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. (more…)