Argument

Is Georgia Ready for a Trump of Its Own?

Voters are fed up with their country’s rigid two-party political system—but that same system may block the rise of outsiders.

Then-Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili (right) approaches to shake hands with the then-chairman of Georgia's TBC Holding Mamuka Khazaradze during a press conference.
Then-Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili (right) approaches to shake hands with the then-chairman of Georgia's TBC Holding Mamuka Khazaradze during a press conference in Tbilisi, Georgia, on Feb. 8, 2016. Vano Shlamov/AFP/Getty Images

If you’ve seen Georgia in the news in the last few months, it was probably due to one of two reasons: Either you were subjected to yet another breathless tourism write-up imploring you to visit the Caucasus republic, or you saw the mass demonstrations that have gripped the country almost ceaselessly since June 2019.

Tbilisi’s ruling Georgian Dream administration would prefer that the latter not be your introduction to the country. Georgia’s opposition—still largely dominated by the United National Movement (UNM), the party of eccentric former President Mikheil Saakashvili—might be happy with it because opposition leaders have pinned their electoral hopes on the rising discontent. These coalescing narratives will be put to the test in Georgia’s upcoming parliamentary elections, which have to be held by October.

It will be a tough choice for the Georgian people, though. They may not like their current leaders, but they’re not fans of the UNM or its allies, either.

In two recent nationwide polls conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI)—both U.S.-based think tanks with offices in Georgia—respondents supporting either the incumbent or the opposition were outnumbered by those preferring some alternative (whether that was another opposition party or none at all). The IRI poll, released on Nov. 18, 2019, found that 32 percent of those polled did not know who they would vote for if elections were held the next day, compared with 23 percent who would vote for Georgian Dream and 15 percent for UNM. When NDI’s poll came out in December 2019, its more pointed questions produced a more damning indictment of Georgia’s political landscape: When asked “Which political party is closest to you?” a full 34 percent responded “no party” or “refuse to answer”—nearly double the total 19 percent who chose Georgian Dream. (UNM only notched 13 percent.)

With the existing options so reviled by such a large portion of the population, the field should be ripe for a third force to make a splash. Similar to the way outsiders in other countries exploited mass disenchantment with the political system to ride a populist wave to power, Georgia’s version of Volodymyr Zelensky or Donald Trump might follow a similar playbook to upend Georgian political life.

The person most likely to find themselves in the position of spoiler is not an upstart celebrity comedian or even a reality TV host but a recently outcast member of the elite: the banker Mamuka Khazaradze.

The co-founder and former head of TBC, Georgia’s largest bank, Khazaradze found himself at the center of a storm in February 2019 after he resigned from his position as TBC chairman in the midst of an investigation many thought to be politically motivated. On July 24, 2019, prosecutors formally charged Khazaradze (and his co-founder) in relation to an investigation into a 2008 money laundering case involving him and his associates—just two weeks after he announced his intention to found a new political movement, Lelo, independent of Georgia’s leading political forces. Lelo’s platform is not yet fully developed, but the party’s leaders have repeatedly stated that its main purpose is to “defeat the bipolar system” of Georgian Dream and UNM.

Although experts who talked to Foreign Policy agreed that Lelo and Khazaradze have the best outside chance of challenging Georgia’s two main political parties, it probably won’t be enough.

“Everyone is crying out for something new, some sort of savior,” said William Dunbar, a journalist and analyst based in Tbilisi. “Khazaradze thinks he’s this guy, but the best he’s likely to do is 15 percent [in the October election].” For comparison, in the last parliamentary election in October 2016, Georgian Dream won 48 percent of the vote, compared with 27 percent for UNM.

The initial optics have not helped the former banker, either. “Even in his first press conference, people saw his suit with his fancy cuff links,” said Olesya Vartanyan, a South Caucasus analyst for the International Crisis Group. “They already thought, ‘This guy is not one of us.’”

The primary appeal of Khazaradze is not the man himself but what he represents. More accurately, it is what people want him to represent.

“Georgia has this phenomenon with new politicians,” Vartanyan said. “When there are rumors that someone new will enter [politics], people start to project all their hopes onto them. They build up a mythology, regardless of what this person actually is.”

This messiah complex has long characterized Georgian politics. Former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili rode such a narrative to power back in 2012, and his predecessor Saakashvili did much the same in 2003’s Rose Revolution. (Saakashvili served as president, but a constitutional change in 2010 transferred real power from the president to the prime minister.) Unlike them, however, Khazaradze is at a far greater disadvantage.

