The End of United National Movement’s Rule in Georgia: What Now?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 3

President Mikheil Saakashvili with Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili (Source: Vestnik Kavkaza)

The year 2012 will be remembered in modern Georgian history as the period when the unchallenged, almost nine-year rule of President Mikheil Saakashvili and his United National Movement (UNM) ended, at least for now. Regardless of Saakashvili’s successes with providing public goods and fighting against petty corruption and crime, his rule was increasingly unpopular because of what many in the electorate viewed as its arrogance, authoritarian style, power abuses, high government corruption, patronage networks and pervasive poverty in the country.

Many Georgians hoped, but only few really believed, that Saakashvili’s unchallenged rule would end, especially in 2012 and above all peacefully via parliamentary elections. Saakashvili and his regime had an aura of political invincibility, the widely spread perception in the ruling regime and the Georgian public alike after Saakashvili’s regime survived the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008 as well as the mass public protests in 2007–2008 and 2009. Many were sure that Saakashvili—a ruthless, energetic and skilled political operator—would not give up power easily even if retaining it involved using violence.

For all of 2012, Saakashvili battled hard against the main opposition force—the Georgian Dream (GD) coalition, led by the Russian-made Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili whose net worth is $6.4 billion (see EDM, March 13, 2012). Saakashvili did everything he could. He refused to grant Ivanishvili dual Georgian citizenship. For allegedly violating highly controversial political party funding regulations, the GD was repeatedly fined and Ivanishvili’s assets were regularly seized, totaling tens of millions of US dollars. The arrests of opposition activists, as well as forced layoffs of public employees whose family members supported the opposition, were widespread. There were frequent violent clashes between the opposition and government supporters. The government-controlled TV channels intensively attacked the opposition, trying to discredit it, while the pro-opposition TV channels regularly attacked the government.

The bitter power struggle, which dominated the entire year, reached a climax in the second half of September, just 12 days before the October 1 parliamentary election. Graphic video images of inmate abuses by the prison guards at Gldani prison, including raping with broom handles and police batons as well as the beating of inmates, shocked the Georgian public, which already openly discussed widespread abuses in Saakashvili’s prisons. The Gldani prison scandal shook Saakashvili’s regime to its foundation.

The October 1 parliamentary election ended what was allegedly the dirtiest political campaign in modern Georgian history. Saakashvili’s UNM lost the election, receiving 40.34 percent of the national vote and 65 out of a total 150 seats in parliament, while the GD garnered 54.97 percent of the votes and 85 seats. Saakashvili realized that he lost badly and acknowledged his party’s defeat, declaring that the UNM would move to the opposition. Clearly seeing the public disapproval of his regime, Saakashvili withdrew into the background, allowing the victorious GD to form the government and set the policy agenda, thus paving the way for the first peaceful transfer of power in the history of post-Soviet, independent Georgia. Although constitutionally Saakashvili still retains immense powers (such as the right to appoint the prime minister; approve the prime minister’s cabinet appointments; appoint regional governors; dismiss a government; dismiss the ministers of defense, interior, justice, and the army chief of staff; disband the parliament six months after an election; veto or sign laws, etc.), his influence on Georgian politics has declined dramatically since October.

Georgia, for the first time in its history, has entered a period of political cohabitation between the president and prime minister. So far this cohabitation has been very uneasy; the Ivanishvili government’s arrests of Saakashvili-era high ranking government officials on charges of abuse of power and corruption, as well as some policy changes, pitted the government and the president against each other.

Several trends became clear in 2012 and allow one to make predictions about possible political developments in 2013. The eclectic GD coalition, now in power, may actually disintegrate entirely in 2013 or at least begin the fragmentation process over the course of the next 12 months. However, the coalition will likely also realize that its fragmentation would help the UNM, now opposition, to attempt its return to power. Therefore, the GD will attempt to remain together, at least until the 2013 presidential election is over, to ensure a victory for a unified GD candidate over the UNM candidate (whoever he will be). The UNM itself, however, has already shown signs of fragmentation as some of its members defected. This process may accelerate in 2013.

The new government is likely to continue its rapprochement with Moscow, gradually shifting Georgia’s geopolitical orientation toward Russia and conceding more and more to the Kremlin as it has already done (see, EDM, November 13, 2012). Many in Georgia already perceive the new government as outright pro-Russian and blame Saakashvili and his regime’s alleged abuse of power and high government corruption as the main reasons for widespread public disappointment, which eventually delivered the electoral victory to pro-Moscow political forces.

Public disappointment with the Ivanishvili-led government will certainly grow in 2013, especially in the face of unrealistic pre-election promises that the GD made. Such promises included dramatic raises in public employees’ salaries and pensions and reducing utility prices. None of these happened nearly on the scale promised. The government may find itself in greater trouble if massive joblessness and poverty are not reduced or overall socioeconomic conditions worsen even more.

If the GD disintegrates and public disappointment against the new government grows, the UNM may find it easier to attack the ruling coalition. If things go badly for the GD, there is a possibility that President Saakashvili will disband the GD-dominated parliament while he is still in office. However, it is highly unlikely that the UNM will recapture power in 2013, or any time soon after that. Anti-UNM sentiments in Georgia are merely too strong.