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Is the Bloom Off The Rose (Revolution)?

Georgia’s upcoming parliamentary elections, scheduled for October 1, may result in violence. Mikhail Saakashvili’s United National Movement, which currently holds almost 80% of the seats in parliament, is facing stiff opposition by an coalition of parties called Georgian Dream.

At the head of the coalition is Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire businessman who made his fortune in Russia, and whose net worth is said to exceed Georgia’s entire annual budget. Also arrayed in opposition is Nino Burjanadze, one of Saakashvili’s allies and supporters in the Rose Revolution.

Tempers flared in the wake of a recent video showing a prisoner being sodomized with a broomstick in one of Georgia’s prisons. The New York Times:

At the moment the images were released, Mr. Saakashvili’s party seemed likely to win a comfortable majority of the vote, and it is unclear whether that has changed. The government responded quickly by condemning the abuse and dismissing top officials, and some voters remain suspicious about the politically charged timing of the clips’ release. But now the Rose Revolution team has new worries — immediate ones, about whether the election on Monday will prompt opposition protests, and long-term ones, like the university students who say the prison abuse footage has caused a political awakening.

What many Westerners miss about Georgian politics is its clannishness which can at times verge on tribalism. Feuds, grudges and bitter rivalries make elections more than just pallid electoral contests. The tone of debate is particularly harsh and uncompromising. Saakashvili vilifies Ivanishvili as a Russian agent, much like Georgia’s first nationalist leader, Zviad Gamsakhudria, called his opponents “agents of the Kremlin”. Ivanshvili, for his part, has taken to calling Saakashvili a dictator, much like Gamsakhudria’s opponents called him a fascist. Saakashvili’s early moves to centralize power in the office of the president came at the expense of parliament—which was headed by Burjanadze. You get the picture.

While Mikhail Saakashvili has done some remarkable things for Georgia, his rule has not nearly lived up to the reputation he’s managed to secure for himself across most of the West as an upstanding liberal reformer. His blundering into the war with Russia in 2008 did his country a grave disservice and to this day a critical mass of European leaders is determined to keep Georgia out of NATO because they do not trust Saakashvili or want him as an ally.

Even if Saakashvili goes, Georgia has a long way to go before Europeans are willing to think about NATO membership for this beautiful country with its spectacular scenery, rich culture and extraordinary food. The instability and unpredictability of its politics as well as its disputed borders make it a problematic ally for Europeans worried about their own grave problems and increasingly skeptical about the benefits of admitting marginally qualified new members into either the EU or NATO.

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