Foreign Policy Blogs

Georgia gears up for municipal elections

Georgia is gearing up for nation-wide municipal elections on 30 May, with the most closely-watched contest in Tbilisi, the capital. Incumbent Gigi Ugulava, a close associate of President Saakashvili, will run against a large slate of opposition candidates, including the charismatic Irakli Alasania, who was once ambassador to the UN before he turned against President Saakashvili. The Tbilisi mayoral race is seen widely as a mini-referendum on the President’s administration.

The “Democratic Movement – United Georgia” party, led by former Parliament Speaker Nino Burjanadze, has announced that it will not participate, saying that local elections “cannot solve the main problems of territorial integrity, human rights, media freedom or important social and economical problems.”

They have a point, but Burjanadze’s party—and Burjanadze herself—suffers from a number of self-inflicted image problems, including a perception that their leadership are too close to Moscow and are itching for a coup. This may be unfair, but the circumstantial evidence is unsettling, or at least puzzling. Burjanadze and a number of other opposition leaders have made recent trips to Moscow for consultations with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials – a seemingly odd strategy for anyone aspiring to high office in Georgia, which saw two provinces sliced off by Russia in the 2008 summer war. But by implying that Putin and President Medvedev can be talked to rationally and calmly, Burjanadze buttresses her argument that Saakashvili is a dangerous megalomaniac, which is precisely the sort of language used by the Kremlin to describe the Georgian president.

Last year, nine members of Burjanadze’s party were arrested for alleged illegal gun purchases. The Internal Affairs Ministry released video purporting to show the suspects buying a number of weapons, including automatic rifles. (It’s amazing that whenever sensational arrests are made in Georgia, there always seems to be video! That includes video of suspects in last year’s mutiny at a tank battalion a mere 30 kilometers from Tbilisi, which happened the day after I arrived in town for a brief visit in the spring.)

One of Saakashvili’s most ardent supporters is Senator John McCain (R-Arizona), who delivered a stinging critique of Barack Obama’s foreign policy while speaking at a policy conference in Washington on 18 May. McCain often refers to Saakashvili as “my friend Misha,” and pulled no punches in his assessment of White House policy toward incipient democracies in the former USSR and elsewhere, saying that “some wonder why the Georgians feel that Washington is selling them out to Moscow as the price of our ‘hitting the reset button.’”

But the Georgians themselves understand the difference between Washington promoting an individual (Misha), as it did during the Bush era, and encouraging the development of democratic institutions. This is a distinction I heard often last year in Georgia.

Georgians have become weary of the deep divisions in their society, and the political atmosphere is poisonous. Almost no one I talked to during my six weeks there late last year or my previous visit in May had anything good to say about Saakashvili, but there is even less enthusiasm for Burjanadze. Mayoral candidate Alasania, almost sure to lose to the incumbent, may be the best hope for the opposition in the next presidential election in 2012.

See this Eurasianet article by Molly Corso on the entertaining Tbilisi mayoral race, and go here for a site where you can buy or sell “stock” (apparently not with real money) representing candidates in the mayor’s race.

Finally, here are the results of a comprehensive, scientifically valid poll conducted for the National Democratic Institute that covers a number of facets of life in Georgia. The pdf file is 74 pages and filled with polling results and graphs on a huge variety of questions for respondents. It’s an utterly fascinating read. A couple of headlines from the poll: 53% of Georgians think the country is heading in the right direction, and 59% of Georgians disapprove of Nino Burjanadze’s recent meeting with Putin (with only 12% approving).



Karl Rahder

Karl Rahder has written on the South Caucasus for ISN Security Watch and ISN Insights (, news and global affairs sites run by the Swiss government. Karl splits his time between the US and the former USSR - mostly the Caucasus and Ukraine, sometimes teaching international relations at universities (in Chicago, Baku, Tbilisi) or working on stories for ISN and other publications. Karl received his MA from the University of Chicago, and first came to the Caucasus in 2004 while on a CEP Visiting Faculty Fellowship. He's reported from the Caucasus on topics such as attempted coups, sedition trials, freedom of the press, and the frozen Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. For many years, Karl has also served as an on-call election observer for the OSCE, and in 2010, he worked as a long-term observer in Afghanistan for Democracy International.

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