On Tbilisi’s central square, activists backing ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili have camped out in protest of the outcome of the recent presidential elections in Georgia. There is a strange sense of déjà vu from the time Saakashvili himself was in power, when protesters—among them Georgia’s new President, Salome Zurabishvili—blocked the main thoroughfare of Tbilisi with tents to protest his leadership.
Zurabishvili, a French-born ex-diplomat of Georgian descent, was inaugurated on Sunday. The presidency has been reduced to a largely symbolic role in Georgia, so the election itself was not terribly consequential. But the vote was seen as a referendum on the ruling Georgian Dream party, and a test of Georgia’s democracy. The results were mixed on both counts.
Western headlines quickly highlighted that Zurabishvili would be the first woman to serve as President. While the statement is factually accurate, the election had nothing to do with gender. Indeed, the elections had little to do with Zurabishvili at all.
Zurabishvili registered as an independent candidate for the elections, but soon received the tacit backing of the ruling Georgian Dream party. At the beginning of her campaign, she made waves by blaming the 2008 war with Russia on Georgia and ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government. She accused Georgia of “bombing its own population.” Previously, she also questioned Georgia cooperating with the U.S. military, including its participation in an ongoing training mission on Georgian soil, saying she didn’t understand “what purpose it serves.” This was too much even for the Russia-accommodating Georgian Dream, which clearly pushed her to walk back her statements.
The elections were full of hate, mudslinging, and general ugliness, and ended up deeply polarizing voters. The campaign turned into a proxy war between Saakashvili and Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia’s mysterious billionaire kingmaker. Saakashvili stepped down as President in 2013 and subsequently left the country under a cloud of allegations of criminal wrongdoing that he claims were politically motivated. He has, however, remained actively involved in Georgian politics, even while pursuing a political career in Ukraine. Ivanishvili, a fabulously wealthy businessman who made his fortune in Russia and has created and bankrolled the Georgian Dream party, similarly stepped down from the Prime Minister’s post in 2013 after only spending a year in power. He is widely seen to be still pulling the strings behind the scenes.
The first round put two candidates neck-and-neck: Zurabishvili, technically an “independent,” stood for Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream, while Grigol Vashadze represented Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM). David Bakradze, representing European Georgia (a new party that split from UNM in 2017), gathered 10.9 percent of vote. The “opposition” vote against Zurabishvili in total comprised some 61 percent. This rattled the Georgian Dream leadership. They were clearly in trouble.
Between the first and the second round, Georgian Dream’s political machine sprung into action, mobilizing all resources under its control in order to win. The lines between party and the state—already blurry to begin with—almost disappeared. Zurabishvili herself also all but disappeared from the campaign—from television and from billboards—to be replaced by Georgian Dream leaders. The independent candidate suddenly didn’t seem so independent after all. Her campaign was transformed into a defense of the Georgian Dream status quo, and, perhaps more importantly, into a ritualized demonization of Saakashvili himself. Georgian ultra-conservatives and pro-Russian forces rallied in support of Zurabishvili. Protests against Saakashvili’s rule sprung up even though his party has been in the wilderness for years. At the same time, Ivanishvili promised to pay off the personal debts of around half a million voters through his private Cartu bank—a move that was characterized as vote-buying by his opponents.
As a result, the turnout in the second round surpassed the first round, and Zurabishvili won by a large margin. International observers pointed out that the elections were free and competitive, but full of irregularities, and ultimately not fair—one of the harshest assessments since the time of Eduard Shevardnadze’s rule.
Demonizing Saakashvili’s legacy is Georgian Dream’s bread-and-butter. It brought them victory in both 2012 and 2016, when they campaigned against the so-called “bloody nine years.” The phrase was resonant in 2012 after Saakashvili had been in power for almost a decade, and his increasingly erratic rule had started to wear on voters. These days, however, it has an empty ring to it. The fear tactic still clearly works—the election results are in part a testament to that—but with the memory of the bogeyman receding into history, one wonders for how long it can succeed given Georgian Dream’s unremarkable record in governing.
And despite the heavy-handedness towards the end of his time in power, Saakashvili’s record is largely positive. Together with a reform-minded young team, Saakashvili transformed Georgia, eradicating corruption and building state institutions at a dizzying pace. Lives were transformed dramatically for the better in the course of those nine years. The mafia virtually disappeared, the traffic police started working for citizens instead of extorting bribes from them, and young people got into universities based on merit, without having to pay off officials. Georgia’s tiny economy experienced double-digit growth, and living standards improved drastically.
But as good things become a new normal, democratic electorates ask for more: more jobs, more prosperity, more freedoms. Saakashvili, however, wasn’t ready to deliver. By 2012, his government seemed stuck on self-aggrandizement to the point of bizarreness. One campaign jingle that fateful election went, “No matter what the weather, good or bad, Misha is the best!” Reforms had slowed and the government seemed to be more focused on staying in power than delivering.
