“Mikheil Saakashvili is like marmite,” a Georgian friend once told this correspondent. “You either love him or hate him.” If the recent parliamentary election is anything to go by, Georgians might just have had enough of marmite.
The exiled former Georgian president (2004-2013), who is currently the governor of the Odesa region in Ukraine, suffered defeat on more than one front in the October 8 parliamentary election, and the odds of him returning to the country, already slight, have got longer. Yet Saakashvili’s absence might just be what this Caucasian country needs right now, as its democracy is maturing and this will require more sophisticated and strategic leadership than a revolutionary figure like him.
The most cutting defeat was the one at the polls. The party that Saakashvili founded in 2001, the United National Movement (UNM), lost the race by an unexpectedly large margin of 21 percentage points to the ruling Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia coalition. But after clearly losing the support of the electorate, Saakashvili is also losing the battle over control of his own party, as his reactionary style has begun to clash with the new, more pragmatic leadership.
Georgians have an ambivalent relationship with Saakashvili because, on the one hand, he is the leader that transformed the country from a corrupt and unstable Russian satellite in the early 2000s into the thriving, market-friendly and Western-oriented democracy it is today. However, the means through which he accomplished this transformation, which at times involved intimidation, abuse of power, polarising rhetoric and the side-lining of adversaries, are beginning to feel out of place in the increasingly democratic society he helped to create.
Take for instance the recording that surfaced ten days before the election, in which Saakashvili appeared to be instructing the new UNM party leaders to stage a revolution and occupation of Rustaveli, the main street in the capital of Tbilisi. “Whoever wants to get ready for a coalition, let them prepare for it. I have no desire whatsoever to get ready for a coalition – that's not what I am fighting for,” a voice similar to his was recorded as saying.
The UNM denounced the audio as a montage of old conversations that were illegally intercepted, but that does not take away from the fact that revolution by mobilisation, rather than ideological and persuasive opposition, is how Saakashvili understands his political agenda should be furthered.
In his response to the election result, the politician once again called on the UNM to respond in an extreme manner to its defeat, by boycotting some 50 runoff races for single-mandate constituencies. The party disregarded his calls, deciding instead to accept defeat and participate in the second round of the election to prevent the ruling party from securing a constitutional majority in parliament. As a leader forged in Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution, the concept that stability might be good for democracy and economic growth appears to elude Saakashvili.
Revolution is not what his party – or the country – needs at the moment, believes Ghia Nodia, director of the Tbilisi-based International School of South Caucasus Studies. “It is unacceptable that UNM behave like the opposition of 2008... and boycott the parliament. This would imply disrespect for their country and their voters,” he wrote in a Facebook post on October 10.
Regardless of whether or not Georgian Dream secures that constitutional majority, the country needs an effective opposition because, just like UNM though to a lesser extent, Georgian Dream has in the past employed undemocratic means to advance its agenda. And just like UNM, Georgian Dream is also dominated by its founding figure, billionaire and former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who has officially retired from politics but is believed to continue to pull the strings in the party. “I cannot rule out a future scenario in which Georgian Dream behaves in a way that would not leave people any other options than legitimate rebellion,” says Nodia, stressing that “this is only hypothetical”.
Ivanishvili and Saakashvili’s longstanding animosity has been the driver behind the polarisation of Georgian politics since the former entered the political arena in 2012 to challenge Saakashvili’s political dominance. That two leaders should let personal sentiment influence their parties’ agendas and the country’s governance speaks volumes about how Georgian democracy remains immature and personality-driven.
Nodia acknowledges that Saakashvili is the most successful political leader in modern Georgia, “but that does not mean that he is always right”, and urges him to choose between Georgia and his new home of Ukraine.
The politician, however, appears unprepared to make such a choice. “I want to emphasise that, in Georgia, it took me seven years to clean up the country of the corruption that hindered reforms. In Ukraine, we will do the same thing in the coming years,” he wrote in a Facebook post on October 8.
While Saakashvili continues to use his past accomplishments in Georgia as (poor) predictors for Ukraine’s future, the UNM and Georgia need a united and strong opposition, which the party might not be able to deliver under the influence of its founder. “UNM is the main, if not only real force capable of defending democracy in today’s Georgia,” Nodia writes. “This means that it has enormous responsibility. It also means that it should learn to cooperate with all those parties and groups that claim allegiance to democratic and European values.”
“This will require efforts from all of them... I am not sure if it will work, I just know it is absolutely indispensable,” he concludes.