Georgian politics have changed dramatically over the past year, and the presidential election in October will further affect the country's political system, both internally and externally. Rival movements behind Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and President Mikhail Saakashvili will compete in the election as will political swing figure Nino Burjunadze, leader of the opposition Democratic Movement-United Georgia, who officially announced her candidacy June 12. The outcome of the election will shape Georgia's new political landscape and its relationships with Russia and the West.
Georgia's political scene has been transformed by Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream movement, a political force that emerged in late 2011 and went on to win the October 2012 parliamentary elections. For the past decade, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and his United National Movement had dominated Georgia's political scene. But a number of factors, including worsening economic conditions in the country, Saakashvili's antagonistic attitude toward Russia and Ivanishvili's ability to cobble together a previously divided opposition, created a shift in Georgian politics.
Since Ivanishvili's victory in parliamentary elections in October 2012, he has begun consolidating power in a number of sectors, including the judiciary, the military and industry. Many Saakashvili loyalists have been fired or detained and have been replaced with Ivanishvili supporters. Georgia has also adjusted its foreign policy, particularly when it comes to relations with Russia. Under Saakashvili, Georgia virtually severed its ties with Russia following the August 2008 Russia-Georgia war, but dialogue with Russia was resumed under Ivanishvili. Georgia and Russia have restored ties in vital economic areas, such as the export of Georgian wine, mineral water and agricultural products, and may expand ties in other areas like transport and energy.
Opportunities and Constraints
The upcoming presidential election will be a harbinger of further shifts in Georgian politics. Ivanishvili will have the opportunity to completely consolidate his hold on power, with Saakashvili ineligible to run for a third term. Georgian Dream has nominated its candidate, Education and Science Minister Giorgi Margvelashvili, who is seen as a technocratic figure and one who will not pose a challenge to Ivanishvili's rule. For its part, the United National Movement has not yet selected a candidate and instead will hold a primary to choose its nominee for the presidency. This decision was made after leading party figure and former Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili has been detained on charges of abuse of power. A lack of strong leadership within the party will make for a difficult run at the presidency and what many expect to be an easy victory for the Georgian Dream movement.
However, the official entry of Nino Burjanadze in the presidential race creates an interesting dynamic. Burjanadze, who served as a parliamentary speaker from 2001 to 2008, used to be an ally of Saakashvili. But Burjanadze had a falling out with Saakashvili after the Russia-Georgia war and created her own opposition movement in late 2008. As leader of the movement, she held several meetings with Russian officials in Moscow and was seen as a pragmatic figure with whom the Kremlin was willing to work. While this was largely muted when Saakashvili dominated the political system, the emergence of Ivanishvili has caused a shift in Georgia's political thinking and has created an opportunity for Burjanadze or those like her to strengthen their political position. There are rumors that the Kremlin may be backing Burjanadze, but the reality is likely far more nuanced. In any case, her party could take on a larger role in the political system as Saakashvili's party continues to weaken.
Regardless of the presidential election's outcome, there will be constraints on the future president's decision-making. First of all, Georgia will undergo a constitutional change in October that will give the parliament more power than the presidency, ensuring that Ivanishvili will be a powerful figure regardless of who becomes president. Second, Georgia maintains key relationships with the West, particularly with the United States and NATO, that will not be abandoned completely. Ivanishvili has said that NATO membership remains an important Georgian priority (in conjunction with strengthening ties with Russia). Finally, Russia's military presence in the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia will continue to serve as an obstacle to any complete normalization between Moscow and Tbilisi.
Still, it is clear that there has been a transformation in Georgian politics since Saakashvili was in power — as the old political guard has weakened, new political players have emerged. The upcoming presidential election will be another factor in determining the trajectory of Georgia's policies moving forward, both domestically and in the wider region.