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One Year After Reelection, Georgian President Faces Multiple Challenges

  • Liz Fuller

When President Mikheil Saakashvili addressed the NATO summit in Valencia in November, Georgia's hopes of membership in the near future had evaporated.

When President Mikheil Saakashvili addressed the NATO summit in Valencia in November, Georgia's hopes of membership in the near future had evaporated.

Mikheil Saakashvili was reelected to a second term as president of Georgia in a controversial early election on January 5, 2008, just two months after police and security forces resorted to brute force to disperse participants in a weeklong peaceful demonstration in Tbilisi to protest his increasingly authoritarian policies and call for his resignation.

But over the past 12 months, the disastrous military intervention in South Ossetia in August has raised questions about Saakashvili's political judgment, demolished near-term hopes of NATO membership for Georgia, and impelled several of Saakashvili's former closest allies into opposition.

The rationale adduced by Georgian officials for the November 2007 crackdown was the need to thwart an anticipated Moscow-orchestrated coup. Saakashvili's subsequent decision to schedule a preterm presidential election (his term in office was not due to end until early January 2009) may well have been intended to demonstrate that he still enjoyed massive popular support.

But if that was indeed his intention, it backfired badly. Voter turnout was only 56 percent, and Saakashvili polled just 53.47 percent of the vote. Four years earlier, in the wake of the November 2003 Rose Revolution that toppled Eduard Shevardnadze, voter turnout was between 80-90 percent, and Saakashvili swept the board with 96 percent.

Businessman Levan Gachechiladze, the candidate backed by the nine-party opposition National Council who polled second among the six challengers with 25.69 percent, claimed that Saakashvili in fact garnered only 44 percent of the vote and that the official results were rigged to give him the required 50 percent-plus-one-vote necessary to avoid a runoff. International monitors and the EU expressed concern over procedural violations, but stopped short of endorsing opposition demands for a recount or the annulment of the official results and a repeat ballot.

On January 29, 12 Georgian opposition parties unveiled a memorandum addressed to parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze affirming their shared belief that the election was totally falsified and rejecting the legitimacy of Saakashvili's reelection. The memorandum further listed 17 measures it considered essential to overcome the current "political crisis" and ensure that the parliamentary elections to be held in early summer were free and fair.

But in mid-March, the pro-Saakashvili parliamentary majority pushed through amendments to the election law that the opposition perceived as intended to perpetuate its majority, and his United National Movement garnered 119 seats in the May 21 election to a new 150-seat parliament. Opposition parties won 30 seats, but 12 deputies from the main nine-party opposition coalition and four from the Labor Party refused to take up their mandates, saying the elections were rigged.

Again, international monitors expressed concern that the vote "took place in a highly polarized environment" and that the Georgian authorities had failed to address and prevent a recurrence of the irregularities that marred the January presidential vote.

Placing Blame For Russia War

Despite the growing tensions between the opposition and the authorities, and tactical disagreements among opposition parties, the strained domestic political status quo might well have proven sustainable but for the military conflict with Russia over South Ossetia in August.

The Georgian opposition's unwillingness to attack the government during the August war has faded.
That war provided Russia with a convenient, if not convincing pretext for extending formal recognition in late August to the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and for blocking in December the extension of the mandate of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Mission in Georgia. It also demonstrated the weakness and inefficiency of the Georgian armed forces, weaknesses documented in detail in a Pentagon analysis released in December that called into question Georgia's eligibility for NATO membership.

Saakashvili has consistently disclaimed any responsibility for the start of hostilities, placing the blame primarily on Russia, but also on the international community for not acting more resolutely to deter Moscow from responding with disproportionate force. He has argued repeatedly, most recently in an op-ed published in "The Wall Street Journal" on December 1, that any "democratic polity" would have acted the same way if its citizens were being "slaughtered."

The Georgian parliamentary commission established on September 26 to evaluate the events that immediately preceded the outbreak of hostilities likewise concluded responsibility for the fighting lay exclusively with Russia, which the commission said "planned and provoked the war." The commission's findings contained not a word of criticism of Saakashvili personally, although they excoriated the National Security Council for failing to anticipate the scale of the Russian assault and the Georgia military command for failures in coordination, communications, and mobilizing reserve troops.

