Yes, Putin is a close ally of Georgia's new leader, but succession is no return to cold war power games

There's so much anti-Russian feeling in the country that a shift back to soviet lifestyle is unlikely.

Share

So, Mikheil Saakashvili has conceded defeat to billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who won Monday’s elections and is all set to become Georgia’s new Prime Minister. He has already captured the imagination of the western media, understandably intrigued by a man who lives in a glass castle with his exotic pets, who has an albino rapper for a son, and who was, until recently, a recluse.

Journalists have also latched on to an almost irresistible storyline about the resurgence of Russian influence, amid suspicions of shadowy, John le Carré-style ‘cold war’ deals.  This is certainly a remarkable moment, and one that was utterly unthinkable only a few years ago given Saakashvili’s tight grip on political power; focusing too much on the role of Russia would underestimate how much this is actually a Georgian story. Many comments posted on articles and blogs are clear: Russia is only part of the story, and it is risky to look at the east from a very western vantage point.

Even though Saakahsvili seemed invincible, many Georgians have been unhappy with his leadership for some time. From this viewpoint, the election results are not such a big surprise. While many agree that he led the country through important reforms, and successfully curbed the once pervasive ‘small c’ corruption that plagued everyday life, many Georgians, especially the Tbilisi middle class, have tired of his authoritarian style and want a change. There have been mass street demonstrations since autumn 2007 and the resulting violence has fuelled a series of tense electoral campaigns and created a toxic political climate. And all of this was only made worse by the 2008 war over the control of the Abkhazia and Ossetia regions, which undermined the credibility of the Georgian Government at home and abroad.

Although certainly the richest and most flamboyant of Saakashvili’s challengers, Ivanishvili is not the first. Georgian political life has seen a number of short-lived rising political stars, including a former UN ambassador and a TV anchorman.  But opposition parties in Georgia were weak and governed more by the personality of their leaders than by any ideology or coherent policy plans.

Unlike the ruling United National Movement (UNM),  most parties have, so far, been heavily concentrated in Tbilisi and only a few have been able to campaign actively in the regions.  Most importantly, they had little money, while the UNM had heavy financial, as well as political, support from the USA. Not surprisingly, every previous attempt to challenge the UNM leadership has stalled.

Then Ivanishvili came on the scene, barely a year ago. Cash is not a problem: he owns a bank. Reaching the hearts and mind of the electorate beyond Tbilisi is not a problem: he is from the rural west of the country. Simmering tension with Russia is not a problem: he gets on well with the Kremlin, and will take Georgia back to its communist past, or so his opponents claim.

But while such assertions have fuelled the fantasy in the West about the return of soviet style dominance in the Caucasus region, it doesn’t ring quite true. For a start, there is so much anti-Russia sentiment in Georgia that a significant shift back towards a soviet lifestyle is unlikely. Ivanishvili has confirmed that he intends to pursue EU and Nato membership, which matter to Georgians much more than any other forms of political allegiance. On more pragmatic and economic grounds, Georgia needs someone to navigate the difficult diplomatic relationship and inflammatory rhetoric between Georgia and Russia to address important commercial issues, particularly on trade between the two countries.

To me this does not look like a return to the cold war era. Ivanishvili’s victory may have benefited from Putin’s support, but it can also be argued that Saakashvilii’s defeat is the necessary conclusion of an obsolete political alliance with the West – particularly the USA. Georgia is not the only European country that may need more Russian friends, rather than fewer, in the years to come. 

Contrary to all expectations, there has been no violence in the streets of Tbilisi and Saakhasvili has conceded defeat gracefully. He may well step out of the way or even agree to power sharing in very western (dare I say, British) political style. If this paves the way to more open, balanced and sober political processes and dialogue, it will be to the credit of Georgians’ themselves, not the Kremlin or Capitol Hill. It would also mark a major step forward in Georgia’s democratic transition, and one that other countries in the region and beyond may wish to study.

React Now

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

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Monday - Israel  

Between the wars in Israel, spending time in a kibbutz was about as cool as you could get

Peter Popham
 

Man Booker Prize: Great books and great authors are sometimes missed out by awards committees

Natalie Haynes
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game