Volume I, Number 1; 26 March 2012

Eurasia Analyst

A publication of independent researchers

Volume I, Number 1; 26 March 2012

Georgian parliamentary elections: Succession in the making

by Robyn Angley

This October, Georgians are scheduled to go to the polls and select their first parliament since the 2008 Russo-Georgian war. Preliminary discussion of the elections thus far has centered largely on new political alliances and the reactions of the Georgian government. However, there is a far more important aspect to this election that few people are discussing. As of October 2013, the political party that captures the most votes in the 2012 parliamentary election will be responsible for choosing Georgia’s most powerful politician – the prime minister.

In 2010, the Georgian parliament approved major changes in the constitution that will effectively shift the Georgian political system from presidential to parliamentary when they come into effect following the next presidential election (scheduled for October 2013). The position of the president has been very strong since the constitution was amended in early 2004, following the rise to power of the Rose Revolution government. The 2010 amendments, however, will shift the preponderance of power to the prime minister, who will be able to hire and fire all government ministers, including the heads of the defense and the interior ministries (previously an exclusively presidential privilege). The president will not be able to issue decrees without the prime minister’s imprimatur and also will require permission from the government to hold international talks and to sign treaties. (1) Given that it is the responsibility of the majority party to select Georgia’s next leader, the absence of public discussion of this aspect of the upcoming elections is worrisome.

Indeed, the focal point in discussions of the constitutional amendments is the possibility that current president Mikheil Saakashvili may seek to become prime minister after the end of his second presidential term in 2013. Saakashvili is prohibited constitutionally from retaining the presidency, but has consistently refused to give a definitive answer about his post-presidential ambitions. When an opposition MP posed the question point blank following Saakashvili’s annual address, the president, as has been his habit, obfuscated with a long and deliberately ambiguous response:

“My plan is to have schools in Georgia similar to those in Holland, Germany or Switzerland and I will be part of that process… My goals are not about my personal plans; my goals are about not to let the crime return back to Georgia as long as I am in charge… When you ask what I plan – my plan is to build [new city] Lazika You wonder where I will be – I will definitely be in the built Lazika and I will take part in its construction – that’s my role… You wonder what my plans are – my plan is to live in brightened Georgia, which no one will ever be able to darken and it will be achieved too in few years,” Saakashvili said.  “I believe that this team, which governs Georgia today has the resource, in frames of democratic rules, to govern Georgia for many more years and I will not say no to such a perspective, because we really have a modernization plan… and we should make a leap from third world countries into the team of developed countries and Georgia now is in this process of making this leap; that is the most important.” (2)

Saakashvili’s obvious reluctance to commit himself to a particular path may be part of the reason that the real significance of the parliamentary elections has not been brought to the fore – the president has already stated his desire to avoid being a lame duck (3) and is probably hoping simply to secure a United National Movement victory in the elections so that the decision may be deferred a while longer. There are considerable international reasons why Saakashvili should avoid “pulling a Putin,” in imitation of his less than amicable neighbor to the north, but it remains to be seen whether the Georgian president will trust either his citizens or his own party enough to remove himself from the political scene while he is still relatively young.

This will be the first national election held since the war with Russia, an event significant in Georgia’s domestic politics due to the exit of several prominent politicians from Saakashvili’s camp and into the opposition. October will be the first time that groups such as those led by former prime minister Zurab Noghaideli and former speaker of parliament Nino Burjanadze will have the chance to compete in a country-wide election. These two particular politicians have been labeled as pro-Russian by the Georgian government because of their willingness to negotiate with Moscow after the 2008 conflict over South Ossetia. Noghaideli’s party has even made a formal alliance with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party. (4) Surveys conducted in in the post-conflict period have found, not surprisingly, that the vast majority of Georgians consider Russia to be the country’s main threat, indicating that politicians who are seen as pro-Russian may have a difficult time building support. (5) It remains to be seen in what form, if at all, either of these leaders will seek to contest the October election.

