Author: Natig NAZIMOGLU
It is the last time when the President of Georgia is elected through the direct popular vote. None of the candidates could secure a victory in the first round of the elections held on October 28. Salome Zurabishvili of the ruling party and the opposition candidate Grigol Vashadze are the only candidates