If only other post-Soviet leaders would follow Mikheil Saakashvili's dignified example in Georgia

The president has shown true statesmanship in a region blighted by autocracy and corruption. Our writer, a citizen of Georgia, salutes his brave and noble stance

Share
Related Topics

You can be forgiven for having missed it, but something amazing has happened in Georgia. For the first time in its post-Soviet history, political power has transferred peacefully and democratically from one force to another, through an election, not through a revolution. That might not sound like much—it happens in Western Europe all the time—but in the former Soviet Union, and especially in the war-torn, impoverished Caucasus, it is a hugely important moment.

When pro-government television stations released the results of early exit polls on Monday night, most Georgians did a double take. For years the channels had been the loyal mouthpieces of President Saakashvili and his ruling United National Movement party, yet here they were, predicting that the UNM were going to lose. While many opposition supporters began to celebrate, others worried. Georgia’s electoral system meant that even if it lost the popular vote, the UNM could still pick up the most seats in first-past-the-post constituencies. Reports began to trickle in of special forces raiding polling stations, results were delayed. Many people, myself included, could not believe that the party that had ruled for nine years, usually efficiently but often ruthlessly, was going to just step aside.

But then, in a terse but dignified video address on Tuesday, President Saakashvili conceded that his party had lost control of parliament to the Georgian Dream, an opposition coalition headed by billionaire oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, and was going into opposition. It was a watershed moment, but it immediately seemed mundane. Georgian Dream supporters, who had been predicting stolen elections and blood in the streets, started betting on who’d get what ministerial post. UNM partisans, who had forecast a Russian invasion in the event of a win for Bidzina, posted “Che Sera Sera” on their facebooks, and tweeted “Keep Calm and Carry On” pictures.

But good humour aside — this is a very big deal: up till now in Georgian politics you only accept the results of the elections if it suits you, otherwise you claim they are rigged (indeed, the Georgian Dream had spent months complaining that the elections were pre-rigged, just in case they happened to lose).  Secondly, Georgia has never had a real opposition before, instead having super-dominant ruling parties intent on monopolizing power and a shoal of more or less serious minnow opposition movements. With some of the biggest beasts of the Georgian political jungle now in opposition, we can be sure that the new party of power will not have an easy ride.

I am not a supporter of either the UNM or the Georgian Dream, but whoever you prefer there is now a real chance to entrench Georgian democracy permanently, and to end the bitterness and polarization that has afflicted the country. This is far from a sure bet: Saakashvili has more than a year left on his presidential term, and it is his responsibility to nominate the next Prime Minister. Ivanishvili has called for his resignation, but an uneasy cohabitation is probably more likely, at least for the time being. Nonetheless, there is cause for optimism. Ivanishvili has promised there will be no witch-hunts, and that many political appointees will keep their jobs.

Most important, though, is the example this sets to the region as a whole. Neighbouring Armenia, half-heartedly experimenting with its own reforms, will get a shot in the arm. The tyrannised people of Azerbaijan should also take heart. But it is in Russia that Georgia’s lessons should be best studied. The massive neighbour that has undermined, invaded and dismembered Georgia ever since independence has had a lot to say about the democratic deficit in Tbilisi, but it has never had a democratic transfer of power in its history, and it doesn’t look likely to have one anytime soon.

But what about Saakashvili, the man who was swept to power in the bloodless Rose Revolution, and who was said to have changed Georgia into a “beacon of democracy”? By losing the election, or rather, by allowing the election to be lost, he has secured his legacy. He took Georgia from a failed state to a place that holds proper elections. For years, Georgia watchers have bemoaned the erosion of democracy in Georgia, and the creeping authoritarianism of the Saakashvili government. Some believed he would never relinquish power, gripping it for decades like a Caucasian Mugabe. By conceding defeat, he has proved them wrong, and proved that Georgia is indeed the democracy we all hoped it would be.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Cleaner

£15000 - £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you've got first class custo...

Recruitment Genius: Mobile Applications Developer / Architect - iOS and Android

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a medium s...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Account Executive - £40K OTE

£11830 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working in a friendly, sales ta...

Recruitment Genius: Web Designer

£15000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Pentagon has suggested that, since the campaign started, some 10,000 Isis fighters in Iraq and Syria have been killed  

War with Isis: If US wants to destroy the group, it will need to train Syrians and Iraqis

David Usborne
David Cameron gives a speech at a Tory party dinner  

In a time of austerity, should Tories be bidding £210,000 for a signed photo of the new Cabinet?

Simon Kelner
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy