Georgia's Moment of Truth

The post-Soviet nation held a landmark parliamentary election this year, which saw the defeat of the country's long-tenured ruling party. Now for the hard part.

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Georgian tycoon and politician Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose party emerged victorious in Georgia's recent parliamentary elections, delivers a speech during first congress of newly established political party in Tbilisi on April 21, 2012. (David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters)

With the first-ever peaceful transfer of power through competitive and universally accepted elections, 2012 was a momentous year for Georgia.

And for this small and politically volatile South Caucasian nation of 4.7 million people, 2013 promises to be equally important.

When President Mikhail Saakashvili's United National Movement (ENM), the ruling party for nearly a decade, conceded defeat to billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream after October's parliamentary elections, it marked a historic development for a country that had previously only changed rulers through civil war and revolution.

Tornike Sharashenidze, a Tbilisi-based political analyst, says that "the main thing that will be remembered in Georgia's history [from 2012] is the systemic breakthrough -- the holding of peaceful elections, [the result of which] was acceptable to all sides and which brought about a change of government.

"Regardless whether these results are good or bad in themselves, this happened, and it is a positive thing for everybody. This is the main achievement," Sharashenidze adds.

Another Ukraine?

But the landmark election and transfer of power was just a first step, analysts say. As the new year approaches, several vital questions loom. Will Ivanishvili's government manage to successfully cohabitate with Saakashvili, who remains president until October 2013? Or will Georgia descend into the type of political chaos that plagued Ukraine after the 2004 Orange Revolution? How will the ENM adjust to being in the opposition? And will Georgian Dream succeed in strengthening the country's democratic institutions and in building a law-based state?

Political analyst Levan Tsutskiridze says the election campaign was "an extremely tense one, distinguished by a high level of confrontation and polarization. This, I think, once again illuminated the fact that Georgia's political system is still in need of significant development and sophistication. And on top of the system, the political culture and traditions in Georgia also need improvement."

Tsutskiridze adds that he is optimistic that the successful result of the elections themselves bodes well for the future development of the political system and culture.

The elections, however, left Georgia with an uneasy and entirely new cohabitation between Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream bloc, which controls the government and parliament, and Saakashvili's ENM, which -- in addition to controlling the presidency -- commands a strong faction in the new legislature.

Since Georgian Dream took over the government in October, a number of officials from the former government have been arrested on corruption charges and many others are under investigation. It remains unclear whether the cases represent political payback or if Georgian Dream is merely fulfilling its campaign pledges to crack down on corruption.

Thomas de Waal, a senior associate specializing in the Caucasus at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, says the challenge now facing Georgian Dream stems directly from the incomplete reform legacy inherited from Saakashvili.

"The problematic legacy that I see that the Saakashvili government left behind is that it did a lot in modernizing Georgia in a very impressive way, but in quite a technocratic way," De Waal says.

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