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Saakashvili Regime Loses Some Luster, Faces A Tough Challenger

  • Daisy Sindelar

Students hold up a poster with a reference to President Mikheil Saakashvili and a recent torture scandal.

Students hold up a poster with a reference to President Mikheil Saakashvili and a recent torture scandal.

It's a contest that will determine the political future of Georgia. But for many, it has come down to one painful issue -- anger over an unfolding prison abuse scandal and what role a still popular government had to play in it.

From Lagodekhi to Batumi to the capital, Tbilisi, Georgians were approaching the October 1 parliamentary elections with a mixture of disappointment, disillusionment, and fear.

"The prison abuse scandal made me change my mind completely. I was thinking of voting in a different way before, and now I'm not anymore. And I'm very sad about that," a man in Lagodekhi told RFE/RL.

"Nobody deserves to be voted for. Neither one side nor the other," a woman in Tbilisi said.

Such dissent might have been hard to imagine back in 2004, when the Rose Revolution had catapulted a young, dynamic Mikheil Saakashvili to power and set Georgia on its aggressive pro-Western path.

Prison Torture

But after a tumultuous decade, Saakashvili's regime has lost some of its sheen.

And the recent release of videos documenting horrific abuse in the country's prisons may only deepen doubts about the government's commitment to democracy as the nation casts ballots in upcoming parliamentary elections seen as a referendum on Saakashvili's legacy.

Profile: Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia's Wild Card

The videos have sparked massive protests in the capital, Tbilisi, and put the government uncomfortably on the defensive, with Saakashvili calling the abuse "appalling" and firing his powerful interior minister and prison chief.

The scandal has suddenly thrown the contest for the 150-seat parliament in doubt. In a country marked by strong political divisions, an August poll by the U.S. National Democratic Institute indicated that nearly half of Georgians were undecided or unwilling to state their voting preference.

Shorena Shaverdashvili, the publisher and editor of Georgia's "Liberali" weekly, said outrage over the prison-abuse videos might motivate many otherwise "neutral" Georgians to cast a protest vote.

"Not even one unit within the system actually served its function in order to prevent such a mass-scale violation of prisoners' rights and torture and abuse and rape. People who are already critical of this government and who are already going to vote for the opposition, of course they're going to vote," Shaverdashvili said.

"But I think this made it clear to the more undecided or indifferent voters, or to people who didn't care much about politics. Their outrage is going to be translated into a vote. And it's not going to be a pro-government vote."

Saakashvili and his ruling United National Movement (ENM) party were hoping to win an outright majority in the contest.

Georgian Dream coalition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili has presented Saakashvili with his biggest challenge.

Georgian Dream coalition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili has presented Saakashvili with his biggest challenge.

Such an outcome would cement Saakashvili's legacy as a popular reformer when he steps down from the presidency next year. It would also secure ENM's choice of prime minister ahead of constitutional changes shifting political power from the presidency to the premiership.

In the past, ENM could be confident of an easy win. Saakashvili's detractors have tried and repeatedly failed to create a viable opposition movement in the past eight years.

But this time is different. The ENM now faces a deadly serious rival in Georgian Dream, a six-party coalition founded by billionaire and political newcomer Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Thomas de Waal, a South Caucasus expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, calls the rise of Georgian Dream "the most credible challenge yet" to the Saakashvili regime, which he says was beginning to suffer the consequences of its long hold on power.

"If you stay in power for eight or 10 years, you begin to lose touch a bit with society, you begin to start defending yourself and your legacy a bit more than you look forward," de Waal says.

"So I think what we saw in Saakashvili, particularly in the early period, was a very dynamic, modernizing leader who really wanted to rebuild Georgia, but who did this in an almost Bolshevik way that was often in spite of the people rather than in consultation with the people."

To be certain, life has measurably improved for many of Georgia's 4.4 million citizens as a direct result of Saakashvili's rule.

A wholesale purge of the traffic police means people can now drive their cars without fear of paying bribes. Street crime has been significantly reduced.

The economy, though leveling off, saw years of 10 percent growth. USAID in 2009 praised Georgia for implementing "the broadest, fastest business climate reforms of any country in the last 50 years."

And politically, the country went from being a corrupt -- and often dangerous -- post-Soviet backwater to a star pupil in democratic transition, led by Saakashvili and his precocious ENM team of young, largely Western-educated progressives.

But even before the prison-abuse scandal, Saakashvili's credibility had come into question.

