At a closed-door meeting on April 9, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili sharply criticized his ministers for alienating the general public. Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli later confirmed the tongue-lashing (Rustavi-2 TV, Imedi TV, April 11). Saakashvili had good reason to lecture the cabinet; the latest opinion polls have alarmed the ruling party.
A nationwide survey conducted in March by Georgian Opinion Research Business International (GORBI), the Georgian branch of Gallup International, revealed the population’s growing frustration with the government, including Saakashvili himself. The poll showed Saakashvili and his National Movement party atop the list of the country’s most popular political parties and leaders, drawing the support of slightly more than one-third of those surveyed. But the poll also revealed increased skepticism regarding Saakashvili’s policies.
According to the survey, 39% of respondents believe that Georgia is “developing in the wrong direction.” In a similar GORBI survey conducted in February 2004, shortly after Saakashvili’s presidential victory, 79% of respondents believed that Georgia under Saakashvili was “on the right path” (gorbi.com).
The March 2005 poll indicates that 37% of respondents think that the “life has improved” under Saakashvili’s governance, while 34% believe it has not and 29% are undecided. Some, 72% of respondents do not want to return to the type of governance seen under Saakashvili’s predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze.
Saakashvili remains Georgia’s unchallenged leader, with 38.2% support, a level that has dropped by 25% in the past six months. Although respondents saw no credible rival to Saakashvili, many opposition parties and leaders are steadily regaining their political strength.
Based on the poll’s finding, if parliamentary elections were held now, only the ruling National Movement (with 34.7%) and the opposition Labor Party (at 7. 2%) could clear the 7% electoral threshold. The opposition New Rights Party polled 4.3%, while the moderately opposition Conservative Party and Republican parties garnered 1.5% each. The pro-governmental “Ertoba” (Unity) registered only 1.3%. But 48% of respondents could not choose a favorite political party. In comparison with 2004, the number of active electors without a party preference has increased by 20%, according to GORBI.
Among individual political leaders, President Saakashvili (38.2%) and Parliament chair Nino Burjanadze (7.1%) have won the trust of the population. Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili comes third with 5.4%, followed by Jumber Patiashvili (Ertoba) at 1.6%; Koba Davitashvili (Conservatives) at 1.5%; Davit Gamkrelidze (New Rights) at 1.2%; and Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili at 1.1%. However, 40.6% of respondents remain undecided.
Among the politicians perceived as best able to fight the corruption that still plagues Georgia, Saakashvili (38%), Burjanadze (30%), and Okruashvili (24%) lead the list. They are followed by Davitashvili (11%), Gamkrelidze (10%), and Natelashvili (10%).
Jago Kachkachishvili, a professor of sociology at Tbilisi State University who led a university survey that yielded results similar to GORBI’s, explains that the population is still favorable toward the political leadership thanks to its deep reservoir of popular trust, Saakashvili’s personal charisma, and the weakness of the opposition, which has yet to produce a trustworthy alternative (Akhali, 7 Dge, April 8-14).
However, changing conditions are slowly swaying some voters toward the opposition. Accumulating social problems, mass downsizing without severance benefits at state-funded organizations (reportedly some 50,000 people have lost their jobs), protest rallies by various interest groups, frequent violations of law and human rights, and the protracted energy crisis have shifted part of the electorate to the opposition forces.
Some analysts tend to consider the latest protest actions to be more an attempt to draw government attention toward the unresolved problems than an effort to confront the government. Political analyst Ramaz Sakvarelidze, a member of Saakashvili’s advisory council, argues that unlike the protests that led to the Rose Revolution, current anti-government actions lack trustworthy leaders (Resonance, March 7). Ghia Nodia, chair of the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy, and Development, says that that the opposition has the potential to become an alternative political force, although the lack of a clear public message hinders this process. He says that popular discontent alone is not sufficient to form a viable opposition (Alia, March 31).
However, other analysts think that increasing social protests “supported” by foreign [read Russian] special services might spawn a mass anti-governmental movement capable of ousting Saakashvili.
Based on his own research that shows Labor polling 21% of supporters compared to 11% for the ruling National Movement, Labor Party leader Natelashvili claims that most of the Georgian population is “aggressively against” Saakashvili’s regime. He argues that “social demands will [eventually] turn political and then political leaders must come to the forefront” (Resonance, March 15).
While Saakashvili and his cadres are trying to put a good face on things and blame legacies of the Shevardnadze era for current problems, some members of the ruling party take a more sober view. David Zurabishvili, deputy leader of the ruling party’s parliamentary majority, argues that the authorities must go and talk with the protesters, even those making unacceptable demands, in order to avoid the mistakes made by the previous government (24 Saati, March 23). Nugzar Mgeladze, another parliamentarian, argues that launching a flurry of necessary but painful reforms simultaneously was not a wise step. If the severe social problems are not resolved soon, the ruling party might lose power, he warned (Akhali Taoba, March 31).
Political life in Georgia is becoming distinguished by the multiplication of opposition movements of many stripes. Two large civic opposition movements, “Forward Georgia” and the “Public Forum for Welfare and Democracy,” have emerged in the last four months. Increasingly, such opposition groups are calling on their colleagues to coordinate their efforts.