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Georgia's race to the summit

Robert Parsons
4 January 2008

Georgia is emerging from its new-year hangover this week just in time to vote in the critical presidential election on 5 January 2008 - the most important the landlocked country in the south Caucasus has faced since independence in 1991.

At stake is the comprehensive liberal reform project unleashed by Mikheil Saakashvili's "rose revolution" of 2003-04. He himself has made it absolutely clear that if he is elected there will be no let up in the pace of reform. More eggs will be smashed to make the new Georgian omelette.

But unlike the January 2004 presidential election, when Saakashvili swept to power on a wave of popular euphoria that delivered him over 90% of the vote, he can no longer be sure of the level of his support.

Robert Parsons is international editor of France 24. He earned a doctorate at Glasgow University for a thesis on the origins of Georgian nationalism. He was the BBC's Moscow correspondent (1993-2002), and worked at RFE/RL as director of its Georgian service, senior correspondent and chief producer for multimedia projects

Also by Robert Parsons in openDemocracy:

"Russia and Georgia: a lover's revenge" (6 October 2006)

"Georgia: progress, interrupted" (16 November 200The opinion polls vary wildly, with some giving Saakashvili a mere 25% in the first round and others giving him over 60%. His own team's research claims that he will clear 65%. If no candidate wins over 50% in the first round, the election will go to a second round on 19 January.

Saakashvili has left nothing to chance. His posters dominate Georgia's cities, while those of the opposition candidates are barely to be seen. And he is on the move all the time, crisscrossing the country in a bid to mobilise the support he knows was slipping away towards the end of 2007.

A spiky reformist

To a degree, this is a moment that was always going to arrive for Saakashvili. His economic reforms have earned Georgia the approval of western financial institutions and his commitment to the country's democratisation has won him the backing of the United States and Europe, but they have come at a price.

The fight against corruption has made him many enemies - not least the thousands of policemen who have been sacked from their jobs and the businessmen who had become used to getting rich through comfortable deals with former governments.

But they are not Saakashvili's main problem. His reforms have modernised government but have also cost thousands of people their jobs - particularly among the over-40 generations. Both the economy in general and foreign investment in particular are growing fast, but there is still widespread unemployment and next to no social-welfare net.

Saakashvili can boast with justice that Georgia today genuinely resembles a state: that there is electricity and gas twenty-four hours a day, that the army is a real army and that the police force is far less corrupt than at any time in living memory. But for the people on the wide margins of Georgian society that is not enough; they want jobs and enough money to cope with annual inflation of around 10%.

In fact, the growing efficiency of the state has in some respects made life harder. Today, everyone has to pay taxes, electricity is metered and has to be paid for, and the petrol mafia has been squeezed out. That means increased revenues for the state but also fewer opportunities for the cheap black- market deals that once sustained a large part of the Georgian population.

Saakashvili has always known that he would have to pay a price in popularity for his reforms; but if it is proving higher than he anticipated, it is because of his own failure to communicate adequately with the Georgian people.

The reforms have been poorly explained and a lack of transparency has crept into decision-making. Saakashvili's massive majority in parliament has allowed him to treat the legislature as a rubber-stamp and the opposition with contempt. He and his allies have brushed aside criticism has been, regardless of its merits.

A combination of frustration, exclusion from the national debate and poverty provoked the explosive demonstrations of early November. So great was the popular anger that briefly the spectre of revolution loomed again over Georgia (see "Georgia: progress, interrupted" , 16 November 2007).

Saakashvili restored calm by calling presidential elections a year ahead of time. He disarmed his critics by giving the Georgian people an immediate chance to judge him on his record. Only two months later, it looks like his gamble has paid off. The opposition, given an opportunity to put Saakashvili in the dock, has simply imploded.

An exposed opposition

In November, the opposition coalition - the National Council of the United Public Movement - boasted that it had all Georgia behind it, that the multi-millionaire businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili would bankroll its campaign and that "Misha" (Saakashvili) was on the run.

But the opposition has been crippled by its own ineptitude. Key figures like the leader of the populist Labour Party, Shalva Natelashvili, have decided to run independently; others like Davit Gamqrelidze of the New Rights party preferred to keep a safe distance.

The appointment too of leading winemaker Levan Gachechiladze to lead the coalition has proved divisive. Popularly known as "Grechikha" because of his love of buckwheat porridge, Gachechiladze focus on Saakashvili's personality rather than issues has played into Saakashvili's hands. His coarse language has also alienated much of his own support.

