TBILISI, Georgia -- To appreciate the level
of political polarization in Georgia -- which held nationwide parliamentary
elections Monday -- take the case of a 10-month-old girl found drowned Sunday
evening in a wine jug.
Late Sunday night, reports
surfaced that Barbare Rapaliani, an infant from the village of Kolagi, had gone
missing. "We were having supper on a second-floor
balcony. The child was sleeping on the first floor in her bed," a family member
later told a local news outlet. "Five minutes later they went down to see the
child, who disappeared, taken from her bed." Barbare was later found in a buried wine jar, half-full of water. Rushed to
the hospital, she later died.
Immediately, some family members alleged that
the tragedy was not only foul play but politically motivated. Barbare's aunt is
a local coordinator for Georgian Dream, a coalition mounting the first serious
challenge to the United National Movement
(UNM), the dominant ruling party of President Mikhail Saakashvili, which came
to power in Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution. Manana Berikashvili, the local
parliamentary candidate for Georgian
Dream (GD), told
an opposition television channel that the girl's aunt "was repeatedly
threatened, there were attempts to bribe and threaten her, that's why people
have a suspicion that those threats are related to the death of the child." Police
began investigating the case and, as of this writing, two relatives were
arrested in connection with the case.
allegation that government supporters would stoop to drowning a 10-month-old
baby is the most serious to have arisen in this heated, but largely
violence-free, campaign. But they are of a piece with Georgian Dream's narrative.
The opposition has portrayed Saakashvili's government -- long a darling of the
West for its progressive reforms, determination to resist a resurgent Russian
hegemon, and generally underdog position in a region sorely lacking liberal
democracy -- as nothing less than an authoritarian dictatorship. That
characterization received a massive boost two weeks ago, when a video showing
the torture and rape of prisoners was released on national television, throwing
what many here assumed to be a surefire UNM victory into serious question. One
email message I saw from an opposition activist promised a "Nuremberg Trial" for
the present government if Georgian Dream were to prove victorious.
sort of recriminations, if any, may befall Georgia's leaders is just one of the
many questions that make this country's election important. Indeed, that the outcome
of the election itself has been so suspenseful these past few weeks is due
almost entirely to the surprise entry of Bidzina
Ivanishvili, Georgian Dream's billionaire founder, into politics last
months, Georgian Dream has declared that the ballot would be rigged, leading
many to speculate that the aftermath would be protracted and possibly violent.
"We have enough evidence right now to say that
the elections are already fraudulent and already being stolen," Ivanishvili told Foreign Policy's
Josh Rogin in a recent interview. "We don't have to wait for the first of
October because the amount of material is already so large that we can prove
and say that this is already election-rigging and this is already a stolen
after noon Monday, Georgian Dream called on its supporters to mass in streets for
a "Rally to Defend the Vote" at 7 PM, despite the fact that polls did not close
until 8 PM and the official results of the election would not be announced
until early Tuesday morning. An exit poll announced on an opposition television
channel Monday afternoon (in violation of Georgian law, which prohibits exit
polls from being publicized until after polls closed) declared Georgian Dream
would achieve an impossibly high 95 percent of the popular vote.
has delivered mixed signals about his potential reaction to an election defeat,
delivering a message of defiance to his Georgian electorate and a mollifying
one to international interlocutors. "It is
unimaginable that the West will support those who have created this sadist
system," he said last Saturday at a massive outdoor rally in Freedom Square,
which his party absurdly claimed was attended by 600,000 people -- over 10 percent of the
country's population. In September, Ivanishvili lashed out at the
U.S.-government-funded National Democratic Institute for a poll it released showing the UNM with a commanding, 25-point lead; the U.S.
Embassy in Tbilisi defended the group, stating that its polls are "conducted
professionally and based on legitimate methodology."
Meanwhile, according to Jackson Diehl of
the Washington Post, Ivanishvili told a group of Western
journalists the next day that, "We have no problem taking the role of
opposition." Congressman David Dreier, who led an election monitoring team from
the International Republican Institute, met with Ivanishvili on Sunday as well,
and told me that the Georgian Dream leader was "very conciliatory and
seemed to be desirous of encouraging his supporters to respect the results." In
an interview last week, Giga
Bokeria, a close confidant of Saakashvili who serves as his National Security
Advisor and also chairs the country's Interagency Task Force for Free and Fair
Elections, likened Ivanishvili's messaging to that of the late Palestinian
leader Yasser Arafat, who spoke militantly in Arabic and moderately in English.
mercurial statements about the election aftermath accentuate the mystery that
surrounds the man who remains an enigma even to
many of his supporters. Ranked 153
on the Forbes list of the world's richest men, he is worth an estimated $5.5
billion, half of Georgia's GDP. Ivanishvili made his fortune in Russia in the heady
years following the breakup of the Soviet Union, and his reluctance to say nary
a negative word about Vladimir Putin -- a sure vote-getter in Georgia, where a
fifth of the country's territory is occupied by Russia as a result of a 2008
war over two breakaway territories -- have left him open to the accusation
that he is a Kremlin stalking horse.
many a gaudy Russian oligarch, he lived an existence more akin to Bruce Wayne
and Howard Hughes, anonymously doling out vast amounts of cash to Georgian
charities, building projects, and artist bursaries, all the while ensconced within
a glass-enclosed mansion high up in the hills outside Tbilisi. Hardly anyone in
the world, never mind here in Georgia, had ever heard of Ivanishvili until he
decided to announce his creation of the Georgian Dream coalition -- an alliance
of six parties, some radically different from one another.
