Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

Back from Georgia

Blogging has been a bit light over the last week, because I have been in Tbilisi, working with Bidzina Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream coalition on this week's parliamentary elections. As you may have heard, he won, scoring 54.85% of the vote to the government's 40.43% (officially at least; the campaign's exit poll showed a bigger margin) and is now negotiating the process by which he will become Georgia's new prime minister when the new parliament meets later this month.

Ivanishvili went into politics just over a year ago, to general surprise; he was known as a wealthy businessman and philanthropist, who made his fortune initially by importing push-button phones and personal computers into the dying Soviet Union and then diversifying into banking, mining and much else, and had given vast amounts of money to various charitable causes in Georgia. He was originally a supporter of President Saakashvili, who took power in the 2003 Rose Revolution, but they fell out after the brutal suppression of opposition demonstrators in 2007 and the disastrous war with Russia in 2008.

Ivanishvili built a coalition of pre-existing opposition parties (including basically all the sensible politicians in Georgia, which was quite a strong recommendation) and also activists who had never been in politics, and ran for election on a platform of moving away from the creeping authoritarianism of Saakashvili's government, and continuing Georgia's EU and NATO integration which restoring pragmatic relations with Russia. For his pains, he was stripped of his Georgian citizenship as soon as he announced he was going into politics, and throughout the last few months he and his campaign colleagues were subjected to vast and arbitrary fines through a hastily constructed new legal structure (most of whose senior officials mysteriously ended up as government candidates).

The crucial moment - though internal polling suggested that the campaign was already ahead - was the release of videos two weeks ago showing some pretty awful abuse of prisoners in Georgian jails. Everyone in Georgia had known this was an issue - successive Ombudsmen had been vocal about it for years, and Council of Europe officials had told me it was a serious concern (along with the 99.8% conviction rate in the courts). Saakashvili's policies had given Georgia a per capita imprisonment rate higher than any country bar the USA and China, so everyone is likely to know of someone who knows what it is like to be inside (unlike in the USA, where it's possible for many people to be unaware of prison conditions because the criminal justice system primarily targets a visible minority). But the videos brought the reality home in a way that was impossible to ignore.

I was working in the party headquarters on the day of the election, and Ivanishvili watched the TV coverage of the first exit polls as voting ended on the evening of 1 October on the big screen in our office. The news was good, with even the government-run stations agreeing that he had won the popular vote. We were still watching as someone took this shot:

There were a couple of wobbles subsequently - notably a rumour that the opposition might win the popular vote but still lose out on number of parliamentary seats, which I shot down after some number crunching. But just after lunch on Tuesday President Saakashvili grumpily conceded on TV that the vote had gone against him. He now must endure a year of cohabitation with Ivanishvili until the presidential election which is scheduled for late 2013, at which Saakashvili must step down because of term limits, and also constitutional amendments kick in transferring a number of significant powers from the President to the Prime Minister.

I close with the official campaign anthem, a rap performed by Ivanishvili's son Bera at every rally. If you listen carefully you will hear the words "Georgian Dream" in English as well as "Kartuli Otsnega" in Georgian.

It's been amazing.
Tags: world: georgia
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