Gracious in defeat
THE REAL prospect of a peaceful transfer of power in Georgia, its first since the country of 4.5 million broke from the Soviet Union in 1991, is pleasantly surprising observers of its deeply divided politics. Both predecessors of incumbent President Mikheil Saakashvili, Zviad Gamsakhurdia and Eduard Shevardnadze, departed office in chaotic circumstances, hoping to avoid civil unrest. And the president’s confrontational style and repeated breaches of human rights – a prison torture scandal dominated the election – has suggested a perhaps halfhearted commitment to democratic values.
But Saakashvili’s prompt acknowledgment of the defeat of his party, the United National Movement (UNM), in the country’s parliamentary elections – “democracy works in this way: the Georgian people make decisions by majority. That’s what we, of course, respect very much” – should pave the way for what the French call cohabitation, a president and prime minister of sharply different persuasions sharing power until the presidential elections next year. In theory.
How harmonious that will be depends on whether the election’s winner, the largely unknown billionaire philanthropist Bidzina Ivanishvili, is able to demonstrate a similar generosity of spirit. His initial grudging response to the concession of his rival, whom he has been describing as a dictator, did not bode well. Saakashvili also warned that some of the views of the latter’s six-party coalition, Georgian Dream, were “fundamentally unacceptable” and he warned of “very deep differences”.
For the international community what matters most about the election result in this geostrategically important country, a crossroads at Asia’s gate between Iran, Turkey, and Russia, and a key conduit for Caspian basin oil and gas exports, is whether Saakashvili’s strongly pro-western, specifically pro-US, stance is maintained. Ivanishvili, who made much of his €4.5 billion fortune in Russia, promises to repair the breach with Moscow that followed the disastrous five-day war in 2008. But he is not proposing a fundamental shift. “We’ll do our best to sort out relations with Russia,” he told reporters, but “our main aspiration is Europe and our security is Nato.” Georgia, like Ireland, already participates in the Nato Partnership for Peace programme, but any move to full Nato membership will further antagonise Russia which, since 2008, effectively controls the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Moscow has cautiously welcomed not so much the result, as the defeat of its bête noir, Saakashvili.