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Georgia may face power vacuum after presidential election

By Blog Admin, on 25 October 2013

Georgians go the polls on 27 October to elect a successor to President Mikheil Saakashvili. However, behind the scenes power politics, a populist outsider candidate and continuing pressure from Russia may combine to open up a period of uncertainty, writes Andrew Wilson.

The West has been struggling to make up its mind as to whether Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili is a good thing or not, and now he has announced he is leaving after less than a year in office. The previous era is also drawing to a close, as sitting President Mikheil Saakashvili’s two terms in office come to an end with the presidential election scheduled for 27 October.

Despite the heated rhetoric of Saakashvili’s United National Movement in the West, the Ivanishvili government was not existentially opposed to all its achievements. Some have been expanded, others chipped away at. The real question is what will happen next, with the very real risk of a power vacuum after the dual departure.

Ivanishvili’s announcement was not a complete surprise. He has always indicated he saw solving Georgia’s problems as a short-term task, and is visibly not too keen on the day-to-day tasks of administration. However, his exit strategy is far from clear, and 71% of Georgians in a NDI poll taken on 23 September said they disapproved of his decision to quit. He has not ‘finished the job’; unless it is narrowly defined as dislodging the old elite.

Part of his appeal to voters to back Giorgi Margvelashvili, his party’s (Georgian Dream) candidate for the presidency, is to allow him to continue that work. “Showing trust to Margvelashvili means showing trust to me”, Ivanishvili said in September. But he doesn’t seem to want to be overshadowed by Margvelashvili, who was a personal not a party choice. Margvelashvili is Minister of Education, and safely uncharismatic; Ivanishvili having sidestepped stronger figures like Defence Minister Irakli Alasania or David Usupashvili, the chair of parliament. The presidency will have less constitutional power after the election, but Ivanishvili has yet to name a Prime Ministerial successor – he says he will do so in November.

Margvelashvili is in an impossible situation – even if he wins his mandate will be weak and on ‘loan’ from Ivanishvili, who has also declared but not defined his intention to head a new NGO network after the election. It is unclear whether this will make him a back-seat driver. It is also possibly a mixed blessing for existing NGOs, as Ivanishvili’s fortune may cause a migration towards his money and influence. It is also unclear whether Ivanishvili’s choice for Prime Minister will be a stronger choice.

If so, the importance of the presidential vote is undermined. And it is far from clear that Georgian Dream’s current parliamentary majority will stay united behind a new Prime Minister for long (out of 150 MPs in total, the Majority is made up of 48 in Georgian Dream proper, 10 with the Free Democrats, the 9 Republicans, 6 Conservatives, 6 in the National Forum and 6 Entrepreneurs).

The candidate from Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) is Usupashvili’s predecessor Davit Bakradze, who is performing competently. The UNM continued losing support after last‘s October’s election, but survived the legal assault on several of its leading members, and its popularity may be bottoming out, if not recovering. Despite, or perhaps because of, all the talk of ‘selective prosecutions’, the government is responding to Western pressure and treading carefully on prosecutions. Bacho Akhalaia, the controversial former head of the prison system and Interior Minister under Saakashvili, was found not guilty on two out of four of the charges against him in August 2013.

For optimists like, ironically, the former UNM Deputy Minister of Justice Otar Kakhidze, the change of power might paradoxically result in a freer judiciary, which was ‘institutionally independent’, but ‘not psychologically independent’ under Saakashvili, despite reforms to give them more power after 2007.

Ironically, this has opened up a political space for the populist firebrand, two-times acting President Nino Burjanadze, who is calling for swifter and tougher justice to be meted out against the old regime. Burjanadze has recovered from the political dead since 2011, when her apparently fleeing motorcade was allegedly responsible for the deaths of two anti-government protesters.

She is now allegedly backed by Russia, and is certainly running on a pro-Russian ‘reconciliation’ platform. Hers is the most visible campaign, with her face on billboards everywhere. She has a massive campaign team in the regions, allegedly breaking election spending rules. With Margvelashvili a weak candidate and the UNM still unpopular, the potential for a ‘third force’ candidate is clear, whether genuine or not. Talk of Burjanadze polling second and of a possible run-off, if no one wins a majority in round one, is all over Tbilisi. Though the same NDI poll mentioned above had Margvelashvili on 39%, Bakradze on 18% and Burjanadze on 7%. The possibility of further uncertainly after the election only increases her chances.

Russia is pressurising Georgia, just as it is the other Eastern Partnership states, setting up a ‘border’ for South Ossetia that keeps moving slowly south. Talk of boycotting the Sochi Olympics has revived after Russia appointed Ivan Nechaev, a pilot who was shot down in the 2008 war, as a torch bearer. There are rumours that Georgian wine may suddenly be declared ‘unhealthy’ again. The uncertainly even affects Georgia’s attendance at the Vilnius Eastern Partnership summit. If the election goes to two rounds, Saakashvili will still be President. Georgia is certain to initial its agreements, but the hopes for speedy progress thereafter may be hampered by future political uncertainty.

Andrew Wilson is Reader in Ukrainian Studies at UCL-SSEES. He has published widely on the comparative politics of the post-Soviet states and especially the corruption of democratic politics by ‘political technology’. He is currently examining the case of Georgia as part of a UCL-SSEES team contributing to the FP7 ANTICORRP project on global trends in corruption and European responses to corruption.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.