Georgia Completes Its Domestic Political Transformation

3 MINS READNov 4, 2013 | 16:26 GMT
Georgia Completes Its Domestic Political Transformation
Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili (L) and President-elect Giorgi Margvelashvili at a news conference in Tbilisi on Oct. 28.

In the past week, Georgia reached a political turning point with significant foreign policy implications for the longer term. Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili announced Nov. 2 that he would nominate Interior Minister Irakly Garibashvili to be his successor to the premiership. The move comes after Georgian Dream candidate Giorgi Margvelashvili won the presidential election Oct. 27.

The presidential elections and accompanying prime ministerial change will mark the completion of the transition in Georgian politics away from the decadelong tenure of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and his United National Movement. This political remaking in Georgia is a significant victory for Moscow, though Georgia's broader foreign policy will likely continue to seek the balance between Russia and the West established by Ivanishvili, the outgoing premier.

The past week saw several substantial shifts in Georgia's political system. Margvelashvili, Ivanishvili's ally, won the presidential election with more than 62 percent of the vote. The premiership, according to Ivanishvili's recent announcement, is likely to go to Garibashvili, who has served as Ivanishvili's interior minister since the Georgian Dream won parliamentary elections in October 2012. Even the legal system underwent changes with the adoption of a new constitution that gives greater powers to the parliament at the expense of the presidency, traditionally the most influential role in the country.

In practical terms, the moves marked the complete transition of power to the Georgian Dream movement, which appeared on the political scene only two years ago. Ivanishvili launched the Georgian Dream to cobble together several disparate opposition forces in order to challenge the rule of Saakashvili and his United National Movement. The party's main goal of ousting Saakashvili's party has been accomplished, and Ivanishvili feels comfortable enough with his party's position to follow through with his campaign promise to step down after the presidential election. He plans to resign by Nov. 24, though Ivanishvili will likely remain influential in political and economic decision-making. Though Garibashvili still must be approved by parliament and by the presidency to become prime minister, both are held by the Georgian Dream and his appointment will likely go through smoothly.

Russia and Georgia

While Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream have accomplished their domestic consolidation, there are many things left to accomplish on the foreign policy front. The country has steadily opened to Russia over the past year, especially in the economic realm. Relations had been tense under Saakashvili, highlighted by the Russo-Georgian War in August 2008. This had the effect of cutting off all trade and economic ties between the two countries — something that Ivanishvili, a retail tycoon with a business background in Russia, sought to undo. Russia has since resumed the import of Georgian wine, mineral water and agricultural products, and the new Georgian government will probably pursue even stronger ties, especially in transportation and energy. Margvelashvili said Georgia would "do everything in order to defuse tension in its relations with Russia," mirroring Ivanishvili's cautiously pragmatic tone regarding Moscow.

However, the sides must still overcome several intractable issues. The most significant is the presence of the Russian military in the breakaway Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a situation that is unlikely to be immediately affected by the political transition in Tbilisi. Furthermore, the government under Ivanishvili has maintained Georgia's broader position on integration with the European Union and NATO — though it pursued the latter less aggressively than Saakashvili — a stance that Moscow has staunchly opposed.

The new Georgian government is likely to continue its Western orientation in line with Georgia's historical balance between East and West, though greater opportunities in its cooperation with Russia could delay the development of stronger ties between Georgia and the West. To be sure, membership in the European Union and NATO is unlikely to materialize in the near to midterm. Nevertheless, the past week has marked a significant milestone in Georgia's domestic politics — one that heralds much more long-term changes in the country's foreign policy orientation.

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