Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili will introduce a new Cabinet of ministers to the country's parliament on July 3. This follows the appointment of Vano Merabishvili as the new prime minister on June 30, which automatically led to the Cabinet's resignation. Georgia's political scene has been heating up ahead of parliamentary elections in October, with moves made by both the government and the opposition. These moves could serve as important precursors to a wider political shift in 2013.
The past year has seen an unusually active political environment in Georgia. Saakashvili, who has ruled the country for nearly a decade since taking power in the Rose Revolution in 2003, is not eligible to run for a third term as president. This has made the upcoming parliamentary election especially important, as it will serve as an important springboard to the presidential election in 2013.
Adding to the political activity is the emergence of Bidzina Ivanishvili as the leading candidate amongst the Georgian opposition. Ivanishvili, a billionaire tycoon who made his fortune in Russia, launched his movement known as The Georgian Dream at the end of 2011. Ivanishvili's platform is explicitly centered around ousting Saakashvili from government, but his policies are less clear on important issues like Georgia's relations with the West and with Russia. For the past few months, Ivanishvili has been holding rallies on a bimonthly basis in which tens of thousands of supporters have attended, and several notable opposition leaders have joined into his movement. This is particularly significant as the Georgian opposition has been traditionally weak and split between dozens of parties for the last decade, offering little challenge to Saakashvili's rule.
Ivanishvili's movement therefore represents the most serious competition Saakashvili's camp has faced since coming to power. As a result, Saakashvili’s government has made a number of moves to challenge Ivanishvili, such as blocking his bid for citizenship and painting him as a Russian loyalist (which is a controversial move given Russia's war with Georgia in 2008). However, these moves have done little to stem the popularity of Ivanishvili.
These factors could shed light on Saakashvili's appointment of Merabishvili as the new prime minister. Merabishvili has long been known as one of the country's most powerful and influential men and a close ally of Saakashvili. Merabishvili has also been rumored to be chosen as Saakashvili's successor once his presidential term expires in 2013, and this appointment would be a significant boost to his position. Given Ivanshivili's popularity and his ability to bring supporters onto the streets, this will make for a unique dynamic between the two movements as elections approach in the coming months.
In a broader and more strategic sense, the upcoming parliamentary elections are unlikely to lead to significant changes in Georgian foreign policy. Saakashvili will continue to be the primary power broker and maintain his pro-Western strategy while he remains in office. Ivanishvili has also campaigned on a broad platform of continuing Georgia's cooperation with the European Union and NATO, and any significant turn away from this orientation would be politically unpalatable in the country. But once presidential elections approach next year, the debate over the future of Georgia's orientation toward the West and Russia will become increasingly important.