Georgia After the Titans

With Saakashvili and Ivanishvili leaving the stage, where will the Caucasian republic go?

These are important days in Georgia. The emerging story could be called "After the Titans."

Both of the two oversized personalities that have dominated the country, Mikheil Saakashvili and Bidzina Ivanishvili, retired from front-line politics within a week of one another. Now—as Georgia marks the tenth anniversary of the Rose Revolution that brought Saakashvili to power—the government has struck a historic deal with Europe, initialing an Association Agreement with the European Union in Vilnius.

Georgia's political path has been completely unlike that of its neighbors. The curse of most post-Soviet states is an entrenched elite that monopolizes both political and economic power and blocks reform. Georgians have now swept aside two elites that had become too deeply entrenched: Shevardnadze in 2003, and Saakashvili in 2012.

That is healthy for democracy but leaves the country with a political version of what Milan Kundera called the “unbearable lightness of being.”

Saakashvili had already renounced most of his powers after losing parliamentary elections in October 2012. His nemesis Ivanishvili, though retired, will presumably be providing copious advice from behind the scenes. But Ivanishvili has honored his promise to leave the post of prime minister and will no longer be the most visible man in Georgia.

So the Georgian public is in a growing-up phase and cannot look to a big patriarch to fix all its problems. Two relatively inexperienced men are occupying the two top offices of state. Former university rector Giorgi Margvelashvili is now president, with reduced powers under the new constitution. The new prime minister, Irakli Garibashvili, is just thirty-one and has only ever worked for his patron, Ivanishvili.

The worry is that these two green leaders could lead Georgia into a period where greater democracy is handicapped by weak government, poor economic management, and manipulation by special interests. A useful comparison is with countries like Bulgaria or Romania in the 1990s, and with the condition that Thomas Carothers famously called “feckless pluralism.”

The good news is that there is actually a lot more continuity than the two sides in Georgian politics admit. Most people in the governmental bureaucracy have kept their jobs—and it is one of the real achievements of the Saakashvili years that there is now a technocratic class that can deliver day-to-day government services in the country.

Moreover, the foreign ministry is essentially the same as before and foreign policy is set on the same pro-Western course. Saakashvili and his supporters have dropped the narrative they were expounding last year that Ivanishvili was ”an agent of the Kremlin” and that his coming to power would hand Georgia over to the Russians.

On the contrary. The only pro-Russian candidate in the recent presidential election, Nino Burjanadze, won about 10 percent of the vote. Whatever else can be said of the two new leaders, neither the former rector of the Western-oriented Georgian Institute of Public Affairs, Margvelashvili, nor the Sorbonne-educated Garibashvili are considered to have any significant ties to Russia and have reaffirmed Georgia's EU-leaning destiny.

Another success story of the last year is that the Georgian parliament, which was a mere rubberstamp under Saakashvili, has been strengthened as an institution. The speaker, David Usupashvili, is an impressive and consensual figure, who works with the parliamentary minority of the former ruling party, the United National Movement (UNM).

However, a more vocal parliament also brings home to Georgians’ television screens perhaps the biggest problem the country still faces: an extremely aggressive political culture and deep polarization between government and opposition. The wounds of a gruelling election campaign in 2012 have still not healed.

There were modest hopes that the latest transition of power would draw a line under this fight.

Ivanishvili had spent much of 2013 suggesting he wanted to see UNM disappear into history. Several UNM officials were arrested or are under investigation—although the government has invited international monitoring of what they say will be trials of very serious abuses.

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