The commission further claimed to have found no evidence that Georgia either provoked the fighting or was preparing a military incursion into South Ossetia, even though during the afternoon of August 7 -- just hours before the Georgian artillery bombardment of Tskhinvali got under way -- OSCE monitors had registered a buildup of Georgian troops backed by artillery and Grad rocket launchers north of Gori, close to the border between South Ossetia and the rest of Georgia.

But Saakashvili's critics at home and abroad continue to question not only his rationale for risking an all-out conflict with Russia that inflicted billions of dollars of damage on the country's economy and infrastructure, but also, increasingly, his leadership style. Visiting Tbilisi in mid-September, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer noted in particular the lack of media freedom and of an independent judiciary.

Georgian human rights ombudsman Sozar Subari issued an open letter to Saakashvili on September 26 blaming Georgia's defeat in the August war on the authoritarianism and total disregard for human rights of the Georgian leadership and warning that "this is not democracy." In an earlier such missive in the wake of the January 2008 presidential ballot, Subari charged that the ruling elite routinely cites the imperative of building a strong state as justification for trampling on individual human rights.

Opposition Grows

In early October, former parliament speaker Burjanadze, who decided at the last minute not to register as a candidate for the May 21 elections, published a list of 43 questions about the planning and conduct of the war. Several weeks later she too addressed an open letter to Saakashvili warning that Georgia is entering "a political crisis" that can be averted only by liberalizing the election law, abolishing restrictions on the media, and then holding early elections.

Former Ambassador to the UN Irakli Alasania has joined the opposition.
Then in early December, a third former close Saakashvili associate, Irakli Alasania, resigned as Georgia's ambassador to the United Nations. On December 24, he issued a statement accusing Saakashvili of precipitating the August war and calling on all "decent and patriotic persons" to join forces with the aim of averting the impending "crisis" and restoring security, stability, and prosperity.

Alasania is widely anticipated to align with the merged Republican and New Rightist parties, which may nominate him as a presidential candidate in the event of the preterm ballot for which Burjanadze continues to call. But Saakashvili told journalists on December 17 that there will be no elections before 2013, when he will not seek reelection, having "fulfilled my promises to the people," Caucasus Press reported.

Parliament speaker David Bakradzem, for his part, argued on December 19 that early elections would be counterproductive because they would cost $1 billion that would be better invested in the economy. But from the point of view of the current leadership, the most cogent argument against a preterm presidential election is that the constitution bars Saakashvili from seeking a third term, and there is no other political figure within the ruling elite with the authority and charisma to compete with either Burjanadze or Alasania.

'Disaster' Coming?

The global financial crisis has compounded the damage inflicted on the Georgian economy by the August war. Projected GDP growth for 2009 is just 2.5 percent, compared with 12.5 percent in 2007 and 8.5 percent for the first six months of 2008. The Georgian currency, the lari, has lost 14 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar since September.

Saakashvili acknowledged on December 11 that Georgia will face economic "difficulties" in 2009, but he affirmed that they will not be of a magnitude comparable to the "disaster" of the early 1990s. Former Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli, however, has challenged that argument, predicting on December 26 that failure to correct the government's monetary policy will result in a further depreciation of the lari.

In what appears to be a belated response to Western criticisms of the sluggish pace of democratization, Saakashvili submitted to parliament in mid-December proposed constitutional amendments that will marginally increase the powers of the legislature at the expense of the president.

But successive cabinet reshuffles have left unscathed powerful Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, whom Subari has implicitly accused of presiding over a death squad that operates outside the law. And Bacho Akhalaya, a Merabishvili protege who is believed to have provoked a prison riot in March 2006 by his sadistic treatment of prison inmates, has been promoted to deputy defense minister.

In other respects too, Saakashvili seems to be living in a fantasy world. "The New York Times" on December 31 quoted him as saying that the Georgian people still support him. The weekly "Kviris palitra," by contrast, reported on December 22 that 24 percent of a total of 395 respondents it recently polled are "angry" with Saakashvili.

And on December 23, Saakashvili assured the Georgian population that the country is on the road to recovery, and that Abkhazia and South Ossetia will "be liberated far sooner than people think."

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