Saakashvili's Chance to Save His Legacy as a Democratic Reformer

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Having civilly conceded defeat after a bitter campaign, the Georgian president may be able to begin the work of keeping history on his side.

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Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili shortly before casting his vote in Tbilisi. (David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters)

Georgia braced for chaos. What it may have got instead was closure. Ahead of the critical parliamentary vote on October 1 setting the stage for Georgia's future political path, expectations were rife that the vote would devolve into rigging claims, protests, and even violence. Few, however, imagined the scene that unfolded as President Mikheil Saakashvili took the stage to concede the defeat of his United National Movement party to the upstart Georgian Dream opposition bloc. Saakashvili, who led Georgia from the 2003 Rose Revolution into a new age as a post-Soviet model of political evolution, was gracious, conciliatory, and sweeping in admitting defeat.

"The achievements of the past eight years, of the Rose Revolution -- which is one of the most important moments in the entire centuries-old history of Georgia -- are not only important for Georgia's history, but these achievement have also turned Georgia into one of the key countries for the rest of the world," Saakashvili said. "So I'm confident that no matter what threats these achievement face in the next months or years, it is impossible to obliterate them."

No 'Putin Option'

Saakashvili's performance was astounding, coming as it did at the end of a fraught political season riven by dirty campaign tactics and massive public anger over his government's role in a prisoner-abuse scandal. It was all the more astonishing because the vote -- given a generally clean bill of health by international groups like the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and Transparency International, despite early concerns about fraud -- was seen by many as Saakashvili's last chance to prolong his political reign.

He is due to step down from the presidency next year at the end of his second term and at the still vital age of 45. But some observers believed he was considering a shift into a newly empowered prime-ministerial post, an ethically dubious but politically effective move patented in 2008 by his nemesis to the north, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Recent changes to the Georgian Constitution have transferred many of the president's powers to the parliament and the prime minister. Saakashvili supporters attempted to justify such a move, somewhat awkwardly, as an opportunity to cement the democratic reforms launched by the president after he rose to power nearly a decade ago.

But even before the vote, it was clear that Saakashvili, whom observers describe as keenly protective of his long-term legacy, had backed away from the premiership. (Instead, the post had been earmarked for his close ally, longtime Interior Minister and current Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili.)

Saakashvili's Future

The question of Saakashvili's postpresidential plans was a suspenseful one for many Georgia watchers, who have looked on with distress as his record as a trailblazing reformer has grown tarnished by creeping authoritarianism and a series of unrestrained crackdowns on antigovernment protesters in 2007 and 2011.

Saakashvili's record may be mixed, says Caucasus expert Svante Cornell, who co-authored a book on what may be the president's most disastrous chapter, the 2008 war with Russia over breakaway South Ossetia. But he's proven both resilient and mindful of how a manufactured move to the premiership might affect his image. "The last thing he wants," Cornell says, "is to be compared to Putin."

"Whether you like Misha Saakashvili or not, it's irrelevant. But I think you should never underestimate him as a politician, as a political animal. His political instincts are very astute. And you can see this in the way he has rebounded regularly throughout his presidency," Cornell says. "In 2007, for example, after the November riots and the crackdown, which was quite devastating, Saakashvili essentially resigned, called new elections, took a chance, and was reelected," Cornell continues. "And then after the war in 2008 he was written off. He adjusted, he adapted, and if you look at the opinion polls, he's never been as popular as he was a year and a half after the war."

Western Pressure

It is also likely that Saakashvili, who nurtured a close relationship with the United States during his tenure, may have been warned off further political adventurism. A number of State Department officials had stated explicitly in the weeks before the vote that the United States valued public will over political continuity. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the vote should be clean and fair and aimed at a "smooth" political transition following Saakashvili's presidential departure next year.

Within hours of Saakashvili's televised concession speech on October 2, the U.S. ambassador to Georgia, Richard Norland, congratulated him for "presiding over another important stage in the maturing of Georgia's democracy" and welcomed the "Georgian Dream's successful performance." Other Western officials, including NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, suggested before the elections that Georgia's long-sought NATO aspirations could be compromised by any hint of misconduct during the vote or an unseemly attempt by Saakashvili to cling to power.

With such conditions in place, it may have been inevitable that Saakashvili opted to withdraw, at least temporarily, from Georgia's national politics. Observers, acknowledging Saakashvili's bubbling energy, have suggested he may eventually accept an international post or return to government, perhaps as mayor of Tbilisi or governor of the autonomous Ajara region. "If he were to leave power now or very soon, I think the historical verdict on Saakashvili would be fairly kind," Caucasus expert Tom de Waal said shortly before the vote, pointing to the bold reforms of the president's early years, including a clean sweep of the nation's police ranks, a sharp reduction in official corruption, and steady improvements in education, foreign investment, and state-building. "He's been a transformational figure for Georgia, and everyday life there is in many ways a lot better now than when he came to power," de Waal says.

Can Opposition Rule?

Saakashvili's legacy may also profit from what comes next. With Georgia's first electorally determined political transition now secured, the question turns to whether United National Movement's replacement, Georgian Dream, can hold fast as a governing force. The six-party coalition, pieced together by Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, has remained united through an electoral season marked by fierce partisan rhetoric and a pressure campaign from Saakashvili's camp.

Ivanishvili, however, now faces the unenviable task of horse-trading for government posts among a motley assortment of nationalists, seasoned oppositionists, and ambitious pro-Western reformers who came up in the Saakashvili era.

Observers have suggested that Georgian Dream, held together by the temporary mortar of the 56-year-old Ivanishvili's considerable personal fortune, may crumble into the kind of legislative infighting that marked post-Orange Revolution Ukraine, once seated in parliament. Ivanishvili, who hopes to claim the prime minister's spot, has acknowledged the potential for fractiousness, but put a positive spin on his admission that his coalition could split into three or more party factions. "I've been trying from the very start to make sure that there is no one-party parliament," he said on October 2. "I'll be avoiding that in the future as well."

In a bit of political backbiting, Ivanishvili did call on Saakashvili to resign and call an early presidential election. But earlier, Ivanishvili appeared willing to pause and acknowledge his rival's role in getting him there. If not for Saakashvili's role in Georgia's history-making eight-year transformation, he suggested, this election might not have been possible.

"The Georgian people have shown their great culture, their great wisdom, and everything happened exactly as these people and this country needed," Ivanishvili said. "I think an interesting precedent happened in Georgian history today: For the first time in our long history we have changed our government through elections."



Copyright (c) 2012. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.


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