Will the Georgian Opposition Unite Before the Presidential Elections?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 39

Former president of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili

Former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, who lives in the Netherlands after having been expelled from Ukraine, recently addressed the Georgian opposition. Saakashvili encouraged his party United National Movement (UNM), which he still chairs, to unite with other pro-Western parties and put forward a “single candidate” in the presidential election, which will be held in October (Interpressnews.ge, February 10).

Saakashvili proposed that the opposition hold inter-party primaries to select a single candidate. The former Georgian president also does not exclude cooperation with those of his colleagues who left UNM after the 2016 parliamentary elections. Some of them, including the former speaker of the parliament David Bakradze, former Tbilisi mayor Gigi Ugulava, former secretary of the National Security Council Giga Bokeria, and the majority of the members of the UNM political council, have accused Saakashvili of authoritarianism and created a new party—European Georgia (EG).

One year earlier, their breakup resulted in the former president taking the post of the governor of Odesa province, in Ukraine, and adopting Ukrainian citizenship, losing his Georgian citizenship. “Saakashvili wanted to play the role of the ‘president’ of Odesa and create the illusion of power; but in Odesa, he directed only firefighters,” commented Gigi Ugulava over a year ago (Author’s interview, January 15, 2017). In response, Saakashvili accused his former party members of conspiracy with billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is considered to be the informal leader of the ruling party Georgian Dream.

Calling all pro-Western parties to unite, the former president remarked—after having brought up European Georgia—that he would exclude from a possible agreement those who “received money from Ivanishvili.” Saakashvili did not accuse anybody in particular of political corruption. He only noted that he did not mean all members of EG.

Based on the results of the municipal elections on October 21, Georgia has two main opposition parties: UNM and EG. Their electoral resources far exceed the capabilities of all other pro-Western opposition forces. Therefore, the position of the European Georgia party is of primary interest. One of its leaders, David Darchiashvili, said that he had nothing against unification, but would only consider it for the second round of the presidential elections: “Let all the opposition candidates in the first round act separately. In the second round, we will be ready to support the candidate of the pro-Western forces, including the candidate of UNM, if he becomes the leader among all the oppositionists and makes it to the second round.” At the same time, Darchiashvili expressed bewilderment that Saakashvili “on the one hand, calls for unification, and on the other, accuses the EG leaders of receiving money from the billionaire Ivanishvili” (Author’s interview, March 10, 2018).

Salome Samadashvili, a member of parliament from Mikheil Saakashvili’s party and the former representative of Georgia to the European Union, admitted that there were no internal party consultations on the primaries. However, according to her, “The only opportunity for the opposition to create serious problems for the ruling party is to nominate a single opposition candidate already in the first and not in the second round.” She added: “The idea of ​​primaries is a very good one. We must try to unite all parties that support Georgia’s integration into the Euro-Atlantic community” (Author’s interview, March 10).

The leaders of other pro-Western parties were skeptical about Saakashvili’s initiative. The founder of the Republican Party of Georgia, Levan Berdzenishvili said that he considered the UNM leader’s proposal only a “political technology.” “Saakashvili is no longer an actual political figure in Georgia, he is even less popular today than he was as president, and he wants to divide the opposition into ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ But after disrupting the deal, he will blame everyone who disagrees with him of corruption and expose himself as not an honest broker,” Berdzenishvili declared (Author’s interview, March 10).

Meanwhile, the ruling party Georgian Dream remains calm. The head of the Parliamentary Committee on Defense and Security, Irakli Sesiashvili, informed that his party had not yet started formal consultations on nominating its candidate, although different opinions are expressed within the party. “For us, the main thing is to focus on solving the actual problems of the country. We do not live on the ‘agenda’ of Mikheil Saakashvili. This is their problem and not ours. Our party has its own agenda that we are implementing,” Sesiashvili stressed (Author’s interview, March 10).

Several independent experts doubt both the realism and the effectiveness of Saakashvili’s initiative. Political scientist Iosif Tsiskarishvili reminded that more than 240 parties are registered in Georgia. “There have been talks about nominating a single candidate before, but Georgian politicians are too individualistic and their personal and party interests are too important for them,” the political scientist believes (Author’s interview, March 10).

As for the primaries, expert Ramaz Sakvarelidze recalled that UNM already has experience with holding primaries for the nomination of candidates for the presidential elections of 2013. “But it was intra-party primaries, not inter-party. I do not know of any cases in the modern world when several different parties hold primaries to identify a single presidential candidate,” Sakvarelidze said (Author’s interview, March 10).

While inviting pro-Western parties to hold primaries and nominate a single candidate, Saakashvili excluded from the possible deal the “pro-Russian parties,” such as the Democratic Movement–United Georgia, led by former speaker of Parliament Nino Burjanadze, and the Alliance of Patriots.

Nino Burjanadze met with Vladimir Putin several times and advocates for a compromise with Moscow. Burjanadze underlined her desire to participate in the presidential race and does not hide the belief that it is she, and not any representative of the pro-Western parties, who will be able to compete with the candidate of the ruling party Georgian Dream.