Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Georgian Splits and Struggles
Georgian Splits and Struggles

Georgian Splits and Struggles

In Gore Vidal’s stage play turned film, The Best Man, President Art Hockstader says, “Power is not a toy we give to good children. It is a weapon. And the strong man takes it and uses it.” The struggles of Georgia’s enduring political rivals to acquire and to hold power, whether it is former President Misha Saakashvili and his former United National Movement (UNM) compatriots or the minions of former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili in media and government, continue to call into question how the use of their “weapons” will impact the nation(s) they seek to govern.

Saakashvili has led his party to four successive electoral losses since 2012, and despite now seeking electoral success in Ukraine, he refuses to take responsibility for either his decidedly mixed legacy of governance or the reality that he chose to forgo his Georgian citizenship by seeking to serve in another nation’s government. Instead of allowing others to take over the party, Saakashvili has chosen to re-cast his party as a grassroots organization, in which allegiance to his legacy is prioritized over loyalty to “usurpers.” In doing so, he has likely doomed any chance for the UNM to define which elements of his legacy it will embrace going forward and which ones it will discard to re-brand itself in the eyes of the public. Saakashvili’s careening pursuit of relevance, if not power, in both Georgia and Ukraine, epitomizes the perspective of President Hockstader that “in politics … there are no ends . . . only means.”

Now, 20 of the 27 members of parliament elected as part of a two-party bloc with UNM in 2016 have chosen to leave the party and re-organize themselves within the bloc partner, European Georgia. The bloc qualified for state funding that will now be split evenly between the two parties. But European Georgia will have to spend its funding on rebuilding the bureaucracy necessary to run nationwide campaigns while maintaining a decidedly capital-centric leadership. Former Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, after languishing in prison for more than two years, chose to stay in Georgia while Saakashvili fled. He was released in advance of the Saakashvili-planned UNM convention on January 20. His release served as the final straw for the breakaway faction and is the new party’s best known figure. Former Parliament Speaker and 2013 presidential candidate Davit Bakradze and former National Security Adviser Giga Bokeria complete European Georgia’s governing triumvirate. The party will offer a pro-West alternative that isn’t led by Saakashvili, but it may suffer from the fact that Ugulava is a convicted former officeholder and that Bokeria has consistently been one of the most unpopular political figures in Georgia. There is also the inevitable UNM messaging that claims European Georgia is just the latest effort by Ivanishvili to promote dissension. Three former UNM MPs left to form two parties prior to the 2016 elections, but flamed out as part of the debacle which engulfed millionaire Paata Burchuladze’s failed State for People bloc, amidst accusations by Burchuladze that the former UNM MPs were funded and directed by Ivanishvili.

European Georgia faces an uphill struggle to transcend the underfunded, Tbilisi-centric limitations of previous opposition parties in competing with a constitutional majority ruling party. Other parties made up of former UNM leaders across the political spectrum, such as the pro-Russian Democratic Movement United Georgia of former Parliament Chair and interim President Nino Burjanadze and the pro-Western Free Democrats of former United Nations Ambassador Irakli Alasania, have thus far failed to sustain popular support. European Georgia’s grassroots potential is further undermined by Saakashvili’s support among UNM’s activist base, especially among the newer leaders of women’s and youth organizations, which remains fervent—although some activist leaders claim they know Misha is a deeply flawed leader.

Saakashvili, who built his reputation upon opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the oligarch Ivanishvili, has swiftly shifted over the past two years from serving in the government of Ukrainian oligarch and President Petro Poroshenko to aligning himself with Poroshenko’s opponents. At the same time, he is seeking to portray his relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump, an avowed Putin admirer, as a positive in addressing Ukraine’s ongoing struggle with Russia. He developed a relationship with Trump in the lead up to a failed 2012 development project in the Georgian Black Sea city of Batumi. His rival Ivanishvili denounced the project following the 2012 election, and then he re-assessed his position after Trump’s election in 2016. Trump ended up cancelling the project at the end of the year.[1] Consistency has not been a hallmark among any of these players; instead, they have increasingly chosen to be transactional in their respective approaches to governance. In “The Best Man,” President Hockstader could have just as easily been referring to the new U.S. President and Black Sea politics when he notes, “Time was, when you rich boys liked to play games like polo. Now you play politics.”