This is partly because choosing a saviorlike leader has never worked out for Georgians in the past. Ivanishvili was an extremely wealthy leader who was ultimately a disappointment because he failed to tangibly improve the living conditions or economic well-being of most citizens. This relatively recent experience has colored Georgians’ perceptions of wealthy candidates, harming Khazaradze’s chances. “Trust towards the wealthy has taken a big hit,” said Iago Kachkachishvili, the head of the Institute of Social Studies and Analysis, a Tbilisi-based think tank.

Khazaradze’s initial poll numbers reinforce this analysis: In the same November IRI poll, only 29 percent of respondents said they had a favorable view of the man, compared with 45 percent who held a unfavorable view.

A lack of media resources is a further challenge. Both Georgian Dream and UNM command loyal television stations that broadcast positive coverage of their activities, a luxury Khazaradze and Lelo lack. In a country where an estimated 69 percent of the population gets its news from TV, that is a major obstacle to overcome.

Khazaradze might hope to get some limited airtime from opposition media, according to Kachkachishvili, but that’s still more than can be said for any other potential newcomers. This lack of media attention is one of the key barriers preventing new political blood from disrupting the established order, and founding a new news outlet for those purposes is simply impossible given the time frame. “There’s just no chance for anyone to set up a party and a new TV channel before October,” Dunbar said.

Perhaps even more damning for a would-be third-party candidate is the sheer polarization that exists in the country. It would be “all but impossible” for a newcomer to establish themselves as truly independent, Dunbar said, because the public would instinctively place them into one of the two predominant political camps. “Anyone who started gaining momentum … would be seen as either Bidzina’s creature or Misha’s [Saakashvili].”

Georgia’s existing smaller parties aren’t likely to fare much better, either. While parties such as Girchi and Labour have some name recognition, neither currently holds any seats in parliament, and their ability to grow is limited by the same restrictions in place for independent candidates. “There’s not much hope for them to pick up momentum,” Kachkachishvili said.

The outlook is grim, but there are some glimmers of hope. Some analysts have observed a gradual shift away from Georgia’s savior complex as more comprehensive political platforms and more developed ideologies have gained greater traction among the electorate.[The] lack of media attention is one of the key barriers preventing new political blood from disrupting the established order.

“I think every year [this trend] is growing,” Vartanyan said, adding that simply promising the world “is no longer good enough” for political success. “Georgia has moved on” from largely demagogic one-man rule, Dunbar added, at least for now.

Khazaradze himself has embraced this new approach, promoting potential cabinet members and advertising his team at least as much as himself. Vartanyan and Kachkachishvili both agree that this represents an important break from past approaches. “The active presence of other respected public figures, like [fellow TBC co-founder Badri] Japaridze and [former parliament speaker Davit] Usupashvili, shows that this will not be a one-man show,” Vartanyan said. “Previous leaders have hardly ever mentioned their potential cabinet ministers, and Khazaradze is giving his a platform.”

Georgia’s younger generation has an especially important role to play in all of this. While Saakashvili famously cleared out the Soviet-raised generation of officials, it is, perhaps ironically, the youth who grew up under his rule who are today disenfranchised and alienated from both UNM and Georgian Dream. “Growing up during this [time of radical reform] has given them higher expectations,” Vartanyan said.

These are positive developments, but they are likely too gradual and insufficient to affect the election this year, and neither Khazaradze nor any other actor can realistically hope to harness these forces in time. In the near-term, the outlook for Georgian democracy is underwhelming at best and downright bleak at worst.

“If the opposition wins, the real risk is that Misha becomes the unaccountable guy in the shadows [wielding true power], like Bidzina is right now,” Dunbar said. Saakashvili has often announced his intention to return from exile to Georgia and is still widely considered the most powerful opposition politician.

The other option is bleaker still: a Georgian Dream victory in an election marred by widespread fraud and undemocratic conduct. “If that happens, then, by default, the U.S. and EU will scale down relations,” Dunbar said. “When that happens, the only possible friend [Ivanishvili and Georgian Dream] will have left is the one to the north,” referring to Russia. In such a scenario, Georgia will have much bigger problems than the political prospects of obscure independent politicians.

Neil Hauer is a Canadian journalist and security analyst based in Yerevan, Armenia. His work focuses on the Syrian conflict and politics, conflict, and minorities in the North and South Caucasus region. Twitter: @NeilPHauer

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