In a widely expected result, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement party was soundly defeated by billionaire business magnate Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition in parliamentary elections held weeks ago. Ivanishvili’s coalition took 82 seats in parliament, enough to form a majority government, but eighteen votes shy of the 100 seats needed to amend Georgia’s constitution. Saakashvili acknowledged his bitter rival’s victory on election night; however, he was clear in his denunciation of Georgia Dream’s agenda, calling Ivanishvili’s plans, “fundamentally unacceptable to me.”
Saakashvili’s skepticism of Georgia Dream is borne of his struggle to keep Moscow at bay. Russia and Georgia fought a brief but disastrous war in 2008 over the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The conflict cost Georgia some twenty percent of its territory. Although the internationally brokered cease-fire did not recognize the provinces as independent and called on Russia to remove its troops, Moscow continues to occupy the regions.
Ivanishvili, who is estimated to be worth about $6.5 billion, made his money buying and selling various businesses in Russia. His close ties with Russia’s business and ruling elite inform his stated goal of rekindling the relationship between the two countries. But Ivanishvili has also said that he will keep Georgia’s focus on its own security and will continue Saakashvili’s push to integrate the country fully into NATO. Saakashvili’s courtship with the West, and his strong affinity for and cooperation with the United States since coming to power, have been the main sticking points between Moscow and Tbilisi, leading directly to increased Russian efforts to re-establish its influence over the country and the 2008 conflict.
Saakashvili’s grudging acceptance and disapproval of Ivanishvili has been the catalyst for his party’s refusal to work with Georgian Dream, and the feeling has been mutual. Ivanishvili has stated that no United National Movement minister could serve in his government. He has also called for Saakashvili to step down ahead of the scheduled presidential election next year, saying that as Prime Minister, he cannot work with Saakashvili. Saakashvili has refused.
Having helped to establish Georgian democracy and engineering the first peaceful transition of power in its history, Saakashvili must use his remaining time in office to see that the will of the Georgian people is carried out. As its first democratic president, he must set an example for future Georgian leaders to follow.
As a student of American democracy, Saakashvili is a no doubt aware of the great humility and wisdom George Washington displayed when he voluntarily stepped down after serving two terms as the first President of the United States. Establishing the peaceful transition of power – setting an example that would be emulated by successive American presidents for nearly 150 years – is arguably the greatest gift America’s Cincinnatus gave to the nation he helped found.
While Saakashvili is no Washington, he was educated in the city that bears his name, at the university dedicated to his example. Like Washington, Saakashvili was a driving force behind the birth of democratic Georgia after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Unlike the great American founder, however, Saakashvili finds himself rejected after two terms by the Georgian people.
Ivanishvili, too, bears no small share of responsibility for shaping Georgia’s future. He will learn quickly that it is easier to campaign than to govern. It is incumbent on him to pursue his agenda in consultation with the minority and with respect for the opposition’s views. Unlike in business, Democracy requires compromise. A failure to incorporate the legitimate views of the opposition will not serve the people, as well as being the surest road to Ivanishvili’s own eventual ignominious fall from grace.
All the while, Moscow waits, from perches within the country, for the opportunity to further divide Georgia against itself. That outcome is in no one’s interest, as one hopes that both Saakashvili and Ivanishvili realize. Georgia’s fate, and the fates of its neighbors in the Caucasus hinge on these two men and whether they have the humility and wisdom to put the people who placed them in power ahead of their own personal political agendas.