Despite the heated campaign
rhetoric, voting day was remarkably calm. The government declared Monday a
national holiday, and residents of Tbilisi -- a perennial opposition
stronghold, regardless of whoever is in power -- took advantage of the
beautiful weather to stroll the city's boulevards, dine at cafes, and vote. The
combination of over 62,000 domestic election observers, 1,600 international
observers, and 3,300 accredited journalists -- all for an electorate of roughly
3.5 million people -- may have made Monday's vote the most observed election in
history. Yet while there were few complaints registered at the polls, a sense of
grievance was expressed by many opposition supporters, who felt that there was
no way the government could win the election except via fraud.
"I've watched TV in the last days
and I have a feeling it won't be fair," Gulnazi, a Tbilisi pensioner who declined
to give me her last name, said. Tata, a 25-year-old marketing specialist who
also declined to give her surname, repeated a charge I heard frequently in my
travels across the country over the past few days, which is that government
employees have been intimidated into attending UNM events. "People working for
government ministries are told if they won't vote for #5 [the ruling party's
number on the ballot] they could lose their jobs. They take people from work
Many opposition supporters, conditioned by rhetoric that Saakashvili
is a dictator hell-bent on staying in power no matter the cost, are convinced
that he will use violence to put down opposition protests. Salome Chukhua, a
22-year-old Tbilisi resident and opposition supporter, told me that the
president has "a very clever plan to develop the police and armed forces to use
them for himself. I'm not sure if all police officers, Internal Ministry and
Ministry of Defense [officials], support the government. Yet there is still
fear that they will use arms against the people." At his rally in Tbilisi last
weekend, Ivanishvili spoke behind bulletproof glass window panels, a precaution
that Saakashvili does not take.
The government has written off such complaints as cynical
fear mongering by a pro-Russian candidate meant to gain Western sympathy. "Ivanishvili's
much more afraid of Putin than he is of us," Raphael
Glucksmann, a senior advisor
to Saakashvili since 2008 (and the son of French philosopher André Glucksmann) told me over the weekend. "Unless he kills a
child in front of CNN, he's not going to prison," he assured me.
Ivanishvili's combative rhetoric, oft-repeated
predictions that a huge victory will be thwarted by massive fraud, and his portrayal of
the election as a live-or-die moment for Georgian democracy, have raised his
supporters' expectations to such an extent that they will not accept anything
less than outright victory. But Saakashvili's perhaps quixotic aspiration for membership
in the European Union and NATO provide an incentive for the government to
behave well and ensure a successful election and aftermath. Internationally broadcast
images of a police crackdown are the last thing that Saakashvili -- who has already
tested the patience of his Western allies with the 2008 war he helped to spark
-- needs. The government's plan in dealing with post-election protests, Glucksmann
told me, is to "hide the police" so as to prevent the possibility of clashes.
Their job on election night and in the days thereafter will be to protect
public buildings from potential attempts to occupy them, he says, and all
police officers will be operating under "strict rules of engagement."
Claims of voter intimidation aside, I found Georgians to be
remarkably well informed and willing to express their views. Most voters I interviewed
over the past few days -- and I spoke to dozens both in Tbilisi and in villages
-- had strong opinions, and did not seem afraid to voice them.
Complicating the situation is
Georgia's mixed electoral system in which 73 seats out of the 150-member
parliament are elected from single-mandate constituencies and the remaining 77
seats are selected proportionally from the nationwide vote. Georgians therefore
get two votes: one for a local candidate, the second for a party. This system
is widely considered to favor the ruling party, as it has a much better chance
of winning majoritarian seats due to opposition parties splitting the
anti-government vote. Indeed, while exit polls showed the opposition gaining some 51
percent of the national popular vote, the UNM announced it won an overwhelming
number of single-mandate seats, thus ensuring it a majority in parliament.
One of the keys to Ivanishvili's
success was his ability to unite a group of disparate and small opposition
parties, usually prone to infighting, to join together under his banner. Yet
the uneasy diversity of the Georgian Dream coalition, and the country's
electoral system, may be its undoing. Ivanishvili wanted to avoid giving any
individual party in his coalition too much power, and so he dispersed members
of the various parties throughout the party's proportional list so as to dilute
the number of seats that any one party could obtain. As the formation of a
government will likely require a degree of cross-party wrangling, the UNM now
has the opportunity to pick off individual members of the GD coalition or work
with yet another opposition party to form a governing majority. "Even if GD wins
a majority, the UNM could form a government because they're more cohesive," a
long-time Western observer of Georgian politics told me.
Underneath the stories of pro-government voter suppression
and opposition rhetoric that seemed to reject the institutions of government itself,
however, lies a more important story, which is that Georgians have
enthusiastically shown their support for democratic processes: The same NDI
poll that so angered Ivanishvili, for instance, found that 40 percent opposed the
various fines the government levied on the opposition for campaign finance
violations. An earlier NDI poll found that over 70
percent of citizens opposed the government's early attempt to strip Ivanishvili
of his citizenship (Ivanishvili relinquished his Russian citizenship, but
maintains French citizenship). Less than one-third of UNM voters backed either
of these moves. Such findings demonstrate a hunger for competitive politics in
Georgia, even if many voters may have no love for Ivanishvili, his coalition
partners, or his style of politics.
Taking part in an election that, by all early indications,
was free and fair, the Georgian people have done their job. Now responsibility
lies in the hands of their respective political leaders. Billionaires and
headstrong presidents are used to getting what they want. If there's one thing
that Ivanishvili and Saakashvili have in common, it's reluctance to compromise.
But Georgia's young democracy now hinges on whether these two men are willing
to do just that.