05/01/2008 - Analysis
On 8th November last the President of the Republic Mikhail Saakachvili announced that early presidential elections would take place on 5th January next. This decision came after a week of serious political crisis during which time the country witnessed a number of demonstrations demanding the resignation of the Head of State. Two referenda are being held on the same day as the election. The first will concern NATO; the Georgians will have to answer "yes" or "no" to the following question: "Do you support Georgia's entry into NATO?" The second will involve the next round of general elections with voters deciding on the date: "Are they to be organised between 1st October and 31st December 2008 as planned by the electoral law or are they to take place in spring 2008?"
Looking back at the Georgian Crisis
The crisis started on 25th September last during a programme on the TV channel IMEDI, when former Defence Minister Irakli Okrouachvili, accused President Saakachvili of having tried to organise the assassination of Arkado Patarlasischvili, owner of IMEDI and of having attempted to cover up the errors in the investigation into the death of former Prime Minister (2004-2005) Zourab Jvania; the latter died of carbon monoxide poisoning at the home of one of his friends, vice-governor of the region of Kvemo Kartli in February 2005. Two days later, Irakli Okrouachvili was arrested for corruption. He was charged and released on 9th October, on bail of 4 million euro and the promise of withdrawing from political life. A few days later he went back on his previous declarations saying that "some people" had encouraged him to make them. From his exile in Germany, where officially he went on 1st November for medical reasons, the former Defence Minister, considered a fugitive by the Georgian authorities, re-iterated his accusations qualifying Mikhail Saakachvili a "dictator" and "a corrupt personality".
The arrest of Irakli Okrouachvili on 27th September initiated a wave of anger and protest (10,000 people demonstrated in the streets of Tbilissi) which grew until in November the movement had swelled into significant popular demonstrations.
On 2nd November around 60,000 people gathered to demand the resignation of the President of the Republic. Two days later the Head of State spoke on TV to try and calm matters down. The authorities distributed coupons worth 180 laris (75 euro) to the poorest populations in an attempt to counter food and energy price rises. On 5th November the TV channel IMEDI broadcast another interview with Irakli Okrouachvili. The demonstrations continued and on 7th November the popular rally was severely repressed by the police. The Head of State declared a State of Emergency which was to last two weeks. "This was the most difficult decision to take. Every cosh that strikes out at citizens is also a blow to me. But I had no alternative save chaos and civil confrontation," declared Mikhail Saakachvili on 14th November. On 8th November the two TV channels IMEDI and Kavkasia were prohibited from broadcasting. IMEDI, which has been banned for three months, was accused of having called for the government to be overthrown. On the same day the President announced that the Presidential election would take place early on 5th January, just under one year before the originally planned date.
On 15th November the State of Emergency was lifted. The following day Prime Minister Zourab Nogaïdeli, who has been extremely unpopular because of the reforms he has made to the education system, which led to the dismissal of many teachers, resigned along with the rest of the government. He was replaced by 37 year-old Lado Gourguenidzé, chairman of the Bank of Georgia group. "It is my task to establish dialogue with society, to form a consensus with the people, to show it that we have heard the message. My priority will be employment," stressed the new Head of Government. Mikhail Saakachvili for his part is promising to distribute coupons for gas and electricity for this winter and to double the minimum retirement pension (presently at 38 laris, 15 euro) on 1st October 2008. He also announced that all of the poorest families will receive a package at the end of the year. "I want to be able to find a chicken, bread, cheese and wine on every Georgian table at New Year," he declared.
The following day the trial of Irakli Okrouachvili started in Tbilissi, without the accused in attendance – he is under suspicion of extorting money, breach of trust, money laundering and negligence. The latter was arrested in Berlin on 26th November by Interpol. According to German law Georgia has forty days to request his extradition.
The issues at stake in the presidential election
"Mikhail Saakachvili's rise to power raised great hopes. Major changes have taken place but a part of the population feels that it has not benefited from this. Mikhail Saakachvili's team comprises young, energetic, and inexperienced people. They acted quickly but made many enemies. This was mostly because of their personal style, they alienated the liberal opposition which was very damaging in a small country like this," declared Alexander Rondeli, director of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Tbilissi.
