Dispatch

Are Georgia's Elections a Sign of Mature Democracy?

Or, after two years of bitter political feuds, maybe there's more trouble brewing in the Caucasus.

TBILISI, GeorgiaOctober 27 marked a major turning point in Georgia as people calmly elected an obscure philosopher, Giorgi Margvelashvili, president with a conclusive 62 percent of the vote. It was the first time in Georgia's history an incumbent was replaced by the ballot and not by revolt.

The election of Margvelashvili, representing the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party, has effectively closed the chapter on the Saakashvili era, a decade of lightning-speed reform and economic progress at the cost of an increasing authoritarianism that applied justice selectively and harshly. This change could not have been possible without the intervention of the enigmatic Georgian billionaire, Bidzina Ivanishvili, and his GD party.

In October 2011, Ivanishvili held his very first press conference in his $50 million Tbilisi mansion after announcing his decision to enter politics and challenge President Mikheil Saakashvili's monopoly on power. I had hoped to learn how the former recluse was different from every other Georgian messiah who promised to save the country only to get deposed in the end, but I never got the chance. The event instantly digressed into a ludicrous fracas of 200 journalists fighting over a microphone and shouting caustic questions about the billionaire's Russian connections and his pet penguin.

My chance came the day before parliamentary elections in 2012 at a private home in an east Georgian village, at a dinner table overflowing with food, sitting across from Ivanishvili, who had just finished his last round of campaigns. Between bites of sumptuous Kakhetian fare, he spoke obliquely of judicial reform and ethnic tolerance and sounded off bluntly about Saakashvili's failures. In the end, I didn't learn much about the man, except that he intended to build democratic institutions without a concrete plan. For Georgians, that breath of fresh air was enough: his party won.

For Saakashvili and his United National Movement (UNM), it was a shocking loss. Misha (as Saakashvili is commonly known) swallowed his pride and acknowledged defeat, marking Georgia's first ever democratic transfer of power. But with a year left in his term, the lame duck president was forced to share an uneasy period of cohabitation with Ivanishvili and the GD, a loose coalition of individuals bent on destroying Misha's legacy.

The tumult of the past year was underscored by the indictments of some three dozen UNM officials, including several former ministers, most notably Vano Merabishvili, former interior minister and prime minister. Meanwhile, some ministers have escaped abroad, like former justice minister Zurab Adeishvili. Many of Georgia's Western partners criticized the political nature of these arrests, yet Ivanishvili maintained he wasn't settling scores -- he was restoring justice and bringing democracy to the country.

Back in Ivanishvili's futuristic mansion, one month before this year's presidential elections, I asked him if he wasn't trying to destroy Misha.

"Why should I destroy? I'm not a sick person. They are destroying themselves. I like to build," he replied.

In 2010, the Saakashvili government amended the constitution to increase the prime minister's authority and decrease the president's. Because the constitution prohibits the president from serving more than two terms, most people here thought Misha would simply change chairs to remain in power. But GD crushed such speculation when they took over parliament and elected Ivanishvili prime minister in 2013. But it's a position the billionaire apparently doesn't want.

In September, Ivanishvili reiterated a campaign promise to leave politics and enter civil society after elections. Next week, he will name his successor. This will leave the country in the hands of his party, a loose coalition of liberals, conservatives, and ethnic nationalists. Georgia will become the first former Soviet nation governed by a parliament and not ruled by a strong executive. And it's a move most Georgians were against.

"That's because when people look at things they like to hang all the responsibility on one person," Ivanishvili said. "But every single person needs to share the responsibility in order for society to evolve. Having a messiah is detrimental to a society. The longer I stay, the worse it will be."

Critics worry that parliament will fall into chaos upon Ivanishvili's departure or, conversely, that he will simply keep pulling the strings from behind the curtain. Others, like Lincoln Mitchell, a scholar at Columbia University's Harriman Institute and former unofficial advisor to the prime minister, believes that Ivanishvili is betting that institutions are stronger than people. However, he has no doubts that the billionaire will continue to be involved behind the scenes.

"I think most Georgians know that and are OK with that. It is extremely difficult for the political class in Georgia to understand that things are not as volatile as they were a year or two ago. The institutions are stable," he says.

Well, stable of a sort. Lawmakers have raised eyebrows by discussing laws to ban the sale of ribbed condoms and fine officials who don't speak Georgian well enough. But they have also passed laws to protect the independence of the judiciary and to ensure more transparency in media ownership.

When it comes to minority rights, however, the disparate parliament has seen some internal conflict. When several dozen Georgian Orthodox Christian priests led a mob of thousands to attack a handful of gay rights activists demonstrating against homophobia, GD Chairman David Saganelidze blamed the activists for the violence that ensued and demanded they be punished. GD coalition member and parliamentary speaker Davit Usupashvili of the Republican Party, however, condemned the attack.

