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Don’t underestimate the uncertainty ahead for Georgia

Georgians are entering the new year with good news – salted with bad omens.

February 14, 2019 - Giorgi Lasha Kasradze - Articles and Commentary

Tbilisi, Georgia. Modern panorama. Photo: maxpixel.net (cc)

First, the good: Georgia had an historic election on November 28th and, for the first time ever, elected a woman as president. French-born and educated Salome Zurabishvili was once the foreign minister of Georgia under former President Mikhail Saakashvili, who sacked her in 2005. Though she ran as an independent, she was supported by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s relatively progressive Georgian Dream (GD) coalition, and prevailed over her opponent, Grigol Vashadze. She took office on December 16th.

And yet, just below the surface of this tremendous win for the GD lurks something more sobering for anyone concerned with the current state of democracy in the world. Beyond the obvious symbolic significance of Zurabishvili’s victory, Georgia’s political environment has been beleaguered by the GD’s inability to make meaningful progress on its democratic promises over the last several years. The push for progress will continue to face key challenges even with Zurabishvili at the helm.

A tough few years

How did Georgia – and the GD – get here?

Georgians have been waiting anxiously for the GD to right the wrongs of the previous government since at least 2012, when the party defeated Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) in parliamentary elections. But in the intervening years, the coalition, led and originally stitched together by Ivanishvili, has fallen from grace.

Initially motivated by a concern for improving the plight of Georgians, the GD has increasingly been mired in alleged corruption and incompetence, often failing to deliver on its political promises. To top it all off, last October, shortly before the first round of elections, secret tapes surfaced in the Georgian media that implicated the country’s political top brass – including former Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili and Ivanishvili  – in systemic corruption, patronage and bribery. This latest scandal adds yet another layer of validity to the long-held suspicion among the Georgian public, that it is indeed Ivanishvili who pulls the levers of power in Georgia.

Due largely to these failures, in late October, Ivanishvili and his ministers slammed into a setback: a runoff election would be held on November 28th. This was a devastating blow to Ivanishvili, and it shook the GD to its core. But the billionaire-turned-political puppeteer had mostly himself to blame; over the years, he has turned his electorate into a “nanny state,” with Ivanishvili pulling the strings. Shrewdly using his inexhaustible financial resources to his advantage, he has personally bankrolled the salaries of members of the Georgian intelligentsia, including famous actors, singers, composers, writers and public intellectuals.

This was done to such an extent, that Ivanishvili and his coalition had to face a second round of presidential elections showed that people refused to accept his self-declared morally pious stance as a bulwark against evil. In the second round, many Georgians chose to hinge their votes on their disillusionment with the country’s economic and political conditions, not on a fear of Saakashvili’s return, as the GD has claimed in the past. (In what seemed like a last-ditch appeal to voters, Ivanishvili publicly announced a massive relief program, of over a billion lari, that would write off “bad debts” for 600,000 Georgians. The program, along with the elections, has been harshly criticised by the U.S. State Department and other leading Western observer organisations.) It has become abundantly clear that if the GD wants to regain the public’s trust, Ivanishvili will have to rethink his approach to politics.

Something new?

Enter Zurabishvili.

After a 2005 dispute with Saakasvhili, Zurabishvili’s political career in Georgia appeared to have slowed. It was not until after she began supporting the GD in 2012 that she became a member of the Georgian parliament, with the GD’s help. Along the way, GD politicians had kept a close eye on her, until she was ultimately tapped as a presidential candidate.

In many ways, Zurabishvili brings more to the table than people may think. In private and professional circles, she is known for being a principled technocrat. On top of that, her lengthy career in Paris, where she worked for three decades, eventually as ambassador to Georgia, underscores how stepped she is in European diplomacy and foreign policy. For the pro-European GD, this is an asset that many of her predecessors lacked.

In other words, Zurabishvili is of a different political mold than her peers, and Ivanishvili was wise to try to harness this as he navigates Georgia’s tricky domestic politics  

Still, despite the promise of Zurabishvili’s victory, it doesn’t seem too likely that much will change. After the elections, Ivanishvili thanked Georgian voters for giving the GD a second mandate, saying that “the rest is probably up to me.” This was hardly a reassuring sentiment, given people’s exhaustion with the GD’s performance over the past six years.

In a similar vein, in the months ahead, Ivanishvili must be careful not to treat Zurabishvili with the same heavy-handed patronage that he has long had a penchant for. Already, critics of the new president have said that she only won because she ran “the dirtiest campaign” in the country’s history. Natalia Antelava, a Georgian journalist, told The Daily Beast that “the powers that backed [Zurabishvili] – from political parties to individuals – are among the most xenophobic and sexist on Georgia’s political spectrum.

Clearly, Zurabishvili has her work cut out for her, thanks in no small part to the fact that Ivanishvili’s transactional, money-buys-everything approach to governance has a tendency to cheapen the office of president, and erode trust in state institutions.

The GD has the potential to move Georgia and its people forward – to make the Georgian dream more than just a pipe dream – if it can overcome its steepest obstacle: itself.

A version of this article was first published by New America. 

Giorgi Lasha Kasradze is an analyst focusing on political risk and a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy

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