Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili confounded his critics, won a place in history and preserved his political future. All this was achieved on October 2 when he admitted that his United National Movement had been defeated in the parliamentary elections.
Saakashvili’s critics at home, and especially those in Moscow, predicted that he would never concede defeat and that he would do anything and everything possible, including cancelling the election results and arresting his opponents, to keep his party in power. However, OSCE and Council of Europe observers, and the winners themselves – the “Georgian Dream” coalition headed by Georgia’s richest man Bidzina Ivanishvili – have all admitted that, although irregularities did take place, the poll was free and fair.
Saakashvili’s announcement is significant, because under the constitutional reforms promulgated in 2010, the president loses most of his executive powers in October 2013, when Saakashvili steps down as head of state. These powers will pass to the prime minister, who is appointed by the parliamentary majority – which means it is Mr Ivanishvili who will be driving Georgian policy soon. That is, provided his “Georgian Dream” coalition of a dozen parties is still extant in a year’s time.
Russia’s official position was expressed not by President Vladimir Putin, but by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. It was in 2008, on his watch as president, that Russia went to war with Georgia, effectively annexing the formerly autonomous Georgian areas of Abkhazia and South Ossetia recognizing their independence as sovereign states.
Medvedev said that Georgian society “evidently wanted change” and expressed hope that “more responsible and constructive forces” will shape policies in Tbilisi. Soon we’ll probably have a better idea of what he means.
Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia in the murky 1990s is dogged by his opponents’ accusations that he is the Kremlin’s Trojan horse in Georgia. He vehemently denies this, repeating time and time again that he supports and will continue President Saakashvili’s course towards NATO and EU integration, that he will not force Georgia to rejoin the CIS, and that he will never recognize the secession of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – clearly a precondition for the restoration of diplomatic relations with Moscow.
The Kremlin’s propaganda machine, particularly TV, demonized Mikheil Saakashvili, portraying him as a bloodthirsty tyrant. The video of him chewing his tie before a TV broadcast during the 2008 war was used by Russia’s state-run media to prove that Moscow’s opponent had lost all touch with reality.
By conceding his party’s defeat and making a point of respecting the will of the Georgian people, Saakashvili proved that his authoritarian modernization programme meant more than just eliminating corruption within the police force, and building new high-tech government buildings – potent visual symbols of his new, reformed and westernized Georgia.
He deprived the Kremlin of the enemy it loved to hate. Moreover, when he steps down, he will probably throw himself into parliamentary politics and become leader of the opposition. This may lend him, personally, new legitimacy and give his political career a new lease of life. Georgia seems to be following in the footsteps of Ukraine and Moldova as a maturing democracy in which the peaceful transfer of power is becoming the rule.
As far is the former USSR is concerned, Vladimir Putin’s government has thrown its weight behind supporting autocracies of varying hues and degrees of repression – from relatively moderate Armenia to ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’ of Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko. The Georgians, if successful in keeping the democratic flame alive, are setting an example to the beleaguered post-Soviet democrats. Moreover, Georgia is becoming increasingly popular among Russia’s urban youth and students – one of the driving forces behind the protest movement.
Valentina, an acquaintance of mine, is a third year Moscow University student. She told me recently: ‘Whenever I or my friends and college mates hear ‘Georgia’, the reaction is nearly universally positive – food, people, culture and now democracy! The Georgians succeeded where our rulers failed”. The Kremlin may well hear more from Saakashvili – and Georgia’s growing fan-base in Russia itself.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.