What Next for Saakashvili?

What Next for Saakashvili?

Monday, 1 August, 2011

Facing plunging popularity ratings and widespread opposition protests, President Saakashvili determinedly refuses to step down – so what will he do when his second and final term ends in two year?

IWPR Georgia editor Giorgi Kupatadze ponders the Georgian leader’s likely course of action and assesses whether the opposition can come up with a candidate to replace him.

Will Saakashvili try to continue exerting political power when his second term ends?

The next two years will prove decisive for the country and its president, who had 90 per cent support after the bloodless Rose Revolution of 2003, but has been forced to weather massive opposition protests in recent years.

According to the constitution, he cannot stand for a third consecutive term, meaning he will have to give up the reins of power when his second period in office ends in 2013, leaving the country in the hands of a new politician. Born in 1967, he will still be far from an old man, and Georgians are debating what his role will be in the future.

Radical opposition parties have failed to force him to step down in waves of protest, while more moderate factions have not managed to win enough votes to seize control of parliament or local assemblies. The fate of the presidency may be decided by the results of next years’ parliamentary poll, which would give the victor power to change the constitution. Current surveys of opinion suggest Saakashvili’s National Movement would win, but a lot can change in a year.

Saakashvili himself prefers to keep silent about his political future, but no one thinks that the young and ambitious president will just walk away from politics. One possibility lies in constitutional changes made at the end of last year, which weaken the position of president and give more power to parliament and the prime minister.

In one recent interview, Saakashvili was indeed asked whether he was preparing the position of prime minister for himself.

“I have thought about this, and much is not clear in this question,” he said. “No one knows what the economic situation will be like in two years time, or which constitutional reforms will be implemented, or what my mood and political rating will be like.”

Who could be Saakashvili’s successor as president?

There are currently two likely successors from the National Movement.

Gigi Ugalava became the first directly-elected mayor of Tbilisi last year. He is young, charismatic and active, and distinctly reminiscent of Saakashvili himself. His popularity extends outside the capital, since he has also worked as deputy security minister, governor of the western Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti region and presidential chief-of-staff.

A downside of his candidacy, however, could be that he is not well known on the world stage, since he only rarely appears at international forums and conferences, unlike his potential rival David Bakradze, speaker of parliament.

Bakradze has been speaker since June 2008, before which he held various senior state posts, including foreign minister. That means he is well known abroad, but within Georgia his approval rating is relatively low.

The debate within the ruling party over their candidacy, and that of others, may be bitter and involve different groups and regional power-brokers, but it is unlikely to spread outside the party itself, which will be aware of the need to choose a single candidate to reduce the opposition’s chances of victory.

Does anyone from the opposition have a chance of winning?

The opposition parties’ chances depend heavily on how they do in the 2012 parliamentary elections. If they can get a decent number of seats, they will have more influence on national politics. That, in turn, depends on the divisions within the opposition, and the willingness of the various party leaders to cooperate with each other.

If recent years’ experience is anything to go by, the opposition parties are unlikely to agree among themselves on a single candidate, meaning the anti-Saakashvili vote will be split.

According to recent opinion polls, around half of Georgians have still not decided which political party they support. In the main, these floating voters are dissatisfied with the authorities, but do not see a meaningful alternative.

Events in May this year, when the radical opposition’s attempts to hold mass protests failed, showed that the leaders of the hard-line opposition parties do not have sufficient influence to mobilise the people. Opinion polls suggest, however, that the protest mood is strong among voters and this could be important if the parties can tap into it.

As for the moderate parties, who are currently in talks with the government over changes to the electoral system, the most likely-looking challenger for the presidency is Irakli Alasania, formerly Georgia’s ambassador to the United Nations. He came second in last year’s mayoral elections in Tbilisi, and is well known both domestically and outside the country. But he has a lot of work to do if he is to appeal more to the whole opposition spectrum, which is currently split among a half-dozen different leaders.

What effect would Saakashvili’s departure have on relations with Russia, and on Abkhazia and South Ossetia?

Any attempt to repair relations with Russia cannot avoid the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have been recognised by Moscow as independent states, and the presence there of Russian forces. Since the war of 2008, diplomatic relations are conducted only via the Swiss embassy and Georgia has officially declared that Russia is occupying its territory.

Since there is unlikely to be any change in Russia’s position, then any peace deal is effectively impossible while the same team remains in power in Georgia.

The current peace talks talking place in Geneva are effectively deadlocked. Georgia does not hold direct talks with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which it calls puppet regimes, and has no direct ties to Russia, so it is left to appeal to the international community for help protecting its territorial integrity.

If Saakashvili leaves the president's post, but his team remains in government, which is most likely outcome, some small concessions such as trade ties are possible. There could also be a new impetus to peace talks, but any real progress will depend on the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the presence of Russian troops there, which is unlikely to change.

Would the public support a peace deal? And would any candidate promising peace pick up votes?

All political leaders in Georgia say they want to find a peaceful solution to the South Ossetia and Abkhazia conflicts, as well as to the bigger stand-off with Russia. Opposition leaders, however, citing the war of 2008, say Saakashvili is not capable of achieving one.

Electoral campaigns tend to be accompanied with claims that progress must be made in the peace process, but politicians simultaneously avoid backing any kind of compromise that might harm their chances with the voters. Most announcements focus on the need for dialogue and a search for common ground.

As a rule, therefore, the electorate tends to be sceptical about politicians’ statements on a potential peace deal, and general statements would not win a significant number of votes.

Giorgi Kupatadze is IWPR's Georgia editor.

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