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."

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