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Changes ahead in Georgia

In a remarkably low-key election, voters have handed the presidency to Georgi Margvelashvili of the ruling Georgian Dream party. Margvelashvili, a low-profile cabinet minister, was the Prime Minister's favored candidate.

The Georgian presidential election was devoid of the drama and intrigue that usually colors power politics in the Caucasus.

International observers praised the lack of polarization during the campaign. “This clean election shows that Georgia's democracy is maturing,” João Soares, head of the OSCE's election monitoring mission, told reporters.

However, election turnout was just 46.6 percent, down from nearly 60 percent during last year's parliamentary elections. This reflected the lack of enthusiasm many Georgians felt about the race.

Constitutional changes

Georgia's Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili (R) hugs presidential candidate Georgy Margvelashvili (C) REUTERS/Grigory Dukor

Georgi Margvelashvili (middle) was hand-picked by Prime Minister Ivanishvili (right)

Margvelashvili took more than 62 percent of the votes that were cast, easily avoiding a second round.

But the 44-year-old former mountain guide, who only recently became a household name, will have much less power than his predecessor. Outgoing president Mikhail Saakashvili introduced constitutional changes that have transferred most of the executive power to the prime minister.

“The presidential post has been devalued to a such an extent that it did not even make a fundamental difference who took it,” complained George Mirashvili, 31, who opted to watch an English football match in a Tbilisi pub rather than cast his vote.

Saakashvili was ineligible to run for a third term, and had been trying to carve out a niche for himself in the Georgian parliament. However, his efforts were frustrated by last year's historic defeat of his United National Movement party in the October election that catapulted Georgia's richest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili, to power as the new prime minister.

Now Georgia is entering a new era under philanthropist-turned-statesman Ivanishvili, as the 10-year rule of pro-Western firebrand Saakashvili comes to an end.

Champion reformer

Saakashvili, a flamboyant, US-educated lawyer, came to power at the age of 36 in the non-violent, populist Rose Revolution of 2003. He initially made his mark as a reformer, stamping out low-level corruption and modernizing the country, before leading it into a disastrous five-day war with Russia.

The outgoing president's legacy is certainly mixed.

Bidzina Ivanishvili (Photo: Georgy Abdaladze/AP/dapd)

Billionaire prime minster Bidzina Ivanishvili may be moving on

“Saakashvili was criticized a lot for not being a perfect democrat,” says political analyst Ghia Nodia, who in 2008 briefly served in Saakashvili's cabinet as Education and Science Minister. “But if we have a balance sheet with regard to democracy, it's still rather more positive than negative.”

Even though the election itself was low-key, many twists and turns still lie ahead. The Ivanishvili government has been busy prosecuting and jailing former ministers from Saakashvili's administration.

As election results were being confirmed on Monday, the local media announced that former defense minister and ex-prison chief Bacho Akhalaia had been sentenced to three years and nine months in jail for the inhumane treatment of prisoners during a prison riot in 2006. He is just one of several members of Saakashvili's inner circle to face prosecution.

Future in question

The prime minister has not even ruled out prosecuting Saakashvili himself. Last week, Georgian television showed images of the outgoing president packing cardboard boxes in preparation for his move from the hilltop presidential palace to a modest second-story apartment in central Tbilisi. His future as an opposition figure in his United National Movement party is also in question.

Supporters of an opposition Georgian Dream coalition celebrate - REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili

OSCE observers praised the way the election was conducted

But even as Ivanishvili's Georgia Dream party cements its hold on political power, some surprises could still lie ahead. When the eccentric billionaire entered politics in 2011, he vowed to stay in power only on a temporary basis. He says that this has now been accomplished, and he's ready to step aside. “I've done what I had to do,” he told Reuters last Friday.

But if he does step down, who will inherit the country's top post? So far Ivanishvili has only indicated that it will be someone from the inner circle, whom he intends to name by next Saturday.

“It will be a member of the cabinet, one of the ministers, a member of our team,” he said.

That leaves Georgia in the bizarre situation of not knowing who will actually run the country, says political analyst Ghia Nodia. Ivanishvili, he notes, has surrounded himself with relatively weak political players whom he may continue to manipulate as a private citizen with billions of dollars at his disposal.

“We don't know how legitimate this prime minister will be, or how much real power he will have,” Nodia said. “So the danger is that we will have some kind of de facto rule-maker and person-in-charge, who will rule Georgia - or try to rule Georgia, at least - from his personal house on the top of the hill.”

Challenges remain

But not everyone is pessimistic. After casting his ballot for the United National Movement - because, he said, the country needs a strong opposition - 33-year-old voter Lasha Jugheli commented that citizens will need to stay engaged to keep the current government from overreaching. “We're entering into a new constitutional reality, and this will be another test for this country,” said Jugheli, speaking outside a polling station in central Tbilisi.

Voting booths in Georgia EPA/ZURAB KURTSIKIDZE (c) dpa - Bildfunk

Voter turnout was down from the previous presidential election

Challenges remain for this small nation. Even as relations with Russia improve, Georgia is still laying claim to the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia - recognized as independent states by Moscow – as well as steering a faltering economy.

Economic inequality in the face of rapid development helped fuel widespread dissatisfaction with Saakashvili's government, and unless the current government makes real deliveries for ordinary Georgians, its popularity will inevitably plummet.

“The main source of Ivanishvili's popularity is the declining popularity of Saakashvili and UNM in general,” says Nodia. However, he fears that the Prime Minister's early departure could destabilize the country.

“If Ivanishvili really pulls out, if he really gets sick and tired of politics, I think there's a very slim chance that this coalition can stay together,” he warns.

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