By 2012, the scene was set for a change. Georgia for the first time in its history celebrated a peaceful transfer of power. Bidzina Ivanishvili became Prime Minister. Ivanishvili’s victory came amid a scandal surrounding the maltreatment of detainees in prisons. The alleged torture videos were crucial to his victory.
Some feared that the rise of Georgian Dream, the brainchild of a man who had made his fortune in Russia, would coincide with a geopolitical reorientation for the country. Those fears were rooted in the rhetoric that his party had used in 2012. Georgian Dream capitalized on the widespread disappointment many Georgians felt at the slow pace of Western integration. They accused Saakashvili of overpromising, and even blamed him for the 2008 war with Russia. (These are all themes Zurabishvili echoed in her campaign.)
European and Euro-Atlantic integration were seen as key political objectives of the Saakashvili Administration. Joining NATO was understood to be the only path to securing meaningful independence in the face of an aggressive Russia just across the border to the north. But the NATO summit in Bucharest in 2008 dashed people’s hopes. There was a widespread feeling that America would push through a Membership Action Plan for Georgia. It could not. European powers, especially those that had opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, blocked Washington in Bucharest. When Russia invaded Georgia a few months later, the palpable lack of international support really drove the point home.
Ivanishvili’s government kept Georgia on a Western path, in large part because overwhelming support for Western integration made any alternative a nonstarter. As a result, Georgian Dream signed an association agreement with Europe and secured visa-free travel for Georgia’s citizens (the groundwork for which was laid by Saakashvili’s government).
Nevertheless, Georgian Dream has sought to bring more “balance” to the country’s relationship with Russia. They opened direct talks with Moscow, freed Russian spies, and refrained from criticizing the Kremlin openly. All this appeasement has not yielded tangible results, however. Russia, which occupies South Ossetia and Abkhazia, has continued its policy of creeping annexation (moving fences demarcating the occupation line, gobbling up Georgian territory), and “border” guards regularly kidnap Georgian citizens. In 2016, Giga Otkhozoria was shot and killed at the occupation line near Abkhazia. Earlier this year, a former soldier named Archil Tatunashvili was abducted and murdered in South Ossetia. Despite public outcry, the Georgian Dream government has downplayed the significance of these crimes, and hasn’t raised the issue much on the international level.
Georgian Dream has also developed relationships with fringe parties such as Alliance of Patriots of Georgia, and Georgian March—groups that receive Russian financial support and help mainstream pro-Kremlin, anti-EU, xenophobic views. Various smaller nationalist groups have also sprung up, in part as a reaction to the modernizing project of Saakashvili’s government. These groups, too, have been embraced. One such group openly describes itself as fascist, and brandishes a swastika-like symbol. They even boast of having established militias.
Georgian Dream makes use of these people, seeing them as allies when interests coincide. And when these groups resort to violence, the party turns a blind eye. This has fostered a sense of impunity among these groups, and has only encouraged more brazen behavior. Thugs have attacked everyone from protesters demonstrating against homophobia to young people protesting heavy-handed police raids of nightclubs. A young human rights defender named Vitali Safarov was killed in September in what appears to be a hate crime by the members of one of these groups.
Saakashvili himself shares part of the blame for playing into Ivanishvili’s hands. His presence haunted the campaign. His promise to return to the country should UNM win only gave Georgian Dream ammunition, allowing them to ominously intone about possible instability. And that rhetoric resonated. Beyond the trauma of the 2008 war, Georgians are generally sensitive to threats of disorder. It brings back memories of the 1990s, a time at which the country was wracked by a deep economic, political, and social crisis. The civil war between President Zviad Gamsakhuria and militia groups opposed to his rule left much of central Tbilisi in ruins.
Saakashvili’s approach this time around has been to mirror Georgian Dream’s tactics: to double down on populist rhetoric, to cozy up to the Orthodox Church, and now to set up tents in the city center. The elections showed the limits of that strategy: It’s hard to out-populist a populist.
At the same time, Georgian Dream achieved a pyrrhic victory in this election. By choosing go all-in on demonization and almost completely ignore policy discussion, Ivanishvili has set the tone for the next two years leading up to parliamentary elections.
But according to polls, 62 percent of the population thinks that the country is going in the wrong direction. The majority of Georgians are concerned about the economy and unemployment, and are dissatisfied by the political options on offer. It’s hard to say how much longer Saakashvili can serve as a scarecrow. After all, the Georgian Dream has been in charge for six years, and at some point will have to stand on its record.
There is a space in the political middle for a new force to occupy. European Georgia, the party that split from UNM in 2017, has sought to cater to those voters. They came away disappointed this time, but are redoubling their efforts. Their goal for now is to push Georgian Dream to move the country towards proportional representation and away from a winner-take-all mixed system that benefits the ruling party and empowers local landlords.
With concerns about political influence over the judiciary, rampant nepotism, and clampdowns on the media, Georgian Dream is coming to resemble the Saakashvili government in its waning years: all self-preservation tactics, with not much success to point to. Those who do not learn from history are perhaps doomed to repeat it. The question for the next to years is: Can the opposition capitalize?