Usupashvili also spoke out against the forced removal of a minaret in a southern Georgian village in August, while much of the government kept silent. This was the latest in a series of anti-Muslim crusades that have occurred across the country since the deputy head of parliament, the GD's Murman Dumbadze, lead a protest against the construction of a mosque in the western port city of Batumi last year before parliamentary elections. Yet, Ivanishvili, the first politician to say "sexual minorities are equal members of society," asserts that Georgia is an inherently tolerant country.

"This [intolerance] is all artificially amplified by Saakashvili," he said abstrusely. "When the cohabitation is finished, there won't be a problem."

That might be so, but there will still be xenophobes and homophobes in parliament, like in every other country in the world. What remains to be seen is how well Georgia will be able to protect minority rights. In his report, Thomas Hammarberg, the European Union special adviser on constitutional and legal reform and human rights in Georgia, noted the country's shortcomings in protecting the rights of religious, ethnic, and sexual minorities.

But the issue that will really determine parliament's future is jobs. Officially, Georgia's unemployment rate hovers around 16 percent. Realistically, it is double that. In a September 2013 National Democratic Institute (NDI) poll carried out by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers (CRRC), jobs were the top national concern; some 46 percent of the population consider themselves unemployed and looking for a job. 

Ivanishvili offers no answers here, only that he spends most of his time working on the "challenges" of job creation and the economy.

Under Saakashvili, the economy soared to an average GDP growth rate of 6.1 percent between 2004-2012. But in the first half of 2013, it plummeted to 1.8 percent. Critics were quick to blame this plunge on the government's wobbly transition process, yet foreign direct investment didn't just drop in Georgia, it fell across the entire region in 2012. Moreover, local business leaders are worried the government's recent policies like liberalizing the labor code and forbidding foreigners from buying agriculture land are keeping investors away.

On the bright side, in June, Russia lifted its 7-year embargo on wine, mineral water, and fruits. This is particularly good news for winegrowers in eastern Georgia, who are reporting the most successful season in years. According to the Georgian Wine Agency, July exports were 43 percent higher than last year, a spike almost wholly attributed to Russia. But establishing economic ties with Russia, which occupies roughly 20 percent of Georgian territory poses some existential problems, particularly when it is putting up barbed-wire fences through Georgian villages. To this thaw in relations with Moscow, Ivanishvili shrugs his shoulders, saying it's not his fault Saakashvili got suckered into war.

"It's important for any small country to not provoke a big neighbor," Ivanishvili advises. "We can't attempt to change Russia, but we can save our state by taking the correct steps, which we are doing."

Meanwhile, Saakashvili argues publicly that you cannot "normalize relations" with an occupier and is livid that Ivanishvili would even consider joining the Kremlin's Eurasian Union project, in reference to comments the prime minister made on the initiative in September. In a televised statement, the president accused Ivanishvili of "breaking the main taboo of Georgian politics."

Ivanishvili retorts that it's plain nonsense. "As a state, our strategy remains European and NATO integration. That is very clear. Who knows what the Eurasian Union is? I don't think the Russians even know," says Ivanishvili. "All I said was that we are closely watching this formation process. I stress, if it does not come into conflict with our strategy, why shouldn't we discuss it?"

And, perhaps, time for more sober discussions on all things have arrived. With Saakashvili packing his bags and returning to his apartment in central Tbilisi and Ivanishvili preparing to step down, we may see an end to a bitter rivalry between two forces of Georgian politics that polarized the political landscape since Ivanishvili first announced his challenge in 2011. On Sunday, David Bakradze, the UNM's unobtrusive presidential candidate, gracefully congratulated his opponent Giorgi Margvelashvili's victory -- a mature gesture we are unaccustomed to seeing in Georgia, a country now putting the era of larger-than-life leaders behind them.

EPA/ZURAB KURTSIKIDZE

Dispatch

Will Iceland’s Absurdist Comic Mayor Run for a Staid Second Term?

A visit with Jon Gnarr, the 'best' politician in Reykjavik.

REYKJAVIK, Iceland — Jon Gnarr has to make a decision. The former punk rocker, former stand-up comedian, former joke protest candidate, and current mayor of Reykjavik is approaching the end of his first term in office. Recent polls put his party, the ironically named Best Party, at 37 percent, making him the likely winner. In August, he posted a question on his Facebook page, "Elections next spring. What do you think?" and linked to a video of The Clash classic "Should I Stay or Should I Go?"

On Thursday, Oct. 31, he will announce whether he'll stand again. "I have been thinking about how I would run again," he says. "Would I promise two polar bears? And Legoland? And free everything for everybody? Because that's what we ran on, just promise: Tell us what you want and we'll promise."

The first thing you notice upon stepping into Gnarr's office, located in a modernist concrete building overlooking a pond in downtown Reykjavik, is a painting of Banksy's "Flower Chucker" -- a gift from the famous graffiti artist on the condition that it hangs above the mayor's desk. On the day I visited, Gnarr was wearing a pale tan suit and combat boots. On one finger he wore a skull ring.

