Georgia after the Parliamentary Elections: Will the dreams come true?
The victory of the Georgian Dream coalition led by the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili in the recent Georgian parliamentary elections was certainly a surprise for the majority of observers of the Georgian political scene. Until mid-September the opposition only had wide support in the big cities, whereas almost half of the Georgian population lives in rural areas. Georgian Dream’s success was undoubtedly enabled by a scandal which emerged less than two weeks before the elections. Films which recorded the Gldani prison guards torturing prisoners were constantly shown on pro-opposition TV channels. The authorities didn't deny what happened and had too little time to effectively react to try to mend their spoiled image. The facts of prison violence were presented by Georgian Dream as a final proof of the “criminal nature” of the government of the United National Movement (UNM). Although the violation of prisoners rights had never been a secret for the majority of Georgians, the brutality of the filmed scenes definitely shocked them.
Ivanishivili the philanthropist
Naturally, there were other reasons for Georgians not to vote for President Mikheil Saakashvili’s UNM party. Despite the fact that the UNM government’s merit was based on the establishment of the business friendly climate in Georgia, with the country achieving 16th place in the 2011 “Doing Business” ranking, far ahead of many European Union members, the economical situation in Georgia is becoming gradually worse. Even if Georgia was able to attract foreign investments, the majority of the population continued to live in poverty. Bidzina Ivanishvili was able to give hope to many of these people and make them believe that their fate is going to change thanks to Georgian Dream. He has already given financial help to the Church and artists from Tbilisi, as well as many poor people, especially from his own region Sachkhere. One may doubt how this charitable activity may qualify Ivanishvili to become an effective politician. In the South Caucasus, however, the image of a pious, generous and caring patriarch matters more than pragmatism or economic skills.
On the other hand the UNM government reforms have slowed down and became selective. Such important fields as the judiciary, for example, has remained unreformed for many years, and the last efforts to modernise it were undertaken when Saakashvili was minister of justice during Eduard Shevardnadze’s presidency. Although the corruption was effectively eradicated from Georgians’ everyday life, it was still present in an “elite” form: in the relationships between businessmen and government officials of middle and higher level. Additionally, media freedom was still not satisfactory. The opposition had as many supportive TV channels as the authorities, although those which supported Georgian Dream were not accessible in rural regions. This situation changed significantly during the summer when the pro-governmental owner of a cable television was legally forced to also transmit Maestro TV and Channel 9, both openly supporting Ivanishvili’s party. It seemed that there was no chance the government would be able to hide the discrediting revelations on Gldani prison violence.
A democratic exam
The fact that the change of authorities happened from a democratic process is unprecedented not only in Georgia, but in the whole South Caucasus region. Nevertheless, even if Georgia has passed this recent democratic exam, it wasn't far from another “street revolution” like the one which happened in 2003, named the Rose Revolution. This is certainly an optimistic fact that the political fight will be now confined to parliament. Still, this rivalry will be no less brutal and uncompromising than before the elections. The darkest scenario may be similar to the Ukrainian one. Many Georgian Dream politicians surely support the idea that members of the former political elite should face justice, although Ivanishvili’s party is not Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. The members of Georgian Dream are such strong individuals and pro-democratic politicians as Irakli Alasania from Free Democrats, and David Usupashvili and Davit Berdzenishvili from the Republican Party. However, it is uncertain what their role in the new government will be. What is certain is that the most important person is future prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, although it is difficult to predict what kind of politician he will become. He has, until recently, been rather a businessmen, post-Soviet type of oligarch and philanthropist, ironically, but accurately called Count Monte Christo by Saakashvili.
One thing is sure, the government of Georgian Dream will not change Georgia’s pro-Western aspirations, although it may slow down reforms bringing the country closer to EU standards. Such risk is real in the case of the escalation of the brutal political fight between the Ivanishvili’s government and United National Movement in opposition supported by President Saakashvili, still in office until autumn next year. The idea that Ivanishvili will become a Russian tool seems naive, and these elections have once again proved that Georgians are a politically conscious nation who won’t allow any leadership to act against their will.
Konrad Zasztowt is an analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM) and specialises in the South Caucasus and Central Asia regions. Previously he worked at the National Security Bureau (2008-2010), where he monitored international security issues in the Black Sea and Caspian regions. He is a graduate of the Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology and East European Studies at University of Warsaw and also studied at Yeditepe University in Turkey (2003-2005). His areas of interest include international relations and energy security issues in the Black Sea region (Ukraine, the Caucasus, Turkey) and Central Asia, ethnic and religious minorities as well as the issue of Islam in the former Soviet Union.