Despite the likelihood that Saakashvili will continue to prevent their chances of returning to power, the UNM still retains a national constituency. While the party hasn’t won in the past three elections since 2012, it has received approximately 22%, 22%, and 27% of the vote respectively. It is not unreasonable to assume that many, if not most, of those votes would remain with the UNM due to its branding as the most anti-Ivanishvili party. There is no survey research that can definitively establish the basis for UNM’s increase in the most recent parliamentary elections. One possible scenario is that their margin increased due to dissatisfaction with Georgian Dream governance, and it may have been even greater if Saakashvili had not hijacked the campaign narrative and turned the election into a referendum on his implied assertion that a UNM victory would mean his return to power.

While there will be municipal elections in 2017, given the level of organizational infrastructure, funding, and candidate recruitment necessary for success, a national campaign for president in 2018 would be the best way for a new, under-funded, pro-Western party, like European Georgia, to develop. However, this is unlikely given that the Georgian Dream has expressed support for eliminating the popularly elected position of the president in favor of one elected by parliament. Another significant hurdle for competitive challenges to Ivanishvili’s government is the current media landscape.

Rustavi-2, a popular television channel in Georgia, has been struggling since August 2015 in the courts over the question of whether or not the brother of a Georgian Dream MP is the true owner. Having had its assets frozen by a court decision, the Court may restart its deliberations, thereby prolonging the strain on Rustavi-2 finances and increasing the prospect of financial ruin before a final judicial determination is made. This potential outcome would absolve the Georgian Dream government and/or judges of any responsibility for a fundamental decline in the diversity of viewpoints that Georgia has benefited from in international assessments of its media freedom. The stage increasingly appears to be set for a greater level of single-party (Georgian Dream) television dominance and an increasing number of anti-Western perspectives than ever existed during the Saakashvili era.[2] For those who would argue that the only editorially pro-European Georgia outlet, Tabula (led by Bokeria’s spouse, Tamar Chergoleishvili), would also be a competitor within these developments, it has suspended its broadcasting for lack of funds and exists only online, a growing but not primary medium[3] for Georgian news consumption.

Amidst all of these changes in opposition politics and media outlets, the Georgian Dream government has reaffirmed its Western aspirations in a rare instance of bi-partisan legislative achievement. Yet, the lack of any significant capacity for institutional oversight or meaningful opposition beyond President Margvelashvili’s veto (which can be overridden) has provided the government with ample opportunities for both the ridiculous and the disconcerting. Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili recently declared that the alleged denial of entry into nightclubs of Georgian men was a violation of the anti-discrimination legislation and gender equality goals before correcting himself to say that what he really meant was that the presence of Georgian men in these nightclubs would be a deterrent to prostitution. On the same day, Energy Minister Kakha Kaladze announced that Georgia would fundamentally change a key element of its energy independence policy and acquiesce to a deal proposed by Russia’s Gazprom, identical to one it rejected a year ago,. This news was met with strong criticism from civil society, the opposition, and President Margvelashvili, which has nevertheless been insufficient for getting the government to disclose essential details of the agreement.

Saakashvili’s resistance to choosing which country to serve, Ivanishvili’s continuing influence within the government and media, and Russia’s increasing political assets in Georgia are important political factors to watch in the coming years. Georgian politics are beset by political players who all seek to wield power without taking responsibility for themselves with the public. As Henry Fonda’s leading presidential aspirant in “The Best Man,” William Russell, opined, “no sense of responsibility towards anyone or anything …. is a tragedy in a man, and a disaster in [governance].” This is a mutual reality that Georgia and the United States, with the ascension of President Donald Trump, may face for the foreseeable future.


[1] The announcement of the Trump Tower came in the run-up to parliamentary elections in 2012, which Saakashvili’s party lost to former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition. Ivanishvili, who remains a powerful figure, expressed contempt for Trump and the project. “Trump did not invest in Georgia,” he told reporters in 2012. “It was kind of like a trick. They gave him money and they both played along, Saakashvili and Trump. And, as you know, Saakashvili was the master of lies. I don’t know what project this is, I’ve never been seriously interested. We won’t do anything based on such fairy tales.”

[2] See: the impending consolidation of pro-Georgian Dream television stations (Maestro and the Ivanishvili owned GDS) under the leadership of Rustavi-2’s primary rival, Imedi; the helm of the Georgian Public Broadcaster channel being assumed by a former Ivanishvili talk show producer on GDS; and the emergence of new, separate, pro-Ivanishvili (Pirveli TV) and pro-Russian stations led by Ivanishvili’s Alliance of Patriots allies (Zaza Okuashvili’s Iberia TV, in addition to Irma Inashvili’s Obieqtivi); as well as another (Tbilisi 24) featuring pro-Ivanishvili and pro-Russian partisan, 2012 prison scandal “whistleblower” and participant, Davit Bedukadze.

[3] Television remained the main source of information about parties and candidates for 73% of respondents, followed by internet – 6%.