Six months ago, I became a citizen of Georgia. Having called it home for years, living through war, earthquakes and plagues of locusts, I felt I ought to make it official. Being a citizen comes with rights and responsibilities, I can now travel to Uzbekistan visa-free, but I also might have to serve in the army. I can also vote, and, as luck would have it, the last six months have been taken up with the most bitterly contested and divisive election campaign in the country’s history.
On Monday, the country went to the polls. The parliament that is being elected will, after current President Mikheil Saakashvili finishes his term in 2013, select the next leader of the country, and thus this election will shape the country for years to come.
The race was about two different personalities and two divergent views of Georgia. On the one hand there is President Mikheil Saakashvili and his United National Movement. Pro-western, pro-business and no nonsense, Misha (as Saakashvili is universally known) and his team have transformed the country from a failed state to a dynamic, secure and well-run place. Opposing him is Bidzina Ivanishvili, a shadowy oligarch, who was never seen in public until last year, whose wealth is more than the state budget and whose ties to the Kremlin could endanger the very independence of Georgia itself. At least, that’s one story.
The other story is of a government gone mad with power, who have trampled the constitution, amassed fortunes and ruthlessly supressed any challengers. This is a government who built a machine of repression, replete with systemic sexual abuse in prisons and an entire philosophy of governing through punishment, and who recklessly allowed themselves to be drawn in to an unwinnable war with Russia. Opposing them is the one man who they cannot intimidate or buy, Bidzina Ivanishvili, probably the world’s cleanest post-Soviet oligarch, a philanthropist who has pledged to lead his broad based coalition to power, create the institutions needed for a truly free society to take hold, and then to retire into obscurity.
Both of these narratives, unfortunately, are only half right—and that’s why I chose to invalidate my ballot. After almost nine years in power, Saakashvili and his National Movement still haven’t learned that opposition is not treason, and that opponents are not enemies. They have not learned from their mistakes, they have not seen the error of their ways. The country is a much much much better place than it was when they came to power, there is electricity, there are new roads and new buildings, the streets are safe at night. But the prisons are full, the courts are cowed and big business and the media operate at the government’s discretion. Nothing in the election campaign convinced me that they would change, they failed to win my vote.
But Ivanishvili and the Georgia Dream let me down just as badly. When he came into politics, Ivanishvili spoke of the pathological Georgian need for messiahs, about the perverse over-personalisation of politics, in which everyone is known by their first name and personality trumps policy every day of the week. He then went on to double down on exactly those phenomena. When he began, he said he would team up with people who shared his vision: liberals, progressives and pragmatists. I could have happily voted for an opposition demonstrably committed to a secular, inclusive and liberal Georgia. Instead, he shares a stage with homophobes, racists and religious fundamentalists. His TV channels have smeared businessmen and NGOs who might have the temerity to question his claims. He has indulges in just what he promised to oppose—how could I vote for him?
The final results will not be known for several days, and they will doubtless be contested. Both sides make worrying noises about ‘protecting’ their votes or ‘ensuring’ security. Whatever happens, I can only hope that when I next cast my ballot in a Georgian election I wont have to spoil it.