On November 30, the Political Council of Georgia’s former ruling party, the United National Movement (UNM) decided, after intense internal debate, that it would hold a much larger congress on January 20, 2017, than initially proposed—instead of 2,000 delegates as suggested by some party leaders, the UNM will invite 7,000 delegates from all over the country (Voice of Abkhazia, November 30).
Normally, the size of a routine party congress should not be a major debating issue. In UNM’s case, however, it certainly is, as it is directly related to the question of selecting the future leader and direction of the party. Specifically, the party’s formal leader, former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has been facing a challenge to his leadership since he went into a self-imposed exile first in the US and then in Ukraine in 2013. His absence created a power vacuum within the party. Following UNM’s disastrous defeat in the October 2016 parliamentary elections (EDM, October 11, November 2), the challenge to Saakashvili’s leadership intensified (EDM, November 16). Among his main challengers are some of his close associates and party leaders such as Giga Bokeria, the former Secretary of the National Security Council in 2010–2013; Bokeria’s wife Tamar Chergoleishvili, is the owner of Tabula TV; and David Bakradze, is the former Speaker of the Parliament from 2008–2012.
Saakashvili’s challengers sought to hold a congress with a smaller number of delegates, believing that it would give them a greater chance to influence it and secure the ouster of Saakashvili and the election of a new leader, supposedly, former Speaker David Bakradze (Netgazeti.ge, November 30). The other option, holding a congress with a much larger number of delegates would require the inclusion of delegates from the country’s regions, where Saakashvili has stronger support. Hence, UNM’s anti-Saakashvili faction would have a much harder time ousting him. Consequently, the question of the size of the congress became a hotly debated issue, prompting pro-Saakashvili UNM activists to launch a social media campaign in order to garner enough signatures to push for a larger congress in January 2017.
Evidently, the UNM is undergoing fierce infighting. As the anti-Saakashvili faction states, UNM needs a new leader to secure its future as a successful party (Tabula.ge, November 30). But this group is certainly not motivated merely by the altruistic goal of saving the party’s future—it is seeking to take over the steering wheel of the UNM. However, the goals and motivations of the pro-Saakashvili faction are also puzzling. As the former president’s supporters declare, a potential ouster of Saakashvili would mean suicide for the party, since UNM is Saakashvili’s creation, and hence, it cannot exist without him (Civil.ge, Geonews.ge, December 1). Such an argument raises the question whether Saakashvili’s supporters imply that the UNM would disappear if its founder and current leader were replaced. After all, the success of any organization and institution is judged by its ability to outlive its founder. The ability to transfer power, peacefully and calmly, is the first sign of the health of any organization.
Moreover, can Saakashvili, who is an opposition leader in Ukraine, be also an opposition leader in Georgia? It seems like a political anomaly with no precedent in the modern political world, not to mention the enormous logistical problems of managing two opposition parties in two different countries, located hundreds of miles apart. Saakashvili’s UNM supporters certainly do not seem to be concerned about either of these issues.
For now, it appears that the pro-Saakashvili faction within UNM has won, securing a larger congress in January. Most likely, this congress will also secure the reelection of Saakashvili as party leader, since most delegates from the regions strongly support him. However, this may be a Pyrrhic victory. Specifically, the November vote on the size of the upcoming congress once again revealed the deep rift within the party. Most senior members of the UNM—Giga Bokeria, David Bakradze, Givi Targamadze, Goka Gabashvili, Mikhail Machavariani, Sergo Ratiani, Zurab Chiaberashvili, and others—voted for a smaller congress, hence, for the possibility of Saakashvili’s ouster (Facebook, November 30). If Saakashvili is reelected as party chairman in January, it is highly unlikely that this group of prominent party members will remain in the organization. In all probability, they may split to form their own political party. Their departure would decimate the UNM, as they represent the UNM’s key intellectual and administrative resource. Even if they stay with the UNM, the rift is already too wide and too severe for the party to continue normal operation as an opposition force.
The UNM’s existence as a united political party is under question. The next few months will make the picture clearer, but at this point, it is safe to say that the UNM will no longer be the same party. This will have far-reaching repercussions for Georgian politics, which has already changed significantly as a result of the October 2016 elections.