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Saakashvili’s National Movement Fights To Escape Political Wilderness

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili addresses the crowd at a rally of United National Movement party supporters in Tbilisi on April 19.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili addresses the crowd at a rally of United National Movement party supporters in Tbilisi on April 19.
TBILISI -- As a young student, Anna Loliashvili was among the throngs who massed in downtown Tbilisi nearly a decade ago when Georgia’s Rose Revolution propelled President Mikheil Saahashvili into power.

She had avoided political demonstrations since, but came out for a rally this month to show her support for Saakashvili’s embattled United National Movement (ENM), which lost power in a bitter election in October and is now trying to rejuvenate and rebrand itself as an opposition force.

But the crowd of several thousand that gathered in front of the old parliament building in the heart of the Georgian capital on April 19 appeared largely listless, and polls show the party’s support plummeting.

Loliashvili, now a 32-year-old mother, says she believes the ENM has no political future.

"They’ve exhausted their possibilities," Loliashvili says. "People are so angry with the former government. They only see the bad things that happened. They no longer see the good things that were done.”

Saakashvili’s United National Movement towered over Georgian politics for nearly a decade. But six months after losing power to Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s fractious Georgian Dream coalition, they appear but a shadow of the juggernaut that once had heady ambitions to carry out a transformative modernization of this volatile South Caucasus country.

Exhibit A is the April 19 antigovernment demonstration. The ENM touted it as a signal to friends and foes alike that they were still a force to be reckoned with. “Rumors of our death have been greatly exaggerated,” David Bakradze, leader of the party’s parliamentary faction, said from the podium.

Instead, what it showed, analysts say, was the party’s looming political impotence.

Marina Muskhelishvili, director of the Tbilisi-based Center for Social Studies, says the ENM is now facing the same fate as former President Eduard Shevardnadze’s Union of Georgian Citizens, which disintegrated after losing power in 2003.

"There has been a trend where one ruling party is in power and that is why it is a strong party," Muskhelishvili says. "As soon as this party loses power, it dissolves. This happened to all ruling parties and this was expected with the National Movement."

Mobilization Effort

ENM officials insist the rally was a smashing success, claiming that more than 10,000 people attended. Speaking from the podium, Saakashvili even remarked that he couldn’t see the end of the crowd.

But observers on the scene claimed the real number was half that, at best.

Critics note that the crowd was comprised mostly of men, few young people, and that many present were mobilized and bussed in from the regions by ENM-friendly local governments.

Moreover, just days after the rally, a new public opinion poll showed the ENM’s approval rating cratering, barely registering double digits.
Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili addresses the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France, on April 23.
Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili addresses the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France, on April 23.

According to the poll, commissioned by the U.S. National Democratic Institute and released on April 22, just 10 percent of Georgian voters identified the ENM as the party “closest to them,” far behind the 60 percent that named the Georgian Dream coalition.

Additionally, 63 percent approve of the job Ivanishvili is doing as prime minister, as opposed to just 15 percent who give Saakashvili high marks for his performance as president.

On every major issue, from labor to the economy to law enforcement, the poll showed the public trusting Georgian Dream over the ENM by wide margins. Even on national security issues -- the ENM’s traditional strong suit -- the public overwhelmingly prefers Georgian Dream. On dealing with Russia, for example, the ruling coalition beats the ENM by a whopping 68-to-4 margin. And on getting Georgia into NATO, Georgian Dream is trusted over the ENM by a margin of 54 to 9.

'Sustaining Themselves'

ENM officials say the numbers reflect a “honeymoon” for Georgian Dream and insist their ratings will become stronger as the public sours on the new government.

Party leaders say they hope they will see a recovery in time for key local elections, scheduled for May 2014, and possibly by the October 2013 presidential election.

Ghia Nodia, director of the Tbilisi-based Caucasus Institute, says that merely by surviving the ENM will be well-positioned to capitalize when the ruling coalition loses support.

"Right now they have low [public approval] figures, but they are the only opposition party that matters. And they hope that this honeymoon period will be over soon and they will, as the only opposition party present, they will eventually benefit from the inevitable disappointment with Georgia Dream's performance," Nodia says. "Sustaining themselves seven months after losing power is already an achievement."

But in order to capitalize on the end of Georgian Dream’s honeymoon, the United National Movement will need to overcome some deep internal splits.

The party that in power appeared to be a disciplined monolith marching in lockstep, at least in public, now appears deeply fractured and plagued by debilitating infighting. And it is increasingly airing its dirty laundry in public.

Just days before the mid-April demonstration, Data Akhalaia, a former senior Interior Ministry official, posted a letter on Facebook attacking ENM General-Secretary Vano Merabishvili, a close associate of Saakashvili who served as interior minister for much of his presidency.

The letter accused Merabishvili of orchestrating the prison-abuse scandal that erupted weeks before last year’s parliamentary elections and which many observers believe was instrumental in the ENM’s defeat. Akhalaia’s brother, Bacho Akhalaia -- a former interior and defense minister who also served as chief prison administrator -- is currently on trial for mistreatment of his subordinates. Data Akhalaia also faces separate criminal charges and has fled the country.

It Ain't Over

The infighting at the top and an ongoing exodus among the party’s rank and file, Muskhelishvili says, is typical of ruling parties that lose power.

"[The ENM] merged very strongly with the state bureaucracy. It repeated the tradition of the Soviet party-state system," Muskhelishvili says. "And for people who were members of the National Movement and then became bureaucrats, it is preferable to keep their jobs than to resign and struggle for unclear political goals."

Despite its troubles, the ENM still holds on to valuable assets to keep it afloat as a viable political force, at least in the short term.

It still has the presidency, at least until Saakashvili’s term expires in October, although the office’s power was diminished considerably by constitutional reforms that transferred much of its authority to the prime minister and the parliament.

Moreover, leading United National Movement figure Giorgi Ugulava remains Tbilisi’s mayor, at least until the May 2014 elections, which gives the party effective control over the capital’s economic resources.

And perhaps most importantly, the party still has a commanding presence in the Georgian media landscape with loyalists in control of key broadcast outlets, particularly the country’s leading television station, Rustavi-2.

Additionally, the Georgian Dream, a fractious coalition of parties ranging from the nationalist right to the socialist left and everything in between, has its own internal divisions that could yet prove debilitating.

The government’s supporters, however, say this weakness could actually be a blessing for the Georgian political system. They hope this broad alliance could sooner or later evolve into a competitive multiparty system that would finally break the cycle of one monolithic ruling party being replaced by another.

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