Response

Make Georgia Great Again

Georgia’s presidential election is a referendum on a government that has reversed its predecessor’s gains.

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili poses in front of the Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam, Netherlands, on Feb. 14. (Rob Engelaar/AFP/Getty Images)
Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili poses in front of the Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam, Netherlands, on Feb. 14. (Rob Engelaar/AFP/Getty Images)

In his Nov. 5 article “When Georgians Go Low, Other Georgians Go Lower,” Thomas de Waal wrote of the Georgian presidential election: “[T]o concentrate on the personalities is mostly to miss the point.” De Waal went on to do exactly that, characterizing the most competitive Georgian presidential campaign in recent memory as a “grudge match” between ruling Georgian Dream party chairman Bidzina Ivanishvili and myself. Though it is true that I support the United Opposition candidate Grigol Vashadze, while Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream backs Salome Zurabishvili, this is not the primary reason that 61.36 percent of Georgians voted against the ruling party’s candidate in the first round. Rather, the classic American adage is as applicable as ever in Georgia today: It’s the economy, stupid.

The facts speak for themselves. Let’s start with the issue at the forefront of Georgian voters’ minds: unemployment. This is not surprising, since the majority of the workforce is unemployed, dependent on remittances, or engaged in subsistence farming. According to International Republican Institute (IRI) polling from April, 62 percent of Georgians named “unemployment” as a main problem—alongside the ruling party’s “unfulfilled promises” and a general sense of “economic deterioration.” By contrast, just 3 percent mentioned my party, the United National Movement, as a concern.

GDP growth has stagnated—and even slightly decreased overall—under Georgian Dream, after it quadrupled during my presidency. Meanwhile, perceptions of heightened inequality and corruption drive dissatisfaction with the ruling party. Ivanishvili’s personal fortune is estimated to equal as much as half of Georgia’s GDP, and his cronies have likewise prospered in government positions: Last month, Rustavi 2—Georgia’s most popular TV channel—sparked public outrage after airing drone footage of Georgian Dream officials’ lavish residences (almost all purchased in the names of relatives).

In attempting to allay voters’ concerns before the election, Ivanishvili instead fueled the fire—in a press conference, he claimed that ruling party member of Parliament Irakli Sesiashvili’s three-story luxury mansion could be built for “around $31,000” and pointed out that Sesiashvili’s swimming pool “has no water.” After Transparency International (TI) ranked Georgia “the best corruption-buster in the world” during my presidency, Georgians are deeply disappointed with such backsliding in recent years.

Inflation has also decimated Georgians’ purchasing power: At the end of my presidency in 2013, about 1.60 Georgian lari bought one U.S. dollar. Today, the exchange rate is 2.80 lari to $1. Though exogenous factors such as the crash of trading partner currencies have contributed to the lari’s 75 percent depreciation, Georgian Dream’s irresponsible fiscal policy is the primary cause of the country’s inflation woes: In 2014, Georgia’s current account deficit nearly doubled. The lari’s collapse has had widespread repercussions—at least half of all personal loans in Georgia are dollar-denominated, and incomes have not risen enough to allow many borrowers to make payments. Indeed, Tbilisi metro workers went on strike in June to demand higher wages to keep pace with inflation. The ruling party’s response left much to be desired: Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze, a multimillionaire Georgian Dream official, dismissed the workers’ demands as “blackmail.”

In democracies around the world, two key issues determine voters’ choices: the economy and public safety. On top of pervasive economic concerns, a precipitous rise in crime and a politicized justice system fan the flames of popular discontent. No need to take my word for it—IRI reports that only 50 percent of Georgians have favorable views of the police, a 38 percent drop since May 2013. According to IRI’s Eurasia regional director, Stephen Nix, “Not long ago, the police were considered an exemplar of Georgia’s commitment to reducing corruption. … The dramatic decrease in trust … appears to be closely related to the popular perceptions that corruption and crime have increased.” Meanwhile, TI characterizes the Georgian Dream’s judiciary as “clan-based governance” that “serves the interests of the ruling party.” One infamous example of judicial corruption is the case-fixing scandal following the murders of two teenagers in Tbilisi, in which Georgian Dream officials conspired to cover up the involvement of the son of a prosecutor’s office employee. This miscarriage of justice triggered mass protests in June, culminating in the resignation of the prime minister and other officials.

Since winning the 2012 parliamentary elections, Georgian Dream has granted amnesty to thousands of offenders whom it characterized as “political prisoners” of my “regime.” This misguided approach to criminal justice reform has resulted in tragedy after tragedy. Most recently, the assault and murder of an 8-year-old girl in Gori shocked the country—especially when the public learned that the murder suspect was a pedophile with a long criminal record, granted amnesty by current President Giorgi Margvelashvili. I had protested the first mass amnesty of 2012, specifically raising concerns about pedophiles, but I was overruled by the Georgian Dream’s parliamentary majority.

I have been living outside of Georgia for five years while the ruling party has consolidated complete control over all government institutions. My administration built these institutions, and Georgian Dream has eroded them. Georgian Dream has had ample time and resources to deliver on promises made to voters in 2012 but lacks the political will. Rather than undertaking meaningful reforms to quell popular discontent, officials have cracked down on independent media and civil society—particularly in the pre-election period.

One can point to any number of statistics to explain why Georgian voters are tired of the status quo and ready for a peaceful transition of power. But one figure says it all: In April, 67 percent of Georgians agreed with the statement that “things in Georgia are going in the wrong direction.” Even at the height of my party’s unpopularity in 2012, just 31 percent said the same. Nevertheless, it is understandable that foreign experts may sometimes miss the mark when analyzing Georgian politics—one thing Georgians are famous for, even in the most difficult times, is treating guests in our country extremely well.

Mikheil Saakashvili is a senior statesman at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and was president of Georgia from 2004 to 2013.

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