Georgian Dream

10.02.12

Sunset for Misha? Georgia’s Pro-Western Mikheil Saakashvili Defeated by Pro-Russian Challenger

With the days of the Russian threat long forgotten—especially by youth—Georgians voted out their pro-Western president for a pro-Moscow challenger. Anna Nemtsova on how Russia edged its way back into Georgia.

The problem with choosing democrats as allies is they can be voted out of office. After many years of failed attempts, the opposition in Georgia finally took down longtime President Mikheil Saakashvili —a key U.S. ally—and his team in  parliamentary elections.

Thousands of young supporters of Georgian Dream, the coalition made up of the latest configuration of the opposition, filled the central Freedom Square in Tbilisi, jumping and clapping hands in excitement, as their leader, a billionaire tycoon turned politician, Bidzina Ivanishvili, addressed the square from his stage: “All of Georgia tells the authorities what?” The crowd responded in one breath: “Leave!”

Rarely does the former Soviet state see a competitive election, but this one proved to be the exception to the rule: Georgian Dream won 53.3 percent of the electorate, while the ruling National Movement gathered 41.6 percent, according to early results. Ivanishvili, who advocates better relations with Russia, has achieved a victory similar to Viktor Yanukovych's in Ukraine in 2010, a pro-Russia challenger who defeated the pro-Western incumbent.

Of course, no election is as simple as a choice for which party should have a majority of seats in Parliament. Former minister of the economy Kakha Bendukidze, who has been the architect of the outgoing government’s reform policies, said in a phone interview that Tuesday’s election threatened to make Georgia “Moscow’s satellite.” “I do not think that the majority of people voting for the opposition’s Georgian Dream quite realized that,” Bendukidze said.

Key in the National Movement’s loss, Bendukidze said, was that many students at the private Free University voted for the opposition. “This generation has grown up during reforms in a transparent, quickly reforming state, without any clue of potential threats by a pro-Russian government,” Bendukidze added.

Georgian intellectuals, including theater actors, opera singers, painters, writers, and film directors, have received monthly bonuses from billionaire opposition leader Ivanishvili—who has become famous for financing theaters and museums as well as building roads and dozens of schools.

In the years following its break from Moscow, Georgia has not had the benefit of a stable political life—and the country has remained divided. With the exceptions of 2003’s Rose Revolution and the short-lived moment of national unity following the 2008 war with Russia, President Saakashvili has faced constant calls for his removal from office.

Over 250,000 people were left jobless as a result of Saakashvili’s policies—he eliminated whole agencies to reform the Soviet-relic government, including the KGB and the traffic police. He fired most of the old non-English-speaking university professors and thousands of corrupt policeman and politicians. In Tbilisi on Monday night, those left jobless by Saakashvili celebrated his defeat on Rustaveli Avenue, the site of many protests over the years. Groups of young people in cars waved flags out their sunroofs and honked their horns in victory.

During one mass protest in spring 2009, the president withdrew to his residence, drew the curtains on his windows, and turned off the television.

“This is a useless opposition lacking talent. If I were its leader, I would have already led a coup against the president,” he joked later.

On that day three years ago, Saakashvili seemed to be in a bad mood, complaining about new American “pragmatic politics” and that his own people were ungrateful for the painful struggle that he and his team had been through—and how the Kremlin dreamed of his departure. To prevent that scenario, Georgian authorities forcefully repressed peaceful protest and closed popular opposition TV channel Imedi in 2007.

Growing tired of Saakashvili’s larger-than-Georgia personality, the country’s intellectuals criticized everything he did, beginning with the new construction and restoration work in ancient Georgian cities—Saakashvili’s biggest pride—and ending with Georgian government’s everlasting conflict with its governing elite. At the same time, Georgian intellectuals, including theater actors, opera singers, painters, writers, and film directors, have received monthly bonuses from billionaire opposition leader Ivanishvili—who has become famous for financing theaters and museums as well as building roads and dozens of schools.

To make the opposition happy, Ivanishvili, a French citizen and resident of an alien-spaceship-shaped palace on a hillside over Tbilisi, promised to destroy Saakashvili’s new Bridge of Love in the old city, a notorious example of the president’s bad taste, according to the Georgian artistic elite.

Addressed by the foreign press simply as Misha, Saakashvili was warned that sooner or later, his people would grow tired of his power. In an interview with Newsweek on a day of major protest in 2008, he recalled his conversation with a separatist leader of Adjaria, Aslan Abashidze, saying, “Georgian people are unfaithful. Abashidze predicted that one day my people would rise up against me the way they protested against him.”

Exhausted of revolutions, wars, intrigues, and conflicts—80 percent polled negatively regarding Georgia’s conflict with Russia—Georgians are eager to take a peaceful break.

“A majority of Georgians do not feel anger for Russian people. But nothing is easy here: a pro-Russian figure loyal to Moscow would not solve all problems,” said South Caucasus project director for the International Crisis Group Laurence Sheets.

But it may be too soon to write Saakashvili’s political obituary: within hours of the defeat, Saakashvili, 44, declared he is the one leading the opposition—and he will remain in power until his term expires in January 2013.