Jan. 10, 2019
Georgians are entering the new year with good news—salted with bad news.
First, the good. Georgia had a historic election on Nov. 28 and, for the first time ever, elected a woman as president. French-born and -educated Salome Zurabishvili was once the foreign minister of Georgia under former President Mikhail Saakashvili, who sacked her in 2005. Though she ran as an independent, she was supported by the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s relatively progressive Georgian Dream (GD) coalition, and prevailed over her opponent, Grigol Vashadze. She took office on Dec. 16.
And yet, just below the surface of this tremendous win for the GD lurks something more sobering for anyone concerned with the current state of democracy in the world. Beyond the obvious symbolic significance of Zurabishvili’s victory, Georgia’s political environment has been beleaguered by the GD’s inability to make meaningful progress on its democratic promises over the last several years—progress that will continue to face key challenges even with Zurabishvili at the helm.
How did Georgia—and the GD—get here?
Georgians have been waiting anxiously for the GD to right the wrongs of the previous government at least since 2012, when the party defeated Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) in that year’s parliamentary elections. But in the intervening years, the coalition, led and originally stitched together by Ivanishvili, has fallen from grace.
Initially motivated by a concern for improving the plight of Georgians, the GD has increasingly been mired in alleged corruption and incompetence, often failing to deliver on its political promises. To top it all off, last October, shortly before the first round of elections, secrete tapes surfaced in the Georgian media that implicated the country’s political top brass—including former Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili and Ivanishvili—in systemic corruption, patronage, and bribery.
Due largely to these failures, in late October, Ivanishvili and his ministers slammed into a setback: a runoff election, held on Nov. 28th. This was a devastating blow to Ivanishvili, and it shook the GD to its core. But the billionaire-turned-political puppeteer had mostly himself to blame; over the years, he has turned his electorate into a “nanny state,” with Ivanishvili pulling the strings. Shrewdly using his inexhaustible financial resources to his advantage, he’s been personally bankrolling the salaries of members of the Georgian intelligencia, including famous actors, singers, composers, writers, and public intellectuals.
To an extent, that Ivanishvili and his coalition had to face a second round of presidential elections showed that people refused to accept his morally pious stance as a bulwark against evil. In the second round, many Georgians chose to hinge their votes on their disillusionment with the country’s economic and political conditions, not on a fear of Saakasvhili’s return, as the GD has claimed in the past. (In what seemed like a last-ditch appeal to voters, Ivanishvili publicly announced a massive relief program, of over a billion lari, that would write off “bad debts” for 600,000 Georgians. The program, along with the elections, has been harshly criticized by the U.S. State Department and other leading Western observer organizations.) It has become abundantly clear that if the GD wants to regain the public’s trust, Ivanishvili will have to rethink his approach to politics.
After a 2005 dispute with Saakasvhili, Zurabishvili’s political career in Georgia appeared to have slowed. It wasn’t until after she began supporting the GD in 2012 that she became a member of the Georgian parliament, with the GD’s help. Along the way, GD politicians had kept a close eye on her, until she was ultimately tapped as a presidential candidate.
In many ways, Zurabishvili brings more to the table than people may think. In private and professional circles, she’s known for being a principled technocrat. On top of that, her lengthy career in Paris, where she worked for three decades as ambassador to Georgia, underscores how stepped she is in European diplomacy and foreign policy. For the pro-European GD, this is an asset that many of her predecessors lacked.
In other words, Zurabishvili is of a different political mold than her peers, and Ivanishvili was wise to try to harness this as he navigates Georgia’s tricky domestic politics.
Still, despite the promise of Zurabishvili’s victory, it doesn’t seem too likely that much will change. After the elections, Ivanishvili thanked Georgian voters for giving the GD a second mandate, saying that “the rest is probably up to me.” This was hardly a reassuring sentiment, given people’s exhaustion with the GD’s performance over the past six years.
In a similar vein, in the months ahead, Ivanishvili must be careful not to treat Zurabishvili with the same heavy-handed patronage that he’s long had a penchant for. Already, critics of the the new president have said that she only won because she ran on “the dirtiest campaign” in the country’s history. Natalia Antelava, a Georgian journalist, told The Daily Beast that “the powers that backed [Zurabishvili]—from political parties to individuals—are among the most xenophobic and sexist on Georgia’s political spectrum.”
Clearly, Zurabishvili has her work cut out for her, thanks in no small part to the fact that Ivanishvili’s transactional, money-buys-everything approach to governance has a tendency to cheapen the office of president, and erode trust in state institutions.
The GD has the potential to move Georgia and its people forward—to make the Georgian dream more than just a pipe dream—if it can overcome its steepest obstacle: itself.