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Fuller: Despite Apparent Reelection, Saakashvili’s Popularity Not High

Interviewee: Elizabeth Fuller, Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
January 7, 2008

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Elizabeth Fuller, an expert on Georgian affairs, says despite his apparent reelection as Georgia’s president, Mikhail Saakashvili finds his popularity flagging. Fuller, an analyst for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), the U.S.-funded foreign language broadcaster, points to the fact that Saakashvili reportedly won about 52 percent of the vote on Sunday, which translates to about 27 percent of the electorate. By contrast, in 2004 he won 96 percent of the vote, in an election with much higher turnout.

Last November, after a major protest in the streets by the opposition, President Mikhail Saakashvili of Georgia announced a snap presidential election that took place this last weekend, many months ahead of schedule. The official results have him winning with slightly more than half the votes, which is enough to avoid a runoff election. What do you think about this vote? In particular, what does it show about his popularity vis-à-vis the opposition? Since the last time we spoke, in November, do you think his popularity has sharply dropped?

Saakashvili’s description of the vote was “a landslide,” but it was definitely not the endorsement he was presumably hoping for in November when he scheduled the elections. The voter turnout was just 56 percent. Of that 56 percent, around 51 percent, or perhaps a bit more, voted for Saakashvili. That translates into 26 or 27 percent of the potential voters who actually chose to endorse him. If you compare that with the 2004 elections, the voter turnout was almost 90 percent and Saakashvili got 96 percent of the vote. The number of people who voted for him this weekend was something like a third of the number that voted for him four years ago. That to my mind is the best possible demonstration of the extent to which his popularity has plummeted.

Assuming these elections hold up and he is reelected—I noticed the main opposition leader has called for a second round of elections—do you think we will see quite a different picture when the parliament elections are held in April?

Theoretically the parliament elections should more or less mirror the breakdown of votes for Saakashvili. The opposition that we have just seen would mean that Saakashvili’s United National Movement would no longer have a two-thirds majority in parliament. He would not actually be able to dictate the agenda within the parliament the way he has been able to do until now. What we don’t know yet is whether the opposition [coalition] National Council, composed of nine opposition parties which backed a single candidate in the presidential elections, will run as a bloc, or if its individual members will all run separately. This is the key point on which the votes of the opposition in the parliament will hinge. If people have a clear choice, Saakashvili or X, then they can vote for X. If they have a choice between Saakashvili and nine other opposition parties, then that splits the opposition vote and could strengthen the vote for Saakashvili’s party.

Why has Saakashvili’s popularity dropped so?

The primary reason why people are disillusioned with Saakashvili is because he didn’t deliver on the promises he made in 2004. He has not made major inroads in reducing poverty. He has not yet restored Georgia’s control of the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He has done a certain amount to crack down on lower level corruption such as traffic cops shaking people down, demanding five dollars here and ten dollars there. But the perception among a lot of people is that just like his predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze, Saakashvili has turned a blind eye to corruption amongst his closest associates. One of the major scandals of the past couple of years was the murder of a young banker who got into an argument in a bar in Tbilisi with certain high placed members of the interior ministry. The unfortunate young man was found the next morning beaten up with his throat cut. In a normal democracy, if the interior ministry was implicated, the minister would have resigned. The minister happens to be one of Saakashvili’s closest cronies, and still occupies his post.

Tell me a bit about the main opposition candidate, Levan Gachechiladze.

He is forty-three. In 1991 he cofounded an opposition party, the New Rightists, that he quit because its other leaders refused to support the Rose Revolution that swept Saakashvili into power. His election campaign program centered on abolishing the post of president and transforming Georgia into a strong parliamentary republic, after which he said he would resign and leave politics.

What about that very, very rich Georgian who also ran in this election?

That’s Badri Patarkatsishvili, who is living in self-exile in London. It’s very difficult for me to try to figure out precisely what motivated Patarkatsishvili when he decided to run in the election. Whether he honestly thought that he had a chance of winning, or whether he simply wanted to highlight Saakashvili’s shortcomings. There have been a number of allegations leveled against him, including just before Christmas when the Georgian prosecutor general’s office claimed that Patarkatsishvili met with an interior ministry official and offered him something like $100 million to stir up unrest after the presidential election. The prosecutor general seems to have a video tape of this meeting where Patarkatsishvili made this offer.

What kind of vote did he get? Did he get a significant percentage?

I think single digits. Whether or not the allegations against him were true, they certainly had the effect that they were meant to have. They swayed the voters into thinking he was a man who cannot be trusted.

Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief, came out with a guarded endorsement of the election, saying the allegations of impropriety have to be investigated. The German press, depending on the political orientation of the paper, seem to be not very enthusiastic about Saakashvili right now.

The international election observation mission that was launched by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) came out with a statement saying that the election “was in essence consistent with most international standards for democratic elections.” But at the same time it noted that there were serious shortcomings, including intimidation of opposition candidates’ representatives, and that some members of the Central Election Commission, the body that was tasked with running the election, took sides and were not always objective.

There are allegations that Saakashvili’s people were handing out financial inducements like wood and flour and food and heating materials to voters to win their support.

The OSCE assessment noted that “the implementation of social welfare programs is frequently combined with campaigning for this former president.”

What about Russia? Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has been no friend of Saakashvili, particularly since Saakashvili has been pro-Western and pro-NATO. The Russians immediately said that this election was dubious, didn’t they?

Russia immediately said that reports have come in about numerous violations. It says these violations were partly expected given that the entire preelection campaign can hardly be termed free and fair. It noted that the campaign was marred by Saakashvili’s using every possible lever that he had to exert pressure on opposition candidates and gain support for himself. It goes on to slam the international assessment of the ballot as meeting international standards. It implies that this is a double standard.

It’s kind of amusing, after the way Putin is stage-managing the forthcoming Russian presidential election.

Of course it’s amusing. It’s absolutely ridiculous if you look at the way Putin handled the Duma elections last month. I suspect that the Russian presidential election in March is not going to be noticeably more free or democratic.

You noted that one of the reasons for Saakashvili’s unpopularity was his failure to recover South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the two breakaway areas of Georgia. But to do that would almost require going to war with Russia, wouldn’t it?

It would, which is why I think he has enough sense not to risk it.

Is that such a popular issue in Georgia that the population would rather have someone claiming they would go to war?

You have to remember that there are something like 150,000 Georgians who were expelled or forcibly expelled or voluntarily fled out during the war in 1990 to 1993. Most of these people are still living in absolutely abysmal conditions and want to be able to go home. There are children who have grown up and have never actually seen their parental home.

This is sort of like the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

Yes, although they are not politicized to that extent. But yes, with every year that passes, the danger increases that these displaced persons could be mobilized as a political force.

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