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Georgia's New Leader Looks West

Authors: Elizabeth Fuller, Editor, Caucasus Report, and Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
October 10, 2012

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As a result of the October 1 elections in Georgia, a coalition led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili outpolled the ruling coalition led by President Mikheil Saakashvili, a leader popular in the United States. Elizabeth Fuller, who has covered Georgian affairs for many years at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, says that Ivanishvili, who is likely to be Georgia's next prime minister, is "pragmatic and more realistic" than Saakashvili, and she predicts that the new government's foreign policy "is not going to be based on ideology; it's going to be based on pragmatism." She says that the rise of Ivanishvili caught everyone, including herself, by surprise. But despite efforts by Saakashvili to paint Ivanishvili as pro-Russian, she believes that he is clearly interested in maintaining Georgia's Western ties, which he confirmed when he recently announced that his first overseas trip as prime minister would be to Washington, DC.

Are there real changes about to occur in Georgia in the aftermath of the elections, or is this just a change of faces?

There will be a definite change insofar as Saakashvili will go down in Georgian history, [despite] all the good things he did in terms of eradicating corruption and attracting investment, as the man who lost the war in 2008 to Russia over Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

There will be a definite change insofar as Saakashvili will go down in Georgian history, [despite] all the good things he did in terms of eradicating corruption and attracting investment, as the man who lost the war in 2008 to Russia over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. One of the big questions about this election was whether Ivanishvili would take Georgia back into the Russian fold. Saakashvili consistently tried to present this election as a choice between his pro-Western course [and] building democracy, and Ivanishvili as someone who would take Georgia back into the Russian influence and reverse all the reforms that Saakashvili and his team had undertaken over the past ten years.

Was this accurate?

This is not what Ivanishvili is about. Certainly he made a lot of money in Russia, but he left Russia ten years ago to return to Georgia. He lived in his native village in western Georgia as something of a recluse, but made huge amounts of money available for local charity projects. He was known primarily as a philanthropist. And then out of the blue exactly a year ago, he said that he had decided to put together a political coalition, and run in these elections, and become prime minister. Most people, including myself, thought he didn't really stand a chance. But he has done it.

What led to Saakashvili's defeat?

Russia is going to go on being Georgia's largest and most powerful neighbor, and therefore Ivanishvili is going to have to set about trying to find some sort of better arrangement with Russia, at the very least to try and reestablish diplomatic relations, which Saakashvili broke off.

I think there were a number of factors. It's difficult to say to what extent losing the war with Russia in 2008 was a factor. [As a result of the war, Abkhazia and South Ossetia became independent states, recognized only by Russia.] Certainly he spent a lot of money on and attracted a lot of investment for projects that didn't benefit the population at large. He built a huge, glitzy new parliament building in Kutaisi, which is Georgia's second city, where there really was no need. And he didn't do as much as people hoped in terms of reducing poverty, creating new jobs, and [providing] affordable medical care. Unemployment is still very high and it is still a major worry. That was definitely a consideration for a lot of voters. And it's not clear whether the scandal that broke just ten days before the elections-- when TV stations showed video clips of prisoners in Georgian jails being tortured and humiliated-- really was the final straw, and whether some voters who were undecided or others who might otherwise have voted for Saakashvilli, were turned against him.

But we have to bear in mind that the election was very, very close. Georgian Dream got just 55 percent of the vote, and the United National Movement [Saakashvili's coalition] got 41 percent. So the division of seats in parliament is eighty-three for Georgian Dream and sixty-seven for Saakashvili's party, meaning Georgian Dream just has a fourteen-seat majority, which could create problems over the next year when Saakashvili will still be president but the parliament will be dominated by a coalition that's in opposition to him.

Right now, the constitution of Georgia makes the president the most powerful figure in the country, but I gather that will change so that next year the prime minister will be the most important political figure. Is there a power-sharing agreement in place, or does that still have to be worked out?

