In decisive vote, Georgia puts a turbulent era firmly behind it

Voters overwhelmingly elected Giorgi Margvelashvili of the ruling Georgian Dream party to lead the former Soviet republic. But tough issues await the pro-West nation.  

Sergei Grits/AP
Presidential candidate Giorgi Margvelashvili addresses his supporters at the Georgian Dream coalition's headquarters in Tbilisi, Georgia, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013. Margvelashvili, a former university rector with limited political experience, should get about 67 percent of the vote, the exit polls predicted.

In a presidential election remarkably free of the drama typical of domestic politics here, Georgians put the era of controversial firebrand Mikhail Saakashvili decisively behind them.

The candidate backed by President Saakashvili's party, David Bakradze, conceded defeat to a former education minister, Giorgi Margvelashvili, representing the ruling Georgian Dream party, who took 62 percent of the vote, according to preliminary results released Monday by the Central Election Commission. But even as European observers lauded Sunday's polls as clean and transparent, observers said that the real drama may lie in the profound economic and political challenges facing the small Caucasus Mountain nation.

Georgia’s political landscape is shifting rapidly and treading uncharted territory for a post-Soviet republic. In 2010, the Saakashvili government amended the constitution to reduce the president’s powers and  increase the prime minister’s. Many thought Mr. Saakashvili would then “pull a Putin” and become prime minister after his second term expired-- a reference to Vladimir Putin's return to the Russian presidency for a third term last year.

But Bidzina Ivanishvili, a reclusive multibillionaire, entered the scene and changed the face of politics. Last October, Mr. Ivanishvili became prime minister after his loose coalition defeated Saakashvili’s United National Movement party in parliamentary elections, marking the first democratic transfer of power by the ballot in Georgia’s history.

Although that change in government was peaceful, the experiment of cohabitation was everything but. 

Dozens of United National Movement officials have been indicted in corruption-related charges, including the former prime minister, Vano Merabashvili, who is in jail awaiting trial.

While Georgia’s Western partners voiced concern over what some say were politically motivated arrests, Ivanishvili has insisted he is merely restoring justice and building a true democracy. 

In September, Ivanishvili reiterated a campaign promise to resign from office, leaving the country in the hands of his Georgian Dream party, a coalition of liberals, conservatives, and ethnic nationalists.

It was a move that 71 percent of Georgians opposed, according to a poll carried out by the Caucasus Resource Research Center for the US-based National Democratic Institute. But Ivanishvili has said he wants to break Georgia’s "savior" complex-- the tendency to have charismatic and authoritative leaders elected with a strong majority of the vote but then ultimately end up as disappointments.

“Even most of my own group is against my departure,” Ivanishvili said in an interview with the Monitor. “But every single person needs to share responsibility in order for society to evolve. Having a messiah is detrimental to a society. The longer I stay, the worse it will be.”

Next week, Ivanishvili will announce his replacement. The general expectation is that the new prime minister, like Margvelashvili, his former education minister, will also lack charisma and ambition. 

Is parliament up to the task?

With a technocrat leader, many fear parliament will become dysfunctional, as the Georgia Dream's only other cohesive bond besides Ivanishvili’s money is their common loathing for Saakashvili. The outgoing president has said his future plans include joining one of the country's best known export industries: wine making.

Many lawmakers have little experience governing, and Ivanishvili has conceded that the coalition will likely disband after parliamentary elections in 2016. Their divergent views became evident in May, when some ruling party lawmakers supported a violent attack by tens of thousands of people on a handful of gay rights rights activists in Tbilisi, and others condemned it. 

But Giorgi Tarkhan-Mouravi, co-director of the Institute For Policy Studies in Tbilisi, says fears of the country falling apart are overblown.

“We’ll start to see some real politics, it won’t be bad,” Mr. Tarkan-Mouravi says. “The coalition will weaken, it has no ideology. People will get angry and change parliament (in 2014).” 

What is certain is Georgia’s Western orientation. The US-educated Saakashvili closely aligned his policies with that of President George W. Bush's, sending Georgian troops to support the war in Iraq and accepting US military trainers to upgrade Georgian military abilities. The vast majority of Georgians approve of the government’s goal to join the European Union and NATO. And they also approve of the government’s reset strategy with Russia, which is proving to be difficult.

A tough 'reset' with Russia

Saakashvili's aggressive embrace of Western policies riled Moscow, and helped lead to a disastrous war with Russia in 2008. The Georgian military was humiliated as Russian forces invaded and then occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two Georgian regions that had long had de facto independence from central government control. Russia, along with a tiny handful of other nations, ultimately recognized the two regions as independent.

Saakashvili maintained that it was impossible to “normalize relations” with Russia, but tensions have eased in recent years, and in June, Russia lifted a seven-year ban on Georgian wine and mineral water imports, and recently added fruits to the list. But Russia is also fencing off the South Ossetian administrative border, in some cases cutting Georgian villages in half with barbed wire.

In recent months, Russia has undertaken a policy of strong-arming its immediate neighbors, such as Moldova, Ukraine, and Armenia. That will probably increase after the conclusion of the Winter Olympics, which are being hosted in February by Russia in Sochi, a city located just miles from the border with Abkhazia, says Svante Cornell, research director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, based in Washington and Stockholm

“The relationship with Russia just might not work," Mr. Cornell says. "After the Olympics, Russia will apply more pressure. It will be a lesson for the government that you can’t do business with them."

While a novice Georgian government without a bold leader leaves itself vulnerable to Russian interference, there are very few pro-Russian constituents in Georgia. Georgians believe territorial integrity is the second most important issue and Russia, they say, is occupying Georgia.

It’s the first issue – jobs – that will be the government’s main challenge. Officially, the unemployment rate hovers around 16 percent, but most say that it is double that, with 46 percent of Georgians considering themselves unemployed, according to the National Democratic Institute poll. 

“I spend a lot of time working on that,” Ivanishvili says, although neither he nor anybody else has come up with a remedy for unemployment.

What he has done, though, is wrest power democratically from a leader some see as authoritative, a transition that's uncommon in former Soviet republics. 

“The past 20 years of Georgian democracy have been an experiment,” he says.

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