From the crackdown on antigovernment protests in 2007 to its brief, cataclysmic war with Russia a year later -- a conflict that represented a major setback to Georgia's battle to reclaim control of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- the president's reputation as a guarantor of liberalism and security had been dealt a swift one-two punch.

The regime has also performed poorly on bread-and-butter issues. Unemployment now officially stands at 16.5 percent, although privately, Georgian officials acknowledge the figure may be twice as high. Two-thirds of people between the ages of 20 and 24 are believed to be out of work.

The August NDI poll found that joblessness and affordable health care were the top concerns for potential voters, for whom loftier issues of NATO membership, human rights, and even territorial integrity might seem of secondary importance.

In this, it is Ivanishvili and Georgian Dream who had the surprising upper hand.

Ivanishvili, Georgia's richest man with a private fortune estimated by "Forbes" magazine at $6.4 billion, has also been one of the state's largest benefactors, personally subsidizing the civil service and army as well as funding artists, scientists, and architectural projects.

Ivanishvili, despite once holding citizenship in both Russia and France, has spent the past 10 years living in Georgia and, since the emergence of Georgian Dream a year ago, has somewhat improbably positioned himself as the common-touch candidate. His coalition has also credibly demonstrated that it is the target of repeated harassment and administrative pressure by ENM ahead of the vote.

For a relative political novice, Ivanishvili has also managed to attract a significant number of well-respected politicians to his six-party coalition, among them former UN Ambassador Irakli Alasania, veteran oppositionist David Usupashvili, and Tedo Japaridze, who was Georgia's U.S. ambassador and head of the National Security Council before going on to serve as Saakashvili's first foreign minister.

Svante Cornell, a Caucasus expert and the co-author of the "Guns of August 2008: Russia's War in Georgia," credits Ivanishvili with creating a viable opposition ahead of the elections. But he also says it was uncertain that Georgian Dream -- which includes nationalists as well as pro-Western liberal -- could hang together beyond the vote.

"On the one hand, [Ivanishvili] has contributed to leveling the political playing field in Georgia. The unfortunate fact is he's done this not by the force of his ideas, but only by the force of his money. I don't see Ivanishvili bringing anything essentially new in terms of ideas to the table in Georgia," Cornell says.

"It's really only money that's keeping his coalition together. For a number of political players who are part of the Georgian Dream coalition, the dominance of the ruling party and what they felt to be the lack of oxygen in the room almost compelled them to join with Ivanishvili in order to survive in the long term."

Saakashvili's Future

NDI polls ahead of the voting showed ENM leading in the polls by a margin of 25 percentage points. But in the wake of the prison-abuse scandal, it was far from certain that Saakashvili's party could win the outright majority that it needed to maintain its current level of control on Georgia's political path.

The specter of a divided parliament sparked concerns about vote-rigging. The October 1 elections were being monitored by the country's largest-ever contingent of international observers. But the Central Election Commission also moved to restrict camera and video access to polling stations, a gesture that many Georgia-watchers feared would leave the vote open to fraud.

Also unclear was what, for some, was the most suspenseful aspect of the vote: What will happen to Saakashvili next?

Many had assumed the 44-year-old president would attempt to move into the newly empowered premiership, like his arch nemesis, Russian President Vladimir Putin, once his second term had ended. But ENM indicated it was backing the country's current prime minister, Vano Merabishvili, for the post.

Experts de Waal and Cornell agree that Saakashvili, who values his legacy, would not risk his long-term image as a democratic state-builder for a short-term chance at holding on to power. Instead, they see him possibly moving into a secondary post, possibly as parliament speaker, governor of the autonomous Ajara region, or even accepting an international role.

Both also agree that Saakashvili's departure came at a good time for Georgia, which is suffering from regime fatigue and polarizing divisions at a moment when it should be shifting its focus to building a sustainable economy, shoring up security, and possibly even building a working relationship with Russia.

Under the circumstances, says de Waal, a divided parliament that brings together Saakashvili's elite with Ivanishvili's upstart coalition may be the best way to move Georgia from the Rose Revolution era into the decade ahead.

"Probably what may be the best result for this divided Georgia -- and probably the result that mass in the middle wants -- is a kind of power-sharing, more of a two-party system, in which the opposition is well-represented in parliament and has a say in the running of the country," de Waal says.

"The problem is, that will involve a lot of climbing down by both sides, who in a very macho, Caucasian way have been talking about total victory. They will have to start dealing with each other, rather than trying to destroy each other."

RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report

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