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Unusually Quiet Elections Mark End Of Revolutionary Cycle In Georgia

  • Ghia Nodia

Voting in Georgia's municipal elections on May 30.

Voting in Georgia's municipal elections on May 30.

Georgia's May 30 municipal elections marked the end of a political cycle that began in the fall of 2007, when the country's opposition collectively decided that since it was impossible to change the regime of President Mikheil Saakashvili by means of elections, it needed to mobilize popular discontent to achieve the same result. In short, a replay of the Rose Revolution that brought Saakashvili to power in November 2003.

There have been three such attempts. The first, in November 2007, culminated in the dispersal by force of demonstrators who were demanding Saakashvili's resignation. The TV channel Imedi, on which the opposition had relied heavily to mobilize support, was vandalized and closed down. On that occasion, the authorities were badly rattled. The president even resigned in order to schedule presidential elections one year earlier than necessary, and he won them, although it took quite an effort.

The second attempt was in the spring of 2008 when the opposition launched a hunger strike to protest what it was convinced was the falsification of the presidential ballot, hoping that such a dramatic move would galvanize the people. But the authorities calculated -- correctly -- that no one was ready to die for political ideals. An appeal from the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church made it possible for the opposition to end their protest without losing face.

The war with Russia in August 2008 gave the revolutionaries new hope: They inferred that the West had finally lost all illusions about Saakashvili and would not oppose his departure, so all they needed to do was to apply a modicum of pressure. But "Misha" and his team responded coolly and in an organized fashion to last year's spring offensive, and the opposition found themselves back where they started.

The municipal elections were brought forward by six months and the prize of direct elections for the post of Tbilisi mayor was created specifically to lure the revolutionaries into normal electoral politics. The plan proved successful beyond all expectations: The public had lost faith in the viability of revolution, while opposition had lost its orientation and disintegrated into numerous splinter groups. It proved unable to pose a serious challenge to the party of power even in the Tbilisi mayoral elections, although objectively speaking it could have done so.

Breaking A Trend

Many in Georgia consider the past three years as a sort of inoculation against the syndrome of permanent revolution. The myth that if you gathered a few tens of thousands of angry citizens outside the parliament building and demanded the government's resignation, the government would comply without fail, was demolished in November 2007.

The nation's next inoculation was against political hunger strikes: they are one bluff that no one believes in any longer. Last year it became clear that you can't topple the regime by a prolonged siege. The authorities may even give you temporary use of Tbilisi's main thoroughfare, but that won't cause the country to fall apart.

The authorities managed to fracture a historic trend: extreme radicalism ceased to be a winning strategy. The results of the most recent elections confirm this. Of the various opposition parties, it was the moderate wing comprising the Alliance for Georgia and Christian Democrats that achieved relative success, while the radical National Council polled only 7-8 percent of the vote.

How long will the inoculation prove effective? We don't know yet. What we can say is that today the Saakashvili leadership can breathe more or less easily for the first time for the past several years. There are two years to go until the next (parliamentary) elections, the radical opposition has fallen into a depression, there has already been one war with Russia and there is no indication at present there will be another, and there are signs that Georgia is emerging from economic crisis.

True, no real progress toward resolving the twin problems of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is likely or even possible in the foreseeable future, but there is a positive side to the deadlock: one fewer major problem on the agenda. The one danger lies within the leadership itself: if it allows itself to sit back and relax, it could start to make mistakes.

On The Horizon

What will dominate domestic politics over the next two years? The most interesting, and objectively the most important development will be the preparations for the transfer of power. In the almost 20 years since Georgia became independent, there has not been a single constitutional transfer of power. Everyone remembers that and will be watching closely how events unfold as the time comes for Saakashvili to leave office.

Mikheil Saakashvili's second and final term ends in 2013, and he has publicly stated many times that he will respect the constitutional limitations. But his enemies both at home and abroad make no secret of the fact that they are hoping for the worst case scenario. Saakashvili "will not simply step down," or if he does, the "Rose revolutionaries" will turn on each other. In any event, everything will end in yet another standoff.

People are already speculating that a conflict is brewing between influential Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili and Gigi Ugulava, who by virtue of his reelection as Tbilisi mayor has the best chances of succeeding to the presidency. There are no visible indications whatsoever to substantiate such speculation, but what else is there left to hope for besides a split at the very top?

A second group of skeptics predicts a repeat of the Russian scenario: Saakashvili formally steps down as president but remains in power, as former Russian President Vladimir Putin has done under nominal President Dmitry Medvedev.

The future is unpredictable, but it is fair to assume that after the May 30 elections, people will forget about the opposition for a while as all eyes are turned on the real or imagined contradictions within the government.

Ghia Nodia is professor of politics at Ilia State University. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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