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30 August, 2016

Calm after the storm

Political expert Ghia Nodia on the balance of power in Georgian politics today, Saakashvili and Ivanishvili as politicians, and changes in Georgian society and state

Georgia will hold its parliamentary elections on 8 October. At the previous ones in 2012, Mikheil Saakashvili's incumbent party lost by over 10% to the recently formed Georgian Dream (GD), founded by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. Its support has recently plummeted, although Georgian voters are in no hurry to bring back its predecessors either. An April 2016 poll conducted by the International Republican Institute showed that 20% of respondents would vote for Georgian Dream and 19% for the previous party of government – the United National Movement (UNM). In 2014, according to various estimates, the GD-led coalition government was supported by about 50% of voters, whereas about 22% would have voted for UNM.

What is the balance of power in Georgian politics today? How is Saakashvili the politician different from Ivanishvili the politician? How have the Georgian state and society changed over the years when they and their political parties were in power? Ghia Nodia, Chairman of the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development, spoke about this to The Ukrainian Week.

Interviewed by Anna Korbut

On the Saakashvili phenomenon and the Ivanishvili phenomenon. The Saakashvili phenomenon is a radical transformation. He is a transformational, revolutionary politician. Mikheil came to power in the wake of the Rose Revolution, when people wanted something new and fundamentally different – they were disappointed by the complete ineffectiveness of the previous government and its inability to achieve any results. It would be safe to say that Saakashvili created modern Georgian statehood, a new type of country. In this respect, he is a historical figure for Georgia. But these transformations were obviously painful for many people. In addition, he made several mistakes and miscalculations. All this put together eventually led to his defeat in 2012.

Bidzina Ivanishvili rode the wave of weariness and hatred towards Saakashvili. Plus, being a super-rich man, he inspired in his countrymen hope for manna from heaven, i.e. a solution to all social problems. This, of course, did not happen. In economic terms, people do not feel any progress, and many rather see regression. The sense of perspective that the country is going somewhere has been lost. Society is largely disappointed in the government, believing that it has no concrete achievements and is unable to solve their problems.

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However, this dissatisfaction has not yet reached a critical point. People are dissatisfied, but you can't say that they're outraged. The idea of ​​returning to the rule of Saakashvili or the United National Movement is also unpopular. One possible explanation: life is calmer under Ivanishvili. While Saakashvili constantly stirred up society, Ivanishvili comforts it. Many people associate Mikheil's return with potential upheavals, but it's sure that no one wants another revolution. The government uses this fear, and does so with quite some success.

If we talk about foreign policy, all Georgian governments since late years of Eduard Shevardnadze’s rule have declared commitment to the European and Euro-Atlantic line. But if it was a lynchpin, statement of faith, and frame of reference for the value system of Saakashvili's government, then the current government continues this course more due to inertia. The majority of the population supports the focus on Europe, so the authorities have to act accordingly, and they do. But if you look at many leading personalities and active supporters of Georgian Dream, they can hardly be called pro-European figures.

Pro-European and pro-Russian sentiments in politics. GD, unlike UNM, does not have a positive unifying idea. It involves some people committed to the European choice. But many in the party are nostalgic for the Soviet past. What unites them is, on the one hand, hatred for the UNM, and on the other hand – the aura of Ivanishvili's money.

On the whole, there are many people who have simply not found their place in a Georgia moving towards Europe. They are doomed to play second fiddle in that sort of country, so they need something else. Though they understand that life in general is better in Europe, its norms and institutions are alien and incomprehensible to them. However, it is difficult for them to articulate what the alternative is. That's why they talk about national traditions or Orthodoxy, which Saakashvili allegedly fought against. There are many people like this, including among the younger generation. Some of them support GD, others – the openly anti-Western, pro-Russian parties that sprung up relatively recently.

There are those who see Georgia as a European-type state, but for whom Saakashvili and the UNM are fundamentally unacceptable for various reasons. Some of them are also part of GD, but most call themselves "shuashists" in Georgian or the "in-betweeners" – they could support a third force like Free Democrats[1] or not vote at all.

