Georgia elects new president, but political clouds gather

Georgian voters gave a clean and clear victory to the ruling party candidate in Sunday’s presidential election. But voters woke up on Monday to find clouds forming over the political future of the former Soviet republic.

Giorgi Margvelashvili won an unexpected landslide in Georgia’s presidential election on Sunday, getting 62 percent of the vote in a race contested by 23 candidates.

Georgia has suffered from political volatility since winning independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Today, foreign observers are praising Sunday’s elections as free and fair.  But there may be political trouble ahead.

On the plus side, Georgia’s president and prime minister will once again be from the same coalition. For the last year, the nation’s two political leaders represented opposing political camps.  Sunday’s election results bring a clear end to one decade of rule by Mikheil Saakashvili, one of the most charismatic – and controversial – leaders of the post-Soviet space.

On the negative side, Georgia’s two most powerful politicians are to leave government in coming days.

Losing immunity

Now people in Tbilisi are asking: will Saakashvili go to jail?

When the new president is inaugurated on November 17, Saakashvili will lose his presidential immunity.  Already a dozen of his former state ministers have either been charged with crimes or are under investigation.
Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili recently predicted to reporters that Saakashvili, his archrival, will be called in for questioning. Court inquiries could turn on Saakashvili’s leadership in the disastrous war with Russia five years ago.Gela Vasadze runs Liberty Zone, a Tbilisi think tank. He predicts that Saakashvili will turn down job offers in the United States, and will stay in Georgia and fight.

“Saakashvili will remain active in politics and Saakashvili will remain chairman of the United National Movement,” he said, referring to what is now Georgia’s main opposition party.

Questions also revolve around the second pillar of Georgian politics – Prime Minister Ivanishvili.

Ivanishvili has promised to name a new prime minister by Wednesday and then to step down in November.

Who will fill the shoes of Ivanishvili, Georgia’s richest man?

Handpicked successor?

Elene Khoshtaria, a former member of the Saakashvili government, works with Georgia’s Reforms Associates, a policy group.

“It is clear that he is quitting, that he is leaving,” she said of Ivanishvili, who has only been in power for one year. “But nobody knows what he is going to do.”

Under new constitutional changes, Georgia’s president now plays a largely ceremonial role. The future president, Margvelashvili, is a former university president who served this year as education minister. A few days ago, a photo went viral of this low key academic knitting winter socks.

Prime Minister Ivanishvili has made it clear that he will handpick Georgia’s next prime minister. He also is making policy promises through 2015, signaling that he will be pulling strings from behind the scenes.

“Considering his strong financial resources, as well as political clout, he will have very significant influence over the government at least for the first several years,” Khostova said.

Georgia faces an interesting political year ahead. It looks as if the country’s two most powerful politicians will not be occupying formal positions in government.




James Brooke VOA Moscow Bureau Chief

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow last summer – the hottest on record. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.