Elected to lead the country on 4th January 2004 with 96.05% of the vote after the Rose Revolution (23rd November 2003, Mikhail Saakachvili and the members of his party, the United National Movement, NM-D, took over Parliament, rose in hand, interrupting the speech by President Edward Chevardnadze, obliging him to flee with his bodyguards), Mikhail Saakachvili has westernised Georgia. With the liberalisation of the economy he has reformed the police-force, the legal system, the universities and the hospitals. In the name of the fight against corruption, the army and the police-force were dismantled. 1,600 policemen were dismissed and new officers were recruited. Many teachers suffered the same fate. The hospitals have been privatised. The privatisation law includes a clause whereby each person who acquires a hospital promises to develop one of the hospital's activities. In addition to this the State budget has been multiplied by six since 2004, most investments being allocated to Defence. The president has developed a wide-ranging policy for public works, which incidentally won him the nickname of Chadevran Pirvelli (Fountain the First), since a great number of fountains have been built in the country.
In 2007, the GDP growth rose to 14%, foreign investment reached 575 million dollars in the first quarter of 2007 and the volume of trade increased by 37.1% during the same period. With regard to foreign investment Georgia ranked 112th in 2005 but now lies 18th in the World Bank's league table, an all time first in the international organisation's history. However unemployment and inflation remain high. According to the Institute for Strategy and Development (StanD), 32% of the population lives with less than 100 laris (42 euro) per month and around 30% of the Georgian population are said to be unemployed. This probably explains why most of the population is concerned about the improvement of its living standards rather than institutional disputes.
The ruling power also has to face the issues of separatism on the part of two provinces (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) and the autonomist claims of Adjaria and Samtskhe-Javakheti. South Ossetia is officially annexed to Georgia but has its own president, government and Parliament. However since it does not have any resources it is obliged to work with central power (that maintains it controls 50% of its territory and 40% of its population) but still demands the constitution of a federal State. 90% of Ossetians have a Russian passport.
Abkhazia which was integrated into the Soviet Republic of Georgia in 1921 is an autonomous republic dependent on Tbilissi. It proclaimed independence in August 1992 and defended this until the one-year conflict that led to thousands of deaths and the exile of 200,000 Georgians. 2,000 Russian soldiers are stationed in Abkhazia. South Ossetia and Abkhazia have Russia's support in their separatist claims. President Serguey Bagapsh asked the inhabitants of the district of Gali (mostly Georgians) to boycott the presidential election.
Finally Adjaria is an autonomous republic with major resources (Adjaria is the country's richest province) of which it only gives up a tiny part (to Tbilissi). The Russian troops on the 12th military base are stationed in Adjaria. The base is planned to be closed in 2009 only.
Finally Georgia has a difficult relationship with its Russian neighbour. In September 2006 four Russian officers were accused of spying and arrested in Georgia provoking a diplomatic crisis between Moscow and Tbilissi. Russia suspended its air, land and maritime deliveries to Georgia, and placed an embargo on Georgian win, in turn Russia expulsed hundreds of Georgian citizens in November 2006.
On 6th August 2007 an anti-radar missile Kh-58 of Russian production was fired from Georgia but which did not lead to any deaths. Mikhail Saakachvili believes that tension between the two countries, such as the various incidents that have interspersed their relationship make Georgia's rapid integration of NATO vital. The country hopes to enter the Membership Action Plan (MAP) during the next summit of the Atlantic Alliance in Bucharest in April 2008. On 8th November last NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer did however criticise the management of the political crisis on the part of the Georgian government, with the start of the State of Emergency and the closure of the two TV channels. "It would be unrealistic to accept Georgia as part of the action plan for membership today," maintains Giga Burduli, former representative of Georgia for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
"Georgia is facing problems and the leaders of the Russian special services are involved in this. Some of them are in Georgia and some in Moscow," said President Saakachvili since the other pretenders to the position of Head of State are barely more in favour of Russia than the outgoing President.
The Presidential Electoral Campaign
A coalition on the part of the opposition, rallying a mixture of 9 political parties ranging from the nationalists to the far left was created in September 2007. Its aim is to see Mikhail Saakachvili leave power. It supports the abolition of the presidential regime to be replaced by a parliamentary system, the reform of the Electoral Commission so that the opposition can be represented in the same way as the ruling parties (6 members each); they also want to abandon the single name one round vote in the general elections. They are requesting the immediate re-opening of the TV channel IMEDI. Around 30,000 people demonstrated in Tbilissi on 25th November in support of this measure.
Some of the Georgians hostile to the presidential regime dream of re-establishing the monarchy. Hence Ilia II leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church suggested establishing a constitutional monarchy to solve the recurring presidential crises. The royal family of Georgia, the Bagrationi, reigned from the XIth to XIXth centuries (1801). The reign of David IV (1089-1125) and that of his grand-daughter, Tamar (1184-1213) comprised the country's golden era. Many branches of the family have survived. According to royal family historian, Raul Chagunava, the most likely heirs are 63 year old Jorge de Bagratin, who lives in Spain and Nuzgar Bagrationi-Gruzinski, director of the Tumanshivili Theatre of Tbilissi.
Levan Gatchetchildaze, former campaign director for Mikhail Saakachvili was the candidate appointed on 12th November last by the opposition to run in the presidential election. He forms a "team" with Salomé Zourabichvili, former Foreign Affairs minister (March 2004 to October 2005) and leader of Georgia's Way. A French woman of Georgian origin, Ms Zourabichvili started her career at the French Foreign Office before moving back to Georgia in 2003, firstly as an ambassador of France then as a Minister.
Forty-three year-old Levan Gatchetchiladze, a mathematician and MP of the New Rights Party (AM) first worked in the wine industry. In 1994 in Telavi he bought a company he renamed Georgian Wines and Spirits (GWS) together with the company Pernod Ricard. He resigned from that in 1999 to start a political career. Elected MP he was one of the founders of the New Rights Party which supported the Rose Revolution in 2003. Re-elected in 2004 Levan Gatchetchiladze then chose to stand as an independent and not in Mikhail Saakachvili's National Movement. He still holds a 9% share in Georgian Wines and Spirits which has seen a 60% fall in its sales since the Russian embargo that was placed on Georgian wines.
"We do not have a programme and we don't intend to have one. Mikhail Saakachvili himself ended the legitimacy of his mandate on 7th November by refusing to listen to the legitimate requests on the part of the population. If we are elected we shall be a transition government that will lead Georgia to the general elections in April 2008. We aim to put an end to the presidential regime and to re-establish a parliamentary system," declared Salomé Zourabichvili. Levan Gatchetchiladze supports Georgia having a closer relationship with NATO and the European Union. On a domestic level her priority would be the reform of the legal system and putting an end to violence. Salomé Zourabichvili defends the idea of a return to the 1921 Constitution that made Georgia a parliamentary republic. "Levan Gatchetchiladze is an honest businessman. He is known and respected in Georgia. I will provide him with my popularity and my foreign contacts," she says.
"This is not an ordinary election, it is the continuation of our fight against injustice, violence and the presidential institution," declared Levan Gatchetchiladze. At present he does not belong to a party and has no political affiliation and he promises to resign as soon as Georgia becomes a parliamentary democracy once more. "We shall fight against authoritarianism and I am prepared to withdraw from political life when we have reached our goal," he said. "Mikhail Saakachvili's regime has developed into an authoritarian, neo-Bolchevic system. The next elections must seal the end of his regime now that he has lost democratic legitimacy. We have the people behind us whilst Mikhail Saakachvili only has the State," stresses Salomé Zourabichvili.
Levan Gatchetchiladze purposely asked for the TV channel IMEDI to be allowed to broadcast again. "The most important thing is that IMEDI starts operating again. Without this the elections will not be democratic." Miguel Angel Moratinos, Spanish Foreign Minister, whose country is at present chairing the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has requested the re-opening of the channel. "We are asking the Georgian government to strengthen democracy in the country and to give the media their permits back, and this includes the channel IMEDI." EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus, Peter Semneby, visited the channels offices on 10th November. Like the State of Emergency, censorship and the restriction of the right to strike, to convene meetings and demonstrations are all evidently incompatible with the smooth running of an electoral campaign.
Three opposition parties – New Rights Party (AM), Industry will save Georgia (MGS) and the National Democratic Party (EDP) – have joined forces (MGS, led by Gogi Topadzé and AM were already partners during the general election on 2nd November 2003) and support Davit Gamqrelidze, the New Rights Party leader. "Our aim is to rally all the parties on the right who share a common view of what the State should be, ie a constitutional monarchy based on Christian morals," maintains Bachuki Kardava, chairman of the EDP. Davit Gamqrelidze, whose campaign slogan will be "We are confident in God and he gives us strength", has made orthodoxy, European values, the strengthening of the middle classes and accession to NATO his priorities. If he wins he will organise a referendum in April 2008 about the political system proposing for people to choose between a monarchy and a parliamentary republic. He says he supports a return of the monarchy.
Arkadi Patarlasischvili, owner of the TV channel IMEDI has also decided to run in the presidential election. The businessman is believed to be the country's richest man and as a preventive measure he has granted the shares he has in IMEDI to Rupert Murdoch's group, News Corp. He has chosen the slogan "Georgia without Mikhail Saakachvili is a Georgia without terror," a phrase which echoes the slogan used by the present President in 2003, "Georgia without Edward Chevardnadze."
The Presidential Function
The President of the Republic is elected by direct universal suffrage for a mandate of five years. He has the power to appoint the Prime Minister. He can dissolve the government, the Parliament if the latter refuses to appoint the Prime Minister he has chosen and dismiss the Interior, Defence and Security Ministers. He negotiates international treaties and appoints the ambassadors. He can declare martial law and the State of Emergency. He chairs the High Council of Justice.
Candidates running in the presidential election have to declare their intention to do so 40 days before the election. They must be at least 35 years old and have at least 50,000 signatures of support. The electoral law also demands a minimum 50% turn out on the part of those registered for the presidential election to be declared valid.
22 people are running for the presidential post:
- Mikhail Saakachvili, present Head of State;
- Levan Gatchetchiladze, candidate of the opposition coalition;
- Davit Gamqrelidze, supported by the New Rights party, Industry will save Georgia and the National Democratic Party;
- Shalva Natelashvili, leader of the Labour Party (SLP) founded in 1996;
- Arkadi Patarlasischvili, owner of the TV channel Imedi;
- Giorgi Maisashvili, economist and leader of the Party for the Future of Georgia;
- Irina Sariashvili-Chanturia, leader of "Forwards Georgia!";
- Giorgi Gachechiladze, leader of the Green Party
- Teimuraz Shashiashvili, former governor of the province of Imereti;
- Tamaz Bibiluri;
- Levan Kidzinidze;
- Giorgi Sharvashidze;
- Shalva Kuprashvili;
- Shalva Tsertsvadze;
- Giorgi Qorghanashvili;
- Kartlos Gharibashvili;
- Fazil Aliev;
- Avtandil Margiani;
- Archil Ioseliani;
- Giorgi Gakhokidze;
- Gia Chkhikvadze;
- Avtandil Pilauri.
Even though he might have wanted to, former Defence Minister Irakli Okrouachvili, could not have stood in the election because he is not yet 35 years old.
Mikhail Saakachvili, who is obliged by the Constitution to resign 45 days before the end of his mandate, left office on 25th November. "The next 40 days are very important. We shall win this election and I am sure that on 5th January we will achieve a great victory and it will be a new start for Georgia," he declared. He has fixed three priorities: "to bring Georgians out of poverty, restore the country's territorial integrity and to complete Georgia's integration into the European Union". On the same day around 40,000 people rallied in Tbilissi for the first time since the November demonstrations. "Freedom for the press!", "Remember 7th November!" were the slogans on the banners. "The aim of this demonstration is to protest against the continuation of the terror policy in spite of the president's declarations of reassurance. We also want freedom for the press since to date IMEDI has not resumed broadcasting," said Levan Berdjenichvili, a member of the Republican Party who maintained, "Mikhail Saakachvili did not resign of his own accord. He resigned because we wanted him to. He will never come back to power, there is no place for him in Georgia."
As planned in the Constitution the interim will be ensured by the President of Parliament Nino Bourdjanadze.
Many political observers believe that the chances of seeing the outgoing president beaten on 5th January are slim. "The opposition does not have a leader as charismatic as Mikhail Saakachvili. I cannot see him losing the presidential election," stresses Gia Nodia, director of the Caucasus Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development. "Levan Gachechildadze is about to face a hard battle against Mikhail Saakachvili. Although he has been in politics for nearly 10 years and is an MP at present he lacks experience," confirms political analyst Khatuna Lagazidze. Finally political analyst Soso Tsintsadze says: "I think that the opposition will fail because it is divided and its leaders have not succeeded in putting their own personal ambitions to one side in order to rally around a single candidate."
In October, just before the November demonstrations Mikhail Saakachvili was seen with a benevolent eye by 60% of the population.
No candidate is due to win 80% of the vote and for the first time in its history the country will experience a real political competition.
Results of the Presidential Election on 4th January 2004 in Georgia.
Turn out: 82.72%