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On the pre-election balance of power in Georgian politics. Overall, in the country there is a certain apathy towards the political class. About half of the electorate say they are going to go to the polls, but do not know who to vote for. In other words, they don't like anyone. Given such high percentages of undecided voters, any predictions made now will be highly unreliable. But at this stage we have no information apart from polls that give roughly equal numbers.

GD and UNM are leaders among those who have made their minds up, with around 18-22% each. GM has 1-2% more, but there is approximate parity between them. Next are two other parties that are leading the race to become the third force: the new State for the People Movement created by opera singer Paata Burchuladze and Irakli Alasania's Free Democrats. They distance themselves from both GD and the UNM. These forces are geared towards the "shuashists". Generally, they support a pro-European Georgia, at least rhetorically, but we have more reason to believe Alasania’s commitment given his political biography.

Then there are three more parties that have a chance of overcoming the 5% threshold and getting into parliament, but this isn't guaranteed. They are the populist left-wing Labour Party and two openly anti-Western, pro-Russian forces – David Tarkhan-Mouravi's Alliance of Patriots of Georgia and Nino Burjanadze's Democratic Movement[2].

So if we look at the current data, no party will get more than 50% of seats in parliament. But GD is still banking on a majority thanks to the advantages of incumbency, which are most visible in first-past-the-post constituencies, and could end up with almost half of seats. It is quite likely that will be the case.

If it is not, then we can expect difficult coalition talks after the election. I think Plan B for Bidzina Ivanishvili is as follows: if he isn't able to buy the population, he can buy some of the parties that pass the threshold to make a ruling coalition with them. Conversely, the UNM hope that GD will not win the elections, which could swing the momentum and make an opposition coalition headed by the UNM the more legitimate option.

On the political evolution of Georgian society. Saakashvili largely managed to overcome large-scale corruption. Nobody wants it back. But fighting this negative phenomenon involves weakening personal connections that are based on exchanging various benefits in circumvention of the law. When Saakashvili's reforms had just started (I'm giving an example of changes in the university system), students came out against the education minister because he wanted to stamp out the "institution of cousins". If everything is done according to the law and connections are not necessary, then why do you even need relatives, many people think? The traditional structure of society that Georgians are used to can be summed up by the principle "I scratch your back, you scratch mine – we're all friends and help each other". But this happens to the detriment of the law, state and formal rules. So Saakashvili's reforms were often perceived as cultural violence against the established beliefs and traditions of society. In part, this is what created the impression of his authoritarianism, although those accusations also have some real grounds.

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On the point of no return on the path towards a modern state. To some extent, Georgian society might have already passed this point. For example, Saakashvili predicted that without him we would return to Shevardnadze-era corruption. Indeed, one could argue that some elements of nepotism have reared their heads. Appointments in many regions or state institutions are often based on personal, family or friendly ties. But we haven't seen massive corruption. No matter how tough GD's rhetoric is against the previous government, in practice they recognise Saakashvili's reforms and try to preserve his achievements. The party members know that if, for example, the police start to take bribes again, a lot more people will demand the return of Mikheil. So for now it is possible to talk about the stability of the reforms undertaken while the UNM were in power.

On the emergence of Ivanishvili in politics. He returned to Georgia at the beginning of the 2000s, before the Rose Revolution. He has not been back to Russia since then. Perhaps he had problems with Putin, when Russia started to put pressure on the oligarchs, so he thought life at home would be calmer.

Ivanishvili is a very private, non-public person. He never appeared at crowded meetings, but quietly carried out charity work, primarily in two areas: supporting intellectuals and the church. The biggest church in Tbilisi was built thanks to him. His arrival in politics was a complete surprise.

Despite his great aloofness, it turned out that Ivanishvili has some quite serious intellectual ambitions. Now he has got a taste for public debates, so constantly stresses that his "capacity for analysis" is particularly well developed. Obviously, at one point, when Saakashvili started to lose his popularity, but no figure had emerged to counterbalance him, Ivanishvili decided that he could do this with his billions. He was right: he promised that would become prime minister and did it, then resigned a year later (which he also promised, though somewhat earlier).

But why does he need power? Why did he leave as soon as he got it? What is the essence of his political project? This is the subject of speculation. Ivanishvili clearly does not like to manage the daily operations of the government and be responsible for specific policy decisions. But he wants the government to be loyal to him. According to various estimates, his personal wealth is about $7 billion, and in Georgia no one else even has one billion. So why not translate economic power into political power? He needed to find a formula: no matter who is in government, they should be his people.

Obviously, in this case Ivanishvili calculated everything likea businessman: he purchased Georgia as a political enterprise and wants to keep a figurative 51% stake in its leadership. The prime ministers who followed him are just managers, appointed to lead his new company. While delegating some powers to them, he can intervene in anything whenever he sees fit. This allows Bidzina to live comfortably in a country that basically belongs to him, so he hopes to maintain this situation for a long time.

On the balance between the influence of individuals and institutions in Georgian politics and the state. A standard mature society should depend on institutions. But until now we have been more dependent on personalities and great men such as Gamsakhurdia, Shevardnadze, Saakashvili... The latter attempted to create institutions and was reasonably successful. But while he was in power, it was thought that their stability rested on his personal qualities. So far, we have not reached the point where the country is more dependent on institutions than a singleperson.

Perhaps Ivanishvili also thinks that he is assisting the development of institutions. But he must continue to personally guarantee that the processes are occurring correctly. For him, the reference point is 2030: he constantly repeats that everything will be how it should by then... It's hard to escape the conclusion that he hopes to keep a controlling stake in "Georgia Inc." until at least that time. But then he will just be turning 74 and he leads a very healthy lifestyle, so we can only guess what he will want to do in the future.

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On the future of Georgia in the next 5-10 years. Much depends on the results of the elections in October, so it's difficult to predict. Even if Ivanishvili does keep power now, it is unlikely that he will retain his stable existence: the dissatisfaction in society will not go anywhere. But if there is another government that is not subordinate to him, we shouldn't expect peace and quiet either. So it is difficult to make any predictions for the next 5-10 years, although they could define many aspects of the country's long-term development. We must remember the instability around us: in Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan with its oil, Russia, Ukraine, Europe... When everything is so uncertain within the country and around us, it is difficult to imagine Georgia as an island of stability.


Ghia Nodia is Chairman of the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development (CIPDD), and director of the International School of Caucasus Studies at Ilia State University. Mr. Nodia graduated from the Faculty of Philosophy at Tbilisi State University in 1976 and received his PhD there in 1982. From 1980-1995 – researcher, academic secretary, head of the Department for Political Philosophy at the Institute of Philosophy, Georgian National Academy of Sciences. 2001-2005 – professor and dean of the Political Science Faculty at Ilia State University. February-December 2008 – Minister of Education and Science of Georgia. Mr. Nodia is currently on Editorial Boards of international academic publications Journal of Democracy and Comparative Strategy. He writes and comments extensively on issues of democratisation, institution building and nationalism in post-communist countries, as well as the specific problems of political development in Georgia and the Caucasus region as a whole.

[1] Free Democrats is a liberal pro-European party founded in 2009 by Irakli Alasania, Georgia’s UN Ambassador under Saakashvili and Defense Minister under Ivanishvili. The party was formed in opposition to Saakashvili, entered parliament in 2012 as part of the Georgian Dream coalition but left it in 2014 after Alasania was dismissed from MoD.

[2] Democratic Movement – United Georgia is a center-right party led by Nino Burdjanadze, founded in 2008. It ran in the 2012 elections in opposition to Saakashvili but not in coalition with the Georgian Dream. It failed to cross the threshold to get into current parliament but already announced intentions to run in October.

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