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September 18, 2012, Tuesday

Georgian elections: assumptions, power balance and scenarios (1)

One of the key issues under discussion in Turkey’s neighborhood is the upcoming parliamentary elections in Georgia, which are scheduled for Oct. 1. In general, the elections seem to pose a choice between turning back and becoming pro-Russian, or maintaining the pro-Western course -- i.e., continuing with the current government’s foreign policy, which prioritizes Euro-Atlantic integration.

The political struggle following the appearance of billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili on the Georgian political scene in 2011 has been a source of interest across the region. One group of Ivanishvili supporters endorses his policy initiatives based on his personality, while others see his entry into politics as a real challenge to the current government and, as such, an important indicator of a healthy democracy. These are the voters who are speaking out against the current negative campaigning trends in Georgia, where unfounded allegations are being used as campaign tools to undermine candidates, politicians and the opposition coalition.

The results of these elections are particularly important because Georgia is entering a period of transition. In 2013, when Mikheil Saakashvili completes his last presidential term, a new national constitution that was adopted in 2010 will immediately go into effect, transferring most of the executive powers to a newly powerful prime minister, who will form the government. As the last of the “color revolutions” that took place across the post-Soviet space, the legacy of Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution holds special significance for the region. What Georgians are anxious about is that despite their democratic uprising, the mere fact that the current government has been in power for nine years means that there is a risk of political regression, i.e., a move away from democratization.

However, a few days ago, senior opposition and ruling party representatives for the first time attended a religious ceremony together. Georgian Orthodox Church leader Ilia II delivered a message of unity: “We may have differing views, including on politics and the economy, but I hope we do not differ on the main issue, that we should never cede Georgia to our enemy, no matter what our personal ambitions.” Following this, President Saakashvili gave a similar speech, but with one key difference. He described political forces as leftist and rightist, and then made reference to “dreamers.” This was the first time that Saakashvili accused the opposition of being “dreamers” rather than pro-Russian. At this stage, it may be useful to explain the political agendas of the two major political forces in advance of giving any pre-election assessment.

A credible opposition movement?

The Georgian leadership did not initially take seriously the united coalition under the leadership of billionaire Ivanishvili. However, this year, Ivanishvili’s “Georgian Dream” coalition has prepared its pre-election campaign on the basis of economic policy, and their domestic strategy is designed to appeal to those who are unhappy with the current socioeconomic situation.

The Saakashvili government has established its counter strategy on the basis of foreign policy, promoting Euro-Atlantic integration. The opposition wants to establish good ties with Russia without demanding that it return occupied South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Finally, the current government is worried that the opposition plans to rely on Russia in terms of economic development and will thus damage Georgia’s established market economy policy. The issue of a Russian alliance is a tricky one; Ivanishvili was recently attacked following his refusal to criticize Vladimir Putin, declaring that he did not want to “start criticizing a big country. We will have to talk to [Russia] and normalize our relationship.”

Meanwhile, the Georgian Dream’s focus on the economy is winning votes; people believe that “if [Ivanishvili] is ready to spend money on building a strong economy and creating new jobs, why do we need to look at what lies beyond his political motive?” Ivanishvili recently declared that the priorities of the coalition are as follows: the de-politicization of business; the development of business and education; and a 1 billion Georgian lari ($607 million) investment in agriculture. Saakashvili understands that the real risk is underestimating the coalition’s potential, and as a countermove he has appointed the former interior minister as prime minister. Ivane (“Vano”) Merabishvili is best known for his ambitious police reforms which transformed Georgia’s notoriously corrupt police force. Interestingly, for a long time Georgians have been watching “Vano’s Show” -- a Georgian version of an American late-night talk show program that combines humor, talk and entertainment. But after he was appointed prime minister, Georgians developed a habit of watching Merabishvili’s “Vano’s Show” -- though this time in politics.

‘Vano’s Show’

On July 4, the Georgian parliament accepted Merabishvili’s cabinet, including a newly created position -- a minister for employment who was tasked with tackling Georgia’s unemployment, which currently stands at 15 percent. Merabishvili represents an ideal rival for Ivanishvili for several reasons. First, both are widely viewed as successful -- one is a prominent businessman and the other is known for vanquishing corruption. Second, they both come from humble backgrounds and so are seen as capable of understanding the needs of ordinary Georgians. Third, Georgia will be a parliamentary republic after next year’s presidential elections, and Merabishvili could increase public support for this change. Moreover, much like Ivanishvili, Merabishvili’s key priorities are agricultural development, employment and health care, and this has certainly increased the ruling party’s ratings.

Despite these developments, observers have commented that naming a powerful former minister as the prime minister indicates that President Saakashvili is not considering the “Putin Path” -- becoming prime minister and then getting elected president. Others have speculated that by appointing Merabishvili as prime minister, Saakashvili is trying to move him away from the powerful Ministry of Internal Affairs.

My next column will analyze the pre-election environment, with the possible post-election scenarios.

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