This still has to be hammered out. The constitutional change was part of a two-stage process that was intended to enable Saakashvili to continue being the most important and influential politician in Georgia, even after his second term as president expires next year. These constitutional amendments that transfer a lot of the powers of the president to the prime minister will only go into effect after the next presidential election. So we have a one-year period between the parliamentary election and the presidential election, when Saakashvili and the parliament could be at loggerheads for a lot of the time, and Saakashvili and the prime minister as well, if one assumes that Ivanishvili would assume the role of prime minister.

Now the presidential election will be next October?

Yes.

Talk a bit about Ivanishvili. You spoke earlier about him being a philanthropist and a bit of a recluse. How did he make his money in Russia, do we know that?

How did any of the Russian oligarchs make their money? It's not clear. But I have not seen any Russian source saying that he made it illegally or that there are any questions about it.

Now, you watch Georgia very closely and were surprised that Ivanishvili's coalition won. What about Western diplomats? Was the American government shocked by all this, since the United States had invested so much in Saakashvili, a Columbia Law School graduate?

I suspect they were. I thought that the result would be very close, but I thought that Saakashvili's party would have perhaps a ten-vote majority in parliament. Ivanishvili has said that he will continue Georgia's pro-Western course. But Saakashvili was trying consistently to put a negative spin on his former Russian ties.

But Ivanishvili says his first trip abroad will be to Washington, right?

Yes. And that makes it very clear where his priorities lie.

Is that because the Georgian public is pro-Western?

Ivanishvili and his team are more pragmatic and realistic. Their foreign policy is not going to be based on ideology; it's going to be based on pragmatism.

Certainly the Georgian public is pro-Western. When Saakashvili was reelected four years ago, there was a referendum at the same time on NATO membership and I think two-thirds of voters were in favor. The West is seen as the one force that can protect Georgia against Russia should [it] decide to try to bring Georgia back under its wing again. Ivanishvili can see this, but one could say that Saakashvili's policy toward Russia was based on taking the moral high ground and saying, "All our problems are due to Russia. Russia is the main threat and this is why the West should support us." Ivanishvili and his team are more pragmatic and realistic. Their foreign policy is not going to be based on ideology; it's going to be based on pragmatism.

Russia is going to go on being Georgia's largest and most powerful neighbor, and therefore Ivanishvili is going to have to set about trying to find some sort of better arrangement with Russia, at the very least to try and reestablish diplomatic relations, which Saakashvili broke off. You can't live indefinitely without having some sort of channel of communications with Russia.

Diplomatic relations broke off in the aftermath of the war of 2008, and Russia now bans the imports of Georgian wines and other products. Is it possible that Russia might relent and support any reunion of Abkhazia and South Ossetia with Georgia-- or is that not possible?

I would say that from Moscow's point of view, the decision to recognize those two breakaway republics as independent is irreversible. That said, there are certain politicians in Russia who would like to incorporate South Ossetia with an Ossetian region in Russian and merge the two.

Abkhazia being larger, in terms of territory and population, is economically far more viable given the potential for tourism. Abkhazia could conceivably survive as an independent state. South Ossetia is a tiny little mountainous region, sandwiched between Russia and Georgia, and there is a big question mark about whether it really is viable. And as I said, there are politicians in Russia who would proceed from the argument: Yes, we recognize this is an independent state, but if its people decided to vote in a referendum to become part of the Russian Federation, who are we to say no?

And the Georgian population, are they very emotionally involved in this?

Yes. The Georgians are very, very attached to what they consider Georgian territory. I don't see Russia incorporating South Ossetia this year or next year, but say, in five or ten years' time. If the place continues to stagnate economically, then it could conceivably appear on Russia's political agenda.

In other words, at the time of the election last week there was a lot of concern in the West that this new leader would immediately turn to Russia. But it turns out that he may really be more of a pragmatist?

Yes. I don't see any danger of Georgia suddenly orienting itself under Ivanishvili toward Russia.

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