell, a scholar at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute and former unofficial advisor to the prime minister, believes that Ivanishvili is betting that institutions are stronger than people. However, he has no doubts that the billionaire will continue to be involved behind the scenes.
"I think most Georgians know that and are OK with that. It is extremely difficult for the political class in Georgia to understand that things are not as volatile as they were a year or two ago. The institutions are stable," he says.
Well, stable of a sort. Lawmakers have raised eyebrows by discussing laws to ban the sale of ribbed condoms and fine officials who don’t speak Georgian well enough. But they have also passed laws to protect the independence of the judiciary and to ensure more transparency in media ownership.
When it comes to minority rights, however, the disparate parliament has seen some internal conflict. When several dozen Georgian Orthodox Christian priests led a mob of thousands to attack a handful of gay rights activists demonstrating against homophobia, GD Chairman David Saganelidze blamed the activists for the violence that ensued and demanded they be punished. GD coalition member and parliamentary speaker Davit Usupashvili of the Republican Party, however, condemned the attack.
Usupashvili also spoke out against the forced removal of a minaret in a southern Georgian village in August, while much of the government kept silent. This was the latest in a series of anti-Muslim crusades that have occurred across the country since the deputy head of parliament, the GD’s Murman Dumbadze, lead a protest against the construction of a mosque in the western port city of Batumi last year before parliamentary elections. Yet, Ivanishvili, the first politician to say "sexual minorities are equal members of society," asserts that Georgia is an inherently tolerant country.
"This [intolerance] is all artificially amplified by Saakashvili," he said abstrusely. "When the cohabitation is finished, there won’t be a problem."
That might be so, but there will still be xenophobes and homophobes in parliament, like in every other country in the world. What remains to be seen is how well Georgia will be able to protect minority rights. In his report, Thomas Hammarberg, the European Union special adviser on constitutional and legal reform and human rights in Georgia, noted the country’s shortcomings in protecting the rights of religious, ethnic, and sexual minorities.
But the issue that will really determine parliament’s future is jobs. Officially, Georgia’s unemployment rate hovers around 16 percent. Realistically, it is double that. In a September 2013 National Democratic Institute (NDI) poll carried out by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers (CRRC), jobs were the top national concern; some 46 percent of the population consider themselves unemployed and looking for a job.
Ivanishvili offers no answers here, only that he spends most of his time working on the "challenges" of job creation and the economy.
Under Saakashvili, the economy soared to an average GDP growth rate of 6.1 percent between 2004-2012. But in the first half of 2013, it plummeted to 1.8 percent. Critics were quick to blame this plunge on the government’s wobbly transition process, yet foreign direct investment didn’t just drop in Georgia, it fell across the entire region in 2012. Moreover, local business leaders are worried the government’s recent policies like liberalizing the labor code and forbidding foreigners from buying agriculture land are keeping investors away.
On the bright side, in June, Russia lifted its 7-year embargo on wine, mineral water, and fruits. This is particularly good news for winegrowers in eastern Georgia, who are reporting the most successful season in years. According to the Georgian Wine Agency, July exports were 43 percent higher than last year, a spike almost wholly attributed to Russia. But establishing economic ties with Russia, which occupies roughly 20 percent of Georgian territory poses some existential problems, particularly when it is putting up barbed-wire fences through Georgian villages. To this thaw in relations with Moscow, Ivanishvili shrugs his shoulders, saying it’s not his fault Saakashvili got suckered into war.
"It’s important for any small country to not provoke a big neighbor," Ivanishvili advises. "We can’t attempt to change Russia, but we can save our state by taking the correct steps, which we are doing."
Meanwhile, Saakashvili argues publicly that you cannot "normalize relations" with an occupier and is livid that Ivanishvili would even consider joining the Kremlin’s Eurasian Union project, in reference to comments the prime minister made on the initiative in September. In a televised statement, the president accused Ivanishvili of "breaking the main taboo of Georgian politics."
Ivanishvili retorts that it’s plain nonsense. "As a state, our strategy remains European and NATO integration. That is very clear. Who knows what the Eurasian Union is? I don’t think the Russians even know," says Ivanishvili. "All I said was that we are closely watching this formation process. I stress, if it does not come into conflict with our strategy, why shouldn’t we discuss it?"
And, perhaps, time for more sober discussions on all things have arrived. With Saakashvili packing his bags and returning to his apartment in central Tbilisi and Ivanishvili preparing to step down, we may see an end to a bitter rivalry between two forces of Georgian politics that polarized the political landscape since Ivanishvili first announced his challenge in 2011. On Sunday, David Bakradze, the UNM’s unobtrusive presidential candidate, gracefully congratulated his opponent Giorgi Margvelashvili’s victory — a mature gesture we are unaccustomed to seeing in Georgia, a country now putting the era of larger-than-life leaders behind them.