Call for Saakashvili to quit after poll defeat
BILLIONAIRE GEORGIAN opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili has urged president Mikheil Saakashvili to resign after his party unexpectedly lost parliamentary elections to a coalition of the tycoon’s supporters.
Mr Saakashvili admitted defeat for his United National Movement (UNM) yesterday, surprising many Georgian and international observers and paving the way for a peaceful transfer of power in a politically divided state that is the West’s main ally in the strategic Caucasus region.
He and party officials had confidently predicted after voting ended on Sunday that the UNM would prevail once final results were announced, stoking fears of unrest as Mr Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream alliance claimed victory based on favourable exit polls. Mr Saakashvili (44) said in a dramatic television address that “it is obvious that the coalition Georgian Dream has gained an advantage in these elections”.
“You know well that the views of this coalition were and still are fundamentally unacceptable for me . . . but democracy works in a way that Georgian people make decisions by majority.”
He said the UNM would go into opposition to “struggle for everything that has been created in recent years in terms of the fight against corruption, crime, in terms of Georgia’s modernisation, the building of new institutions.”
Mr Saakashvili is expected to remain president until he reaches the end of his two-term limit next autumn, and he must now nominate a new prime minister.
Mr Ivanishvili (56) wants to become premier, but first he must regain the Georgian citizenship that a court controversially stripped from him because he also has a French passport. The tycoon called the court ruling an act of political revenge by Mr Saakashvili, and he was also fined tens of millions of euro for alleged irregularities during a poisonous election campaign that saw the UNM and Georgian Dream trade lurid accusations.
The government appears to have been badly damaged by footage showing prison guards beating and sexually assaulting inmates – grim scenes that lent weight to opposition claims that Mr Saakashvili’s new Georgia was still rotten at heart.
“The only right step for him now is to resign and call presidential elections,” Mr Ivanishvili said yesterday. “As soon as he resigns and a new president is elected according to new rules, then everything will be normalised.”
Mr Ivanishvili – who lives in a space-age mansion overlooking Tbilisi, keeps penguins, flamingos and zebras at his Black Sea summer residence and owns art by the likes of Pablo Picasso and Damien Hirst – said he would not seek to settle scores.
“There will be no political retribution against those with different positions to us. But where any criminal offence has been committed, we will seek justice for the people of this country.”
Mr Ivanishvili also vowed to continue the westward thrust of the outgoing government’s foreign policy, but to combine it with moves to improve relations with Russia – the country where he made his fortune in banking, and which crushed Georgia in a brief 2008 war. “We will continue to strive towards Nato and the EU, we will not change our strategy. But we also have a big desire to improve relations with Russia,” he said.
“Doing that will be difficult but not impossible. Saakashvili irritated Russia, he was like a torero waving a red rag at a bull.”
Mr Saakashvili claims Mr Ivanishvili’s coalition will restore the influence of Moscow and mafia groups over Georgia, and reverse the modernisation work he has done since coming to power through the 2003 Rose Revolution. Georgian Dream rejects those claims but does want to re-engage with Moscow, which has recognised the independence of two rebel regions of Georgia and stationed thousands of troops in them.
Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev said he welcomed an election result that “probably means that more constructive and responsible forces will appear in parliament”.
The EU pledged to continue its support for Georgia and international monitors gave the election broad approval, despite numerous shortcomings. “It’s a monumental development,” said Lawrence Sheets of the International Crisis Group, about prospects for a smooth transfer of power.