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.
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.
One of the biggest fears is that Ivanishvili, like Shevardnadze before him, will find it hard to impose his will on Georgia's powerful family networks. Those concerns, which shadowed his year-long campaign, were underscored by alleged secret recordings of members of his inner circle, such as Gubaz Sanikidze, the coalition's MP from Kutaisi, associating with gangsters. Sanikidze, who also served in parliament under the Shevardnadze government, was recorded saying he wanted to be elected so he could get rich. Many of those who were pushed from power after Saakashvili's 2003 Rose Revolution are widely believed to view Ivanishvili's ascendance as a chance to reclaim lost riches and power.
Adding to fears of instability is Ivanishvili's recent announcement that he plans to leave politics in just 18 months. On the surface it is a positive sign, a well-meaning gesture that underscores his pledge not to become a despot. Setting an artificial limit on his term in office, however, potentially undercuts his power and encourages infighting among rivals over the next twelve months as Georgia prepares for presidential elections in 2013.
Critics also wonder whether Ivanishvili is prepared for the job. They point out that it took him nearly two weeks to come up with his economic team, heightening fears the coalition came to power without a fully conceived plan. Moreover, some of his choices for cabinet (above all soccer star-turned-banker Kakha Kaladze, who has been accused of ties with organized crime) have raised concerns that his government will distance itself from the anti-corruption reforms Georgians has grown used to under President Saakashvili. To be sure, some of Ivanishvili's nominees have more experience than the Saakashvili appointees they are replacing. (One widely lauded choice is Tea Tsulukiani, a human rights lawyer appointed as justice minister.) In many other cases, though, the chaotic decision-making process surrounding the nominations has underscored fears that the new prime minister might not be prepared for the mundane work of everyday administration now that the heady days of campaigning are over.
Other observers worry that Ivanishvili could be hobbled by his lack of a clear political philosophy -- a potential problem underscored by some dramatic flip-flopping in the weeks since the election. At the moment, his statements suggest he is under the influence of the progressives within his coalition, such as the Republican Party and Irakli Alasania's Free Democrats, which are strongly pro-Western. During the campaign, Ivanishvili was careful to keep his foreign policy balanced, even indicating at times that Georgia should remain neutral instead of choosing between a pro-Kremlin or a pro-NATO path. He has now pledged to visit the European Union as his first trip in office -- though immediately after the elections he declared that his first trip abroad would be to the United States.
He has also reiterated plans to push ahead with Georgia's strategy to join NATO -- in marked contrast to his frequent campaign promises to improve relations with Russia, which have been in a deep freeze after the 2008 war between the two countries. This is one case where a shift away from his campaign statements might actually be a comfort for many Georgians (and some of Georgia's allies), who were concerned that Ivanishvili would push forward a pro-Russia, pro-Kremlin agenda once he got into office. This was a fear promoted by Saakashvili and his United National Movement party.
Moscow's reaction to Ivanishvili's victory has been muted. The Kremlin congratulated the country, citing the election results as cause for hope that Georgia is ready to "normalize" relations with its neighbors, including Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the two Moscow-supported breakaway territories that Tbilisi views as Georgian territory. Only Russia and a handful of other nations have recognized their independence. Ivanishvili's new foreign minister has declared that Georgia won't renew relations with Russia as long as Moscow maintains "embassies" in the capitals of the two separatist regions.
Meanwhile, even though both political camps have pledged to work together, tempers are rising. On October 24, when Ivanishvili presented parliament with his action plan for the new government, the session deteriorated into a series of heated recriminations between Ivanishvili and members of the UNM; Saakashvili loyalists assailed Ivanishvili's credentials and alleged that he plans to undermine the reforms already achieved. The UNM faction in parliament has already claimed that the Georgian Dream coalition is trying to pressure some of their members into changing sides.
This appears to be a defensive move by Saakashvili loyalists. Even though Ivanishvili's coalition doesn't hold a constitutional majority, it does have the important ability to launch investigations of the alleged misuse of power over the past eight years. Three high-profile Saakashvili allies (and former ministers) have already fled the country as a result. Shashkin, the ex-defense minister, is the most prominent. Bacho Akhalaia resigned as minister of internal affairs after the prisoner abuse scandal in September -- he was formerly a minister of defense and also responsible for the prisons -- and left the country shortly after the elections. Zurab Adeishvili, the powerful former justice minister, has also quit the country.
Ivanishvili is feeling intense pressure from society and his political allies to even scores and correct injustices suffered under the Saakashvili government. Balancing the thirst for justice with his promises to depoliticize the police and the courts can prove to be a challenge, even for politicians of great talent and experience. We'll soon see if Georgia's new prime minister is up to the task.