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."