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Out Of Power, Georgia's United National Movement Seeks New Role

Supporters of the presidential candidate of the United National Movement party, Davit Bakradze, attend a rally in Tbilisi last month. Will the party go the way of its former leaders?
Supporters of the presidential candidate of the United National Movement party, Davit Bakradze, attend a rally in Tbilisi last month. Will the party go the way of its former leaders?
People like Zaza Bibilashvili just might be the future of Georgia's United National Movement (ENM).

The 39-year-old, Western-educated lawyer who specializes in international-business law and formerly worked with Georgia's mission to the United Nations wowed party faithful with a motivating speech at an ENM congress in Tbilisi on October 5.

"You are the people who turned this country from a backward, peripheral country with not many prospects for the future into a model state in the region," Bibilashvili said. "I am one of the citizens of this country -- someone who, during all these years, has never paid a bribe and has not been affected by organized crime."

And the embattled party of outgoing Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili badly needs the enthusiasm of young supporters like Bibilashvili, who is not even an ENM member. Nevertheless, it's people like him who are considered the party's future.

After losing the October 2012 parliamentary elections -- and control of the government -- to Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition, the ENM last month saw its candidate for president soundly trounced. Georgian Dream candidate Giorgi Margvelashvili got three times as many votes as the ENM's Davit Bakradze.

On top of that, the party is saddled with Saakashvili's tarnished legacy. The hero of the 2003 Rose Revolution leaves office with a reputation for policies that were far more authoritarian than his rhetoric and for tolerating shocking levels of lawlessness. Saakashvili and the ENM have particularly been accused of allowing widespread torture in the country's prisons, an issue that played a key role in the party's ouster from power.

READ MORE: Mikheil Saakashvili's Polarizing Legacy

All this has Georgians wondering what the future holds for the ENM, as one woman on the streets of the capital told RFE/RL's Georgian Service: "Their chances [of surviving] seem weak, but they exist. The country, of course, needs an opposition. But I don't know if it will be the ENM or something else."

The Experienced Opposition

Saakashvili himself is hoping the party will be able to restore some of his reputation as a builder of Georgian democracy. He told the October 5 party congress that "the survival of the United National Movement is an incontrovertible sign that Georgia has moved on to a new, real European stage of development."

Saakashvili repeated this thought in comments to foreign diplomats at his residence on November 6. "This is the first precedent in this region of such a smooth transition. The first precedent when the ruling party did not disappear -- despite the fact that 25,000 people have been interrogated and many leaders have been either arrested or placed under some kind of judicial procedure," he said. "This also is the first precedent of cohabitation in practice -- despite all its difficulties."

Outgoing President Mikheil Saakashvili hopes his party lives on to enhance his democratic legacy.
Outgoing President Mikheil Saakashvili hopes his party lives on to enhance his democratic legacy.

It is certainly too early to tell if Saakashvili's confidence is well placed, but many analysts in Georgia seem to agree with him. "The United National Movement is made up of very experienced politicians, whose experience includes being in opposition as well as governing the country -- with all their achievements and mistakes," says Nika Chitadze, the head of the International Security Research Center in Tbilisi.

"Today they -- and their younger members in particular -- have the chance to show their capabilities in opposition," Chitadze continues. "The United National Movement describes itself as the main opposition force, and members of the [ruling] coalition have become assured of the fact that the ENM is not going to disappear from Georgia's political life."

Chitadze adds that having to cope with a competent opposition like the ENM could also benefit Georgian Dream, perhaps pushing it to greater consolidation.

Changing The Culture

Georgia's post-Soviet political history has been marked by instability and personality-based parties based on loyalty and patronage, rather than ideology or policy. The Round Table-Free Georgia party of the country's first post-Soviet leader, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, folded when he was ousted in a 1992 coup.

His successor, Eduard Shevardnadze led his Citizen's Union party to several victories, but it shut down after the Rose Revolution chased Shevardnadze from power in 2003.

Moreover, the country has been mired in a political culture in which parties viewed one another as enemies rather than competitors. Now Saakashvili is betting on the ENM to ensure that 2003 was the revolution to end all revolutions in Georgia.

Khatuna Lagazidze is a political analyst in Tbilisi who has been impressed with the ENM's resilience through the trials of the last year. "I agree with those who say the United National Movement has a future. It was very difficult to state this [after the parliamentary elections] on October 1, 2012," Lagazidze says. "However, over the last year, the ENM has managed to come back to life. This was due to many factors. First and foremost, I would not be afraid to boldly state that the ENM is the only well-organized and well-structured party in Georgia's political arena. This is a party that has developed a well-ordered and motivated network throughout the whole country."

One of the reasons why political parties have been slow to take root in Georgia is the country's traditional social culture. Sociologists have found the country to have very high levels of "bonding social capital," defined as "trust of and collaboration within tightly-knit groups." However, Georgia consistently ranks low in "bridging social capital," the type that produces systematic cooperation with strangers.

The 2008 World Values Survey found that just 5 percent of Georgians participate in associations or other formal civic activity, according to a report by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers.

Over the last 10 years, Saakashvili worked to move the needle on this problem, actively recruiting Western-educated Georgians like lawyer Bibilashvili, who has a B.A. in international relations from Canisius College in the United States.

Another ENM rising star, 37-year-old parliament deputy Zurab Japaridze, joined the party in 2012 and played a prominent role articulating its positions during the 2012 election campaign.

Saakashvili also ensured the party hewed to a rightist platform. Since 2007, the ENM has been an observer member of the European People's Party, an umbrella grouping of like-minded parties from dozens of countries that has been the largest party in the European Parliament for more than a decade. As a result, the ENM is solidly associated in the public mind with Georgia's pro-EU course and its NATO membership aspirations.

A Sign Of Democratic Health

The United National Movement was initially formed in 2001, when Saakashvili left Shevardnadze's government. It spent nearly two years in opposition before the Rose Revolution and now has been in opposition for more than a year since its 2012 defeat.

Analyst Chitadze says this experience distinguishes the ENM from previous Georgian political parties and just might be the key to its future. "Judging by today's political situation, [Saakashvili] has significant support, around 20-25 percent. And, he also has an experience of being in opposition. These factors are going to be beneficial to the National Movement's success."

However, Georgia's transition away from a political culture in which parties view one another as enemies is far from certain. The ENM's secretary-general, former Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili, is currently in pretrial detention facing numerous abuse-of-office charges. Almost all the major members of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition are on record as saying the ENM should be destroyed.

But parliament speaker Davit Usupashvili, of the Republican Party, struck a surprising dissenting note in an interview with RFE/RL in April. "I have to repeat often -- especially when I'm in Europe or in the [United] States -- that the survival of the United National Movement, as a former governing political force, for it to stay in Georgia's political spectrum, is a task of Georgian democracy," he said.

"Hearing this, some people among the audiences in Georgia will be angry with me, for they believe that not only does the ENM not deserve to be saved, but it should be tried and banned. But I repeat my position once again and would like to urge everyone to really think through what's at stake."

Usupashvili emphasized that individuals suspected of crimes should be prosecuted and, if convicted, punished, but he went on to say that Georgia must move beyond an era of collective responsibility and even expressed the desire that the ENM emerge from its present tribulations as a "healthy faction."

"And then we will defeat them in a political struggle," Usupashvili said.

Salome Asatiani of RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report

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