By guest author Richard Berge. It has been said that Georgia is a country with a penchant for unpredictability, and which produces a lot of history per capita. This will no doubt become further evident as Georgia gears up for the next pivotal shift in the country’s politics, the presidential elections in 2013.
Georgia is a presidential republic with a powerful presidency and highly personalised politics, and a lot of attention has therefore been focused on the upcoming presidential election. Earlier this year, the Georgian parliament approved wide ranging amendments to the Georgian constitution which envisage giving stronger powers to parliament and the Prime Minister at the expense of the presidency. While this was ostensibly done to placate those who consider the presidency to be too powerful, some critics fear that the constitutional changes are in fact paving the way for a Russian-style ‘tandemocracy’ where Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili will assume the now enhanced office of the Prime Minister after his second and final term as president runs out in two years time. Saakashvili himself has on the other hand neither confirmed nor denied any such plans.
Since coming to power in the Rose Revolution in 2003, Saakashvili has a been a highly controversial figure in Georgian politics. While his proponents praise his drive to modernise the country and bring it closer to the West, his critics bemoan his tendency towards authoritarianism and what they see has his increasingly erratic and irresponsible personal rule. Some of his well-known antics include hiring unconventional American physiotherapist “Dr. Dot” to be his personal masseuse, building a top modern multi-million dollar palace for himself on the Metekhi cliffs in the historic centre of the capital Tbilisi, and calling errant government officials ‘niggers’ on national TV. His decision to establish a visa free regime for residents of Chechnya and other volatile republics in the North Caucasus has also raised many eyebrows, both at home and among Georgia’s partners in the West.
While his successful fight to tackle petty corruption is readily acknowledged by even his harshest critics, it is widely believed that massive graft still thrives in the higher echelons of power, and that many Georgians have failed to benefit from the economic and social reforms instituted under his rule. There is also the spectre of the 2008 war with Russia over the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which resulted in widespread destruction and tens of thousands of refugees, loss of territory previously under government control, and a break off in diplomatic relations with Georgia’s great power neighbour Russia.
Despite this, Saakashvili has proven himself to be an astute political survivor, depending both on his on considerable political acumen, as well as favourable external circumstances to stay in power. While playing on Georgian nationalism in the face of external threat, and pointing to obvious successes like reforming the corrupt police force and improving the country’s infrastructure, Saakashvili’s government has no doubt also been helped by the $4.6 billion aid package delivered to Georgia by the US and the EU in the aftermath of the 2008 war. The economic stimulus provided by this aid package has so far helped stave off the worst effects of the 2008 Financial Crisis on the Georgian economy, bolstered state spending, and thereby helping the government in keeping the public largely content. Domestically, Saakashvili has also benefited from a fractured and ineffectual political opposition which have struggled to gain the support of a majority of the electorate.
As the Georgian parliament is dominated by Saakashvili’s ruling party United National Movement, many of the most vocal opponents of his government have decided not to challenge his rule thorough the official channels, but instead formed the extra-parliamentary opposition. This opposition has vowed to bring down his government by all means necessary, including through direct political action. Many influential opposition politicians have also come from the ranks of Saakashvili’s ruling party or government apparatus, the most prominent of which have been former speaker of parliament Nino Burjanadze, as well as Irakly Alasania, a former diplomat and Georgia’s ambassador to the UN. Since defecting from Saakashvili’s government, both have founded they own opposition parties and cooperate in the opposition led coalition Alliance for Georgia, headed by Alasania. The opposition has also been bolstered by Levan Gachechiladze, a businessman and industrialist who ran for president in 2008, garnering 27% of the vote, second after Saakashvili with 56,5%.
The direct action component of the opposition’s resistance came prominently to fore in the street protests in 2007, which led to an infamous crackdown where hundreds of opposition protesters were beaten by riot police, and the main opposition station Imedi TV being closed down. These events led to much soul searching, and when mass demonstrations commenced in 2009, the government let the demonstrations go on without interference. However, despite frequent and sizeable opposition demonstrations in recent years, Saakashvili has avoided giving into the key demands of the opposition, and purposely played on the disruption caused by the protesters in order to discredit them. It has been of no help either that the Georgian public tends to regard the heads of the opposition with even more scepticism than it views Saakasvhili, with Nino Burjanadze widely seen as a political opportunist, Alasania as passive and indecisive, and Gachechiladze as lacking in sophistication.
For the presidential elections in 2013, neither the incumbent nor the opposition have so far declared their candidacies. Some expect Saakashvili to put forward one of his loyalist to the candidacy, possibly the popular mayor of Tbilisi, Gigi Ugulava, or the infamous Minister of Interior, Vano Merabishvili, possibly the most powerful man in Georgia after the president and the Patriarch Catholicos. Gachechiladze and Alasania are considered likely candidates from the opposition. While previous elections in Georgia under Saakashvili have largely been described as free and fair by international observers, there remains the lingering threat of election violations, including the undue use of “administrative resources” by the authorities to prop up any pro-government candidate. The electronic media in Georgia is also largely controlled by elements loyal to Saakashvili or his supporters, which raises serious questions about media freedom ahead of the elections. In any case, as with much of Georgia’s previous history, the 2013 presidential race will no doubt be highly unpredictable, yet extremely eventful for everyone concerned.