Gnarr first threw his hat into the political ring in November 2009, just over a year after the collapse of Iceland's three biggest banks -- the backbone, heart, and lungs of the island nation's economy -- had turned the country's political scene upside down. He had been noodling on a proposal for a television comedy, about a "psycho naive politician, always confident, happy, smiling, stupid" and the next logical step seemed to be put his name on the ballot for the upcoming municipal elections.

For voters fed up with politics, Gnarr offered an attractive protest vote, a charismatic alternative to the parties they blamed for the crisis. He formed the Best Party as a joke and larded his campaign platform with proposals he literally promised he wouldn't keep: a polar bear display for the city zoo, a drug-free parliament by 2020, free towels in the municipal swimming pools. The results of the elections, in May 2010, stunned the Icelandic political establishment. The Best Party took 34.7 percent of the vote, more than any other party, giving it six out of Reykjavik's 15 council seats and, after a coalition with the Social Democrats, control of city hall. Gnarr had basically riffed his way into the mayor's chair, putting him in charge of a city of 120,000 -- roughly a third of the island nation's population.

Gnarr has punctuated his term with moments of comedy, dressing up in drag to lead a gay pride parade and donning Jedi robes to cast his vote in Iceland's 2013 elections. But he says the stunt lost its humor for him the day before the 2009 elections, when he saw the polls and knew he was going to win. "I realized the responsibility and the seriousness of it," he says. "The financial situation wasn't good." In the early weeks of his administration, he became uncomfortably aware of how little he knew about how Reykjavik actually functioned. "I didn't realize how many people work for the city," he says. "8,000 people work for it. I didn't know. I thought it was, like, some hundred people. I didn't know the first thing about it."

To listen to Gnarr talk, it's a wonder he still wants the job. He and the councilmen from the Best Party talk about their terms as "doing time in politics" and Gnarr describes politics as "violent," a "hostile, manipulative atmosphere." Asked what he finds hardest about being mayor, he doesn't hesitate: "Angry lobbyists," he says. "That's what gives me headaches. At times you have to deal with a lot of anger, and demanding angry people.... I've been in meetings where people are shouting and screaming and banging their fists." 

Gnarr has approached his term partly as an administrator and partly as performance art, a constant critique of how politicians carry themselves. "People are still very surprised when I admit I don't know things," he says. "Many people find that very amazing, not the fact that I don't know, but that I have the guts to admit I don't know."

One of the bigger urban planning issues facing Reykjavik is whether to relocate a domestic airport that lies just outside the city center.

"I was asked about this," says Gnarr, recounting a conversation between himself and an imaginary questioner.

"In your opinion, what should we do with the airport?"

"I don't know."

"How come you don't know?"

"'I've never moved an airport! I don't know what it means to move an airport. But I'm willing to look into it."

He later decided it should be moved. "It's valuable property to build on," he told me. "We can find a better place for the airport."

By most measures, Gnarr's term has been a success: He has cut the budget -- a necessity in cash-strapped Iceland -- and saved the city's energy company from bankruptcy. But what he lists as his biggest accomplishment as mayor is bringing stability to Reykjavik's political scene. In the seven years before Gnarr took office, the city burned through seven mayors as coalitions rose and fell and battled for control. None of them survived their second year. The shortest term lasted just over three months. "I was overwhelmed how this political nonsense had done so much damage," says Gnarr. "We'll never really know what it has cost us. Because if you have a political majority in a city, they start sponsoring projects and work. And when that majority falls, and a new majority enters, they cancel a lot of that work. You're always starting from scratch."

I asked what he would like to accomplish if he decides to run again and voters gave him another four years. Not the purposefully empty promises he'd offered on the campaign trail, but what he actually would want to get done. He answered that he'd like to overhaul the city's transportation system. Reykjavik, in its layout, has more the feel of an American city than a European one; its small center quickly yields to arterial roadways leading out to sprawling suburbs. "There's too much emphasis on the private car," he says. "We have to increase alternatives in transportation.... If you look at old photos from Reykjavik, you can see that the roads are quite narrow. And the pathways are wide. But that has changed. The roads have taken more and more."

Elections are expected to be held in May, and even if Gnarr does decide to run, there's of course no guarantee that he would win. In a national election last spring, voters returned to power the two parties that had governed before the 2008 crash. I asked him what he would do if next year he was no longer mayor, and he deflected the question with an attempt at humor. "Well, I have this business plan: a bingo bar," he said. "If you buy a large beer, you get a bingo card. And if you get bingo, you get a free beer. It's a brilliant idea." For the first time in Gnarr's life, it's life outside of politics that seems like the bigger joke.

HALLDOR KOLBEINS/AFP/Getty Images