Georgia’s political scene has been tumultuous recently, to say the least. First there was a prison scandal, followed by a general election. The newly-elected prime minister, part of the (now former) opposition party, said a few days after his widely hailed victory that he planned on stepping down after 18 months. Now, former government officials, all aligned with the former governing party under President Saakashvili, have been accused of abuse of power and arrested, and the former prime minister said actually, he might not quit after 18 months if things aren’t going exactly right in Georgia.
To make sense of this, we’ve put together a quick referential timeline of the events of the past two months or so ago, and why they’re important.
Thanks to our Georgian friends who were kind enough to offer source advice and input on what each event means
The election and related events
18 September 2012: Georgian TV airs footage of prisoner abuse, and the political establishment is rocked by a scandal less than a month before the parliamentary elections.
Impact: This was hugely damaging for President Mikheil Saakashvili’s ruling United National Movement Party. As will be discussed later, many of those implicated in the scandal have already been jailed under the new President, Bidzina Ivanishvili.
1 October 2012: The parliamentary elections are held in Georgia, resulting in a widely hailed victory for the opposition candidate, Bidzina Ivanishvili of the Georgian Dream party. This means that for the next year, Ivanishvili is the Prime Minister of Georgia, while Saakashvili will retain the office of the President until elections next year. So they are governing the country together, though neither are particularly pleased about it.
Key to keep in mind about this election:
- This election had taken on symbolic as well as practical importance for the entire world, as people looked to see how a post-Soviet democracy would handle a tense and divisive election.
- Bidzina Ivanishvili, the opposition candidate, is an eccentric billionaire with professional ties to Russia and a son who rapsin support of his father’s political party (Georgian Dream):
- From BBC: He owns a private zoo stocked with zebras and flamingoes and has one of the world’s most valuable art collections. He lives in a futuristic steel mansion, with a helipad and fake waterfall, that looks like a James Bond film-set.
- Some Georgians are concerned that due to his professional past and connections with Russian industry, he will push Russia’s agenda at the expense of Georgia.
- Ivanishvili has revoked his Russian citizenship and denies Russian influence.
- He has contributed a large portion of his personal fortunes to philanthropic efforts in Georgia and is seen by many having done more for Georgia than any other single individual.
Impact: Because Saakashvili’s party conceded the vote, the elections were seen as successful by the international community, which expressed concern that Saakashvili’s party would attempt to hold on to power no matter the outcome. Now, President Saakashvili’s United National Movement Party, is the opposition party in Georgia.
At first blush, it was concluded (by Western media outlets) that this was a successful transition with fewer complications than some analysts expected.
24 October 2012: Ivanishvili announced he would leave politics in 18 months (which means he would not be serving his full term), but would leave behind a team that would ‘fulfill all the promises’ of the Georgian dream coalition, and as active member of ‘civil society,’ he would control the government he leaves behind.
Impact: Obviously, 18 months is the time the US holds primaries and prepares for elections, so this was worrying for Western observers, and left analysts questioning if Georgia had already begun the next election cycle three weeks after the Prime Minister was elected.
Follow Up: Ivanishvili later hedged this statement on 22 November 2012, stating that if he was still needed, he would stay in politics longer. His qualifier for leaving was that things should be going ‘perfectly’ and if they weren’t, he would not go anywhere.
The arrests of former officials aligned with the Saakashvili government
Shortly after Ivanishvili took office, many former officials under Saakashvili expressed concern that Ivanishvili’s party would undertake a campaign of political retribution against those aligned with Saakashvili; that is to say, the new Prime Minister (Ivanishvili) would flex his political muscle by targeting members of the party formerly in power, either legally or, more concerning to government officials, via intimidation. RFE/RL reported on 18 October 2012 that many officials were leaving town out of concern about political retribution.
In recent weeks, a number of former officials aligned with the Saakashvili government have been arrested, but the arrests walk a fine line. There seems to be general consensus, including from the international community, that many of the officials arrested probably were involved in corruption and the prison scandal that erupted shortly before the October election.
However, due to the sheer numbers of former officials being arrested, NATO and others in the West are concerned that even if the arrests are legitimate, there will be the perception that the sweep is purely politically motivated.
In a worst-case scenario, the fear is that Ivanishvili’s party is (perhaps inadvertently) attempting an executive coup, in which the ruling party quashes an opponent through coercion, rigging the political system, fear and sheer overwhelming force. These arrests would signal the start of an executive coup, which is a sadly familiar trajectory for many post-Soviet states.*
*To understand more about why the arrests are so concerning, I can’t recommend this post from Jay Ulfelder enough.
In the short term though, there’s not much anyone can do about the arrests, nor any indication that there’s political will to do anything about it. However, people are watching Georgia and in particular, Ivanishvili’s party, to see if these arrests are just clean-up following a outgoing administration dogged by recent scandal, or if they’re something more worrying for the rest of Georgia.