TBILISI, Georgia -- Earlier this week, Georgia's Defense Minister Dmitri Shashkin fled the country: "I have taken the decision to leave Georgia with the hope that I will come back and will have the possibility to serve my country and my people again," Shashkin assured supporters on his Facebook page (though without revealing his whereabouts). It's widely assumed that Shashkin fled to avoid prosecution for a prisoner abuse scandal that took place when he was running Georgia's prison systems back in 2009. News of the scandal broke just before the country's parliamentary election on October 1, when Georgian voters handed a major defeat to Shashkin's political patron, President Mikheil Saakashvili.
The big winner in that election was eccentric billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who has now been confirmed as Georgia's new prime minister after finalizing the composition of his new cabinet. Ivanishvili has been many things over the course of his career: a rags-to-riches oligarch, a generous philanthropist, an enigmatic recluse. But now Georgians are asking whether he can prove a strong enough leader to keep the country together after a deeply divisive election.
Weak rulers hold inherent danger for Georgia. Over the past two decades, the country has endured civil war and two messy ethno-territorial conflicts, largely due to the nationalist policies of President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who served as president from 1991 to 1992. Though a much stronger politician, Eduard Shevardnadze, Gamsakhurdia's successor, also proved too weak to control the competing clans that emerged following the 1991-1993 civil war.
More from Democracy Lab
- The Optimist’s Case for Yemen
- The Prickly Politics of Aid
- LGBT rights and the long road to democracy in Georgia
The country's western allies, notably the United States, have brought tremendous diplomatic pressure to ensure a peaceful transfer of power and avoid the messy political feuding that has characterized every new government since Georgia became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991. Newly appointed U.S. Ambassador Richard Noland has made Ivanishvili the focus of an intense diplomatic effort, turning up at the Georgian Dream leader's side on numerous occasions in recent weeks. (Noland's persistence has prompted some wags to joke that when Ivanishvili wakes up in the morning, the U.S. Ambassador is already making coffee in the kitchen.)
Three weeks after the election, it would appear that all the hard work has paid off. President Saakashvili and his United National Movement (UNM) party have been graceful in defeat, and so far Ivanishvili has refrained from indulging in acts of revenge against his political foes. But there are still many potential pitfalls ahead.
Ivanishvili's own political vehicle, the Georgian Dream (GD) coalition, is less a political party than a motley assemblage of nine different parties, with widely different agendas, many of them dominated by their own headstrong leaders. So far his ability to hold the coalition together has been impressive. But there is good reason to wonder whether Ivanishvili will have trouble controlling his own allies -- and his hold on the majority in parliament -- as they settle into power.