Almost a decade has passed since the "Rose Revolution" in Georgia in November 2003. Mikheil Saakashvili - the charismatic torchbearer of the revolution and the state's president since the enforced election of January 2004 - still commands substantial if not overwhelming support from the Georgian people. After failing in his confrontation with Russia over the separatist territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in August 2008, he now faces a major political challenge from within Georgia itself. In the last year, the billionaire businessman and philanthropist Bidzina Ivanishvili has reinvigorated the fractured opposition. In the general election of 1 October 2012, Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream movement is expected to pose a greater challenge to Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) than any political force since the Rose Revolution.
Saakashvili's great achievement so far has been overhauling the structure and the morale of the Georgian state by tackling endemic corruption, reviving tax-collection, repairing infrastructure after a decade of crisis, and ending stagnation and decline under Eduard Shevardnadze. On the surface, the signs of improvements are evident. But how about people's sentiments; does Saakashvili still command the hearts and minds of Georgians?
Saakashvili's determination to carry on as a leader is striking, and he has certainly made progress in realising his relatively coherent and popular vision for a westernised Georgian society. His tendency to make emotive, spur-of-the-moment decisions is more worrying. The disastrous Georgian offensive against South Ossetia in August 2008 - which saw Georgian forces ousted from large parts of the territories (Abkhaza as well as South Osseta tself) that they had last controlled in the chaotic early 1990, then the first foreign-state recognition of Abkhazian and South Ossetian independence - was the first major blow to Saakashvili's credibility. Yet it barely dampened his spirits.
The president's stance
There is no sign of Mikheil Saakashvili intending to retire. He is brimming with ideas about how to turn Georgia into a western nation-state, mainly through close cooperation with the United States, the European Union and Nato. His hopes reside predominantly on support from the west. But what if the pool of his support at home starts to drain?
Saakashvili's projection of himself as a reformist, a leader who openly rejected Soviet modes of business and politics and propelled Georgia towards westernisation, has served him well up to now. Some of his precipitate reforms, however, have left many Georgians resentful and frustrated. The Soviet regime, despite its many vices, offered certainties in respect of stable employment, healthcare and education. At present no one, apart from some nostalgic pensioners and Stalinists, would dare to stand for "Soviet" ideals or closer integration with Russia. In 2010, Saakashvili replaced the colossal statue of Stalin in his home town, Gori, with a memorial to the Ossetian war dead.
Such a one-sided appraisal of Georgia’s Soviet past is unhealthy and limited, yet no leader in Georgia would succeed without such a stance. After all, all nationalisms depend on defining the "other". Saakashvili eloquently articulated Soviet- (now Russian)-phobia on many occasions, and highlighted the necessity to challenge the Soviet mentality associated with lack of accountability, rampant bureaucracy, corruption and nepotism. In government, as in revolt, he has relied on western-educated young people untainted by the Soviet past. However, excessive favouritism towards youth has left many over-40s deeply disappointed and "unemployable".
In defence of anti-Soviet feelings, it must be admitted that the Soviet system squashed any entrepreneurial tendencies and more capable and resourceful individuals bitterly resented the unambitious and downtrodden. However, a substantial part of the Georgian population was left redundant by the Soviet collapse, and their needs to belong and voice their demands remain unmet. Many resent what they feel is Saakashvili's constant reiteration of their premature obituary.
Furthermore, many Georgians are perplexed by overt westernisation. Apart from a few western-educated, relatively young Georgians, many find it difficult to fully embrace the process. Georgians have always believed that their Caucasian identity is unique - for it draws from both European and eastern traditions (the Georgian "third way", so to say). Few small nations can survive without aligning themselves with wider international coalitions, and Georgia's hopes of aligning with the west could be explained by its centuries of striving for protection as a small Christian nation in a precarious geopolitical milieu. Yet Georgians also always possessed a very strong cultural identity, and will resist overt westernisation as much as they resisted Sovietisation.
Saakashvili needs to recognise such sentiments if he does not want to lose more votes. In addition to the unemployed, another group that might desert the UNM are those who voted for Saakashvili's party out of opportunism rather than from genuine support.
The Ivanishvili factor
The entrance of Bidzina Ivanishvili into the Georgian political arena in late April 2012 evoked mixed reactions. On the one hand, this brought a hope to form a genuine and strong opposition to the current leadership; on the other, many fear that the fragile social equilibrium would be endangered by entrance of yet another "larger than life" character capable of channeling popular discontent and frustrations to yet another revolution and upheaval. Ivanishvili has attempted to dispel such reservations. He vouched to commit himself to the task of slow transformation rather than proffering immediate solutions or the revolutionary protests that opposition parties have threatened (vainly) in recent years.
Ivanishvili was virtually unknown beyond his home district until 2012, despite his philanthropic activities and generous subsidies towards state reforms (which earned him the sobriquet "Count of Monte Cristo"). The aspiring leader has preferred to stay out of the limelight. In his interviews he claims that he is not interested in power and that his decision to form "Georgian Dream" and enter politics were prompted by the necessity to end "personality-politics" rather than a desire himself to become a political personality. He intends, if he wins, to stay in power only briefly; his main objective is to trigger transition from a "facade" to a genuine democracy and strengthen welfare reforms to meet the needs of the unemployed and disadvantaged.
Interestingly there is no major disagreement or collision of values in a wider sense with Saakashvili's party. Ivanishvili believes that the future of Georgia lies in Euro-Atlantic integration (as Nato and European Union membership is termed); commitment to restoration of territorial integrity (that is, reintegrating Abkhazia and South Ossetia); and strengthening democracy. However, his main criticism of Saakashvili is that the latter's personality and tactics are more of an impediment than an asset to Georgia. He holds Saakashvili responsible for Georgia’s strained relationship with Russia - where he made his fortune and took citizenship - and believes that while the current president remains in power there is little chance of normalising the strained trans-Caucasian relationship.
The democratic rule
While personalities matter and both Saakashvili and Ivanishvili are outsized characters, the success of both men largely depends on the team they build. Saakashvili's team is facing strong criticism - accused of lack of moral accountability and arrogance. What made Saakashvili's success possible in 2003-04 was a credible partnership with Zurab Zhvania (who died in contested circumstances in 2005) and Nino Burdzhanadze (who has been in opposition since 2008). Since then there have been numerous cabinet reshuffles and the president's core aides are getting younger and more headstrong rather than older and wiser.
Bidzina Ivanishvili meanwhile has been cooperating with various opposition leaders, including Burdzhanadze, but it remains to be seen whether he can gather around him a credible team.
There are few Georgians who would fail to acknowledge the transformations in Georgia since 2004. Yet there is a sense of disappointment that Georgia belongs to a few state servants and that the people as a whole masses are still voiceless. The current persecution of opposition does not inspire much hope for democracy.
Those in power need to recognise these sentiments, and the fact that others with alternative perspectives have a right to a safe platform.