More interesting by far is the emergence of oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili on the Georgian political scene. Ivanishvili, with an estimated fortune of $6.4 billion, (6) announced in October 2011 that he would establish a political movement to compete in the 2012 elections. Known for his benevolence and his dislike of public attention, Ivanishvili explained that he took this step because of developments with Saakashvili and the ruling party. “President Saakashvili’s total monopoly on power and constitutional amendments, which clearly reveal Saakashvili’s intention to maintain power and stay in leadership beyond any constitutional term, prompted my decision to establish a political party and to run in the 2012 parliamentary elections,” said the billionaire in an early statement announcing his intentions. (7)

Ivanishvili has launched the Georgian Dream movement, consisting of figures such as former ambassador to the United States Tedo Japaridze, former ombudsman Sozar Subari, and Giorgi Zhvania, businessman and brother of former prime minister Zurab Zhvania. Georgian Dream has announced that it will partner with Irakli Alasania’s Free Georgia party and the Republican Party, led by Davit Usupashvili and Tinatin Khidasheli.

The Georgian government has taken steps to limit Ivanishvili’s potential impact on the upcoming elections. One of the earliest steps was to repeal the Georgian citizenship of Ivanishvili and his wife, Ekaterine Khvedelidze. Both Ivanishvili and Khvedelidze hold multiple citizenships. Ivanishvili acquired French citizenship after he received Georgian citizenship, a violation of Georgian law. Khvedelidze, on the other hand, was already a French citizen when she acquired Georgian citizenship. Her citizenship has since been restored. She is listed as the official leader of Georgian Dream, since non-citizens are not allowed to lead political groups.

The government also launched an investigation into Cartu Bank, one of Ivanishvili’s businesses, confiscating $2 million and €1 million in cash within two weeks of Ivanishvili’s initial announcement. The money was returned in January, but the investigation is continuing, according to officials. (8)

Finally, in December, parliament passed new legislation on political party financing. The new laws prohibit legal entities, including businesses, from donating to political parties. It has, however, raised the cap on individual giving from 30,000 lari to 60,000 lari (approximately $36,000). The state’s Chamber of Control is charged with monitoring political party finances. Though both the ruling United National Movement party and Ivanishvili’s political group have been found in violation of the new laws, (9) its disproportionate application to Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream movement demonstrate that the new regulations are clearly targeted at limiting the impact that the billionaire’s vast wealth will have on the parliamentary election. Thus far, Ivanishvili and his allies have been fined around $2.4 million by the Chamber of Control. (10)

Ivanishvili’s emergence on the Georgian political scene gives new impetus to an opposition scene that, though colorful, has seemed to lack the ability to challenge the ruling party effectively. The Saakashvili government’s attempts to minimize Ivanishvili’s influence indicate that the administration fears he could present a serious alternative to National Movement’s dominance in political affairs. Thus far, however, Ivanishvili has not set forth a cohesive platform or plan of action for steps to be taken should he gain power. His full impact on Georgian politics remains to be seen.

Source Notes:

(1) For more, see Robyn Angley, Constitutional Changes and Succession, ISCIP Analyst, Volume XVI, Number 13, 27 May 2010, http://www.bu.edu/phpbin/news-cms/news/?dept=732&id=56309.

(2) Saakashvili’s Annual Address with Heated Debates, Civil Georgia, 29 Feb 2012, http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=24496.

(3) Saakashvili Remains Noncommittal on Prime Ministerial Prospects, Civil Georgia, 1 Feb 2012, http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=24404.

(4) United Russia signed agreement with Noghaideli, Georgia Times, 9 Feb 2010, http://www.georgiatimes.info/en/news/30497.html.

(5) “USAID and US-Ordered Survey Results Published,” Rustavi 2, 28 October 2010 via http://www.rustavi2.com/news/news_text.php?id_news=39151&pg=1&im=main.
(6) Bidzina Ivanishvili, Forbes Magazine, March 2012, http://www.forbes.com/profile/boris-ivanishvili/.
(7) Billionaire Outlines Political Goals, Civil Georgia, 7 Oct 2011, http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=24005.

(8) Seized Cash Returned to Ivanishvili’s Cartu Bank, Civil Georgia, 12 January 2012, http://civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=24348.

(9) Ruling Party’s GEL 95,800 and GEL 20,000 of Ivanishvili’s Movement Targeted, Civil Georgia, 20 Feb 2012, http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=24465.

(10) State Audit Agency Fines Ivanishvili’s Firm with USD 1.5m, Civil Georgia, 15 Mar 2012 via http://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=24560.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *