Georgia: Saakashvili's Party Down, Not Out
Despite its defeat in the 2012 Georgian parliamentary election and the eclipse of its leader, ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili, the United National Movement (UNM) survives. More than that – it has become Georgia’s main opposition force.
With the November inauguration of President Giorgi Margvelashvili, from the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, what Georgians call the “Saakashvili era” finally came to an end.
After coming to power in a bloodless 2003 uprising, Saakashvili revolutionised the country, tackling corruption among officials, reforming the police and launching major infrastructure projects.
But his rule will always be remembered for the disastrous attempt to regain control over South Ossetia in 2008, which sparked a brief war with Russia, followed by rapid defeat. Worse was to come shortly afterwards – Russia recognised South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states, making it that bit harder for Georgia to pursue what is called “reintegration” of the two territories.
Barely a day went past in Saakashvili’s nine-year reign without him appearing on the television news, but since November he has not featured once.
“The time has come for you to all have a break from me,” he said in his last televised address to the nation. He then left the country to take up a post as “senior statesman” at Tufts’ Fletcher School in the United States. He has not been back since
For many Georgians, Saakashvili still carries weight as the creator of the modern state. However, his time in office was also marred by allegations of prison torture and widespread high-level corruption.
Several of his close allies, including former prime minister Vano Merabishvili, have been arrested, and Georgian Dream officials have repeatedly indicated that Saakashvili himself could have questions to answer.
In the circumstances, many observers think it is remarkable that his political party has survived at all.
Saakashvili was Georgia’s third post-Soviet president, following Zviad Gamsakhurdia and Eduard Shevardnadze, both of whom were driven out in revolutions.
After they were ousted, their respective political parties soon disappeared, an experience which led many observers to predict a similar fate for the UNM.
“The fact that the National Movement has survived is a sign that Georgia has moved towards a new, European phase of development,” Saakashvili told the party’s last conference.
The UNM’s candidate David Bakradze only scored 21 per cent in last year’s presidential election, but that fact that he came second was a surprise for many.
The UNM is now quietly confident that it can build on its reputation as the founder of Georgian democracy.
“The UNM is packed with politicians who have experience of being both in opposition and in government, with all the achievements and mistakes that entails,” Nika Chitidze, head of the Centre of International Security Studies, told IWPR. “This group is the main opposition force in the country. Of that there’s no doubt.”
For Khatuna Lagazidze, a political analyst and co-founder of the Centre for European Values, the party’s survival came as a complete surprise.
“I must agree with those who think the UNM has a future,” she said. “To be honest, after the October  parliamentary election and the prison scandal, it was hard to predict a future for the party. But over the last year, it has managed to find a second wind,” she told IWPR.
Lagazidze says the UNM’s main strength is that it is the only properly organised party in the country.
“None of the parties in the Georgian Dream coalition can compete with it. Winning second place in the parliamentary election, the UNM showed itself to be the main opposition force both inside and outside the country. One reason for this was its strong links with the West. That’s now its main strength, together with its intellectual resources and experience.”
Saakashvili created the UNM in 2001 after quitting as justice minister in Shevardnadze’s government. After two years in opposition, he led the Rose Revolution which brought him to power.
“As the last elections showed, the UNM and Saakashvili are supported by 20 to 25 per cent of the population, which is a solid figure. You can’t rule out that, with the right policies, that figure could rise,” said Chitidze.
Lagazidze thinks the UNM needs to show that it has learned from the mistakes that led to its defeat. But in her view, its survival is just as important to the Georgian Dream coalition that defeated it.
“A strong opposition creates democracy. One of the UNM’s principal errors was not allowing its political opponents to grow. If it had had a strong opposition, it would not have made so many mistakes. The current government should remember this,” she said.
Some leading figures in Georgian Dream have said openly that they would like to see the UNM disappear. But the speaker of parliament, David Usupashvili, is not among them. Like Lagazidze, he sees the value of a strong opposition.
“Saving the UNM is currently the most important goal for Georgian democracy,” said Usupashvili, a Georgian Dream member. While individual officials who had broken the law should be punished, the party as a whole should not need to be, he said.
“Georgia must move away from collective responsibility and move towards a new, civilised stage of development,” he said. “Only then can we beat them in the political battle.”
Georgia will hold local elections in June, after which the UNM’s future will become a lot clearer. For now, though, it looks secure.
Sofo Bukia is an IWPR-trained journalist who works for the Liberali magazine in Georgia.