Municipal elections and elections for the mayor of Tbilisi are scheduled for 30 May. Naturally, the opposition sees this as a chance to test their strength and take soundings of what the present government has to offer in the middle of the long-distance race to the new parliamentary and presidential elections, which by law must be held in 2012 and 2013.
Fragmented Georgian Opposition agrees on ousting Saakashvili but not much else.
The opposition lost the previous parliamentary and presidential elections (2008) to Mikhail Saakashvili and his followers, who won a firm majority in parliament. Opposition leaders declared that there had been multiple vote-rigging, but they were unable to convert these claims into any effective political steps – even when the August 2008 war caused many people in Georgia to reflect on the part the leadership played in the dramatic downturn in relations with Russia.
The opposition’s poor results were not only due to voters’ fear of the police force created by Saakashvili and deployed to disperse opposition protests in Tbilisi in autumn 2007. The fact of the matter is that, during its years in power, Saakashvili’s government has been leading the country along the path of reforms quite steadily. The results of some of them – such as police reform – are clearly to be seen.
The mood of the provincial electorate is to a large extent controlled by the electronic media, whose content is primarily determined by the government. Unlike many post-Soviet nations, however, this is not the only side of the story in Georgia. Tbilisi is traditionally opposed to the government, but here the results of Saakashvili’s reforms and the efforts of his loyal supporter the mayor Gigi Ugulava, are more in evidence than anywhere else. So it’s quite difficult for the opposition to explain to the electorate why they should vote for people who only promise to work, rather than the ones who are actually working – especially as the goals announced by both parties are not that different, at least in areas that directly concern people.
The 2008 elections demonstrated that the Tbilisi tradition of voting against the existing regime, and the resentment of the city’s intelligentsia towards the president, who had significantly dented the comfort afforded by many years of corruption, can bring success for opposition leaders and parties at local level. But that’s not enough to secure victory in the capital and give convincing proof of irregularities by the authorities in other parts of the country.
Demonstrations can die down for several reasons. On the one hand, the regime has created a system which certainly doesn’t only use police truncheons to disperse dissidents. Suffice it to say that social surveys show the Georgian police currently enjoy a very high level of trust. This is perhaps not a long-term basis for the whole edifice of socio-political stability. But it is the fundamental difference between Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, where furious outbursts of popular rage led to the collapse of the completely dysfunctional regime.
On the other hand, the opposition is completely incapable of uniting behind a common leader. Together the disparate opposition “columns” could be a powerful force, if they could convince voters they would do better than Saakashvili in addressing the country’s problems. In isolation their chances of success are automatically reduced to almost zero.
It seems very probable that the Tbilisi mayoral elections will see a repeat of the symptoms of 2008. Among the several candidates named by members of the opposition are people who would have a serious chance of winning if the opposition were to unite behind one of them.
Former representative of Georgia to the UN Irakli Alasania, leader of of the Alliance for Georgia, is the group’s candidate for the Tbilisi mayoral office.
One of the most likely of these is the leader of the alliance “For Georgia”, Irakly Alasaniya, formerly Georgian representative at the UN. Even before the main election cycle got under way in 2008, he was considered a very likely successor to Mikhael Saakashvili. There is also Gogi Topadze, the head of the industrialist movement.
Slightly less likely are Georgy Chanturia from the Christian Democratic movement, and the leader of the conservatives Zviad Dzidizguri, who was put forward by the National Opposition Council after the primaries. Former Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli, an important figure for the Council who has recently been pushing for urgent rapprochement with Moscow, has remained in the shadows.
Other people could help these four leaders to win the votes of people who are dissatisfied with Gigi Ugulava and Mikhael Saakashvili: Tamaz Vashadze, former mayor of Tbilisi in the difficult year of 1991, Nika Ivanishvli (People’s Democrats) and David Yakobidze (Democratic Party of Georgia). The former Speaker of the Parliament Nino Burjanadze and Shalva Natelashvili’s Labour Party have called for a boycott of the elections on 30 May. After the collapse of the talks between Alasaniya’s Alliance for Georgia and the National Opposition Council, it is difficult to call this picture anything but a split in the opposition on the eve of elections that are important for them. So far it looks like a prerequisite for defeat. At the same time, the Tbilisi mayoral office feels very confident, and has launched an expensive campaign to improve the city’s image, with a slogan to attract visitors: “The city that loves you”.
Nevertheless, one should not underestimate the potential for protest in the capital. It pays close attention to the entire spectrum of the media, whereas in the provinces the only available news is official. The opposition still has a chance of success in Tbilisi. But social surveys show that this success is concentrated in the hands of Irakly Alasaniya, though Topadze should also not be ruled out. If Alasaniya wins the Tbilisi mayoral elections, Mikhael Saakashvili’s opponents will have cause for optimism. But it should not be forgotten that Alasaniya is a member of Saakashvili’s team of young reformers, who undoubtedly shares many of the President’s views. Perhaps this opposition victory would give the Georgian regime even greater freedom for political manoeuvres in the run-up to the next presidential elections than if Ugulava were to stay in power.
As for the Russian hopes, as usual they don’t look very promising. Moscow is making a point of keeping in touch with Nino Burjanadze and Zurab Nogaideli, who can’t boast very high popularity ratings at home, and is holding Alexander Yebralidze, a Petersburg businessman of Georgian origin, as its “trump card”. Yebralizde would appear to be the protégé of Gosha Dzasokhov, who until the 2008 war embodied the integration of ethnic Ossetians in Saakashvili’s team. He subsequently moved to Russia.
Dzasokhov takes a very active part in all public and political events in Russia relating to the North Caucasus. He also emphasizes the fact that North and South Caucasus are inseparable. At the same time, Dzasokhov continues to hold a Georgian passport – at least, there are no reports that he has relinquished his Georgian citizenship. But in Georgia itself his popularity rating is almost zero, as is Yebralidze’s. He doesn’t even have a Georgian passport. On the whole, the involvement of Yebralidze and Dzasokhov looks like a poor copy of the expensive and completely useless attempt to spin Igor Giorgadze as a political figure.
Moscow would like to see a more amenable leader in Georgia. But this could be anyone replacing Mikhael Saakashvili: naturally, the restoration of normal relations with its northern neighbour remains one of the most important tasks for the country. The problem is that the vector of Georgian Euro-Atlantic integration and the aspiration to restore Georgia’s territorial integrity are not Mikhael Saakashvili’s personal ideas, but the result of a clear public consensus. Any Georgian politician rejecting the idea of regaining South Ossetia and Abkhazia will be committing political suicide. People in Georgia obviously believe that Russia is the political sponsor of these territories’ independence, so there is a natural tendency for voters and the establishment to sympathize with opponents of Russian foreign policy. This situation will not change with a new Georgian president, but Russia has yet to learn to take this fact into account when planning its policy in the South Caucasus.
As for the “Kyrgyz” prospects for 30 May, they are dubious. The public perception of any disturbances will be very different from what it was in Kyrgyzstan: they will probably be seen as an attempt by a section of the opposition to take by force what they could not get in an honest political struggle – and perhaps with assistance from outside. Attempts of this kind rarely draw real sympathy from the public. For this reason it seems early days yet to predict the catastrophic scenario of Saakashvili’s team departing with its tail between its legs.