But the real undoing of the opposition has been its close ties with Patarkatsishvili, who since his departure from Georgia in March 2007 has run his business from his mansion in Surrey, southern England.

Although Patarkatsishvili is standing as an independent candidate, the National Council made no secret of their close alliance. The opposition had clearly imagined that they would coordinate strategy and that Patarkatsishvili's millions would be at its disposal.

He had other ideas. On 17 December, the National Council leadership went into a tailspin when Georgian television broadcast a secretly recorded videotape of Patarkatsishvili's campaign manager, Valeri Gelbakhiani, appearing to try to persuade the head of the interior ministry's special-operations department, Irakly Kodua, to take part in a conspiracy against Saakashvili.

And worse was to follow. A week later, Rustavi 2 TV played an audio-tape of a conversation purporting to be between Patarkatsishvili himself and Kodua - recorded, the channel claimed, at Patarkatsishvili's English base.

In it, the man identified as Patarkatsishvili can be clearly heard offering to pay Kodua $110 million to come over to the opposition on 6 January, the day after the election, in the event of Saakashvili winning. "I think it is a lot of money", he says, "but it is commensurate to the risk."

Among openDemocracy's many articles on Georgian politics:

Neal Ascherson, "Tbilisi, Georgia: the rose revolution's rocky road" (15 July 2005)

Donald Rayfield, "Georgia and Russia: with you, without you" (3 October 2006)

George Hewitt, "Abkhazia: land in limbo" (10 October 2006)

Vicken Cheterian, "Georgia's arms race" (4 July 2007)

Donald Rayfield, "Russia and Georgia: a war of perceptions" (24 August 2007)

Alexander Rondeli, "Georgia: politics after revolution" (14 November 2007)In return, the speaker asks Kodua to arrest the interior minister and close ally of Saakashvili, Vano Merabishvili. "You must go to Vano and tell him to surrender. That's it, it's all over. And if he refuses to surrender, you arrest him."

With the interior-ministry's troops on the opposition side, Kodua told Rustavi 2, the plan was then for him to appear on national television to announce that he had had to intervene to prevent massive vote-rigging by Saakashvili.

To the consternation of the opposition, Patarkatsishvili at first made no attempt to deny that the conversation had taken place or that he had tried to bribe Kodua as claimed. The idea, he said, was merely to prevent any attempt by the authorities to rig the vote.

On 3 January, two days before the election, Patarkatshvili changed his tune. "Let me state", he said, "that all the wiretappings made public by the media are nothing more than a provocation organised by the Georgian special services and have been fabricated only to discredit me." The damage, though, has been done.

At the same time, Patarkatsishvili retracted an apparent earlier promise to withdraw from the campaign, but in a way equally unlikely to benefit to the opposition cause. For his statement reaffirming his intention to stand was accompanied by a blatant attempt to bribe the electorate: Patarkatsishvili made an extraordinary promise to pay from his own account fifty lari ($31) a month to the unemployed for the next eighteenth months; to settle a part of the electricity, gas and water bills of every Georgian family; and to buy the entire citrus and grape harvest of 2008.

Gachechiladze, who was addressing an opposition rally when the news broke, was caught on microphone saying of Patarkatsishvili: "he's really screwed us now".

A close race

Despite the opposition's errors, though, this election is not a foregone conclusion. Saakashvili urged the international community to send as many observers as possible to cover the election and they will be out on force on 5 January. Falsification cannot be excluded but it is unlikely to play a decisive role.

The key could be Tbilisi. Saakashvili seems strong in western Georgia and in particular the province of Samegrelo where they identify closely with his commitment to the reunification of breakaway Abkhazia with Georgia. Most of the 250,000 or so refugees from Abkhazia in Georgia are Megrelians. The president is confident too of massive support from Georgia's Azeri and Armenian minorities, who recognise the efforts made on their behalf by Saakashvili and who traditionally vote for the ruling power. The vinicultural east of Georgia will be a difficult call because it has suffered so much from the Russian embargo, but is not big enough to make a critical difference.

It is Tbilisi that makes him nervous. The opinion polls suggest a high percentage of voters won't make up their minds until the last moment. The signs are that he has done enough to win an equal share of the vote in the capital, which should be enough for him to win nationwide. His promises to listen more in the future, concentrate on social welfare and bring new people into government have helped his cause but it is the opposition's failure that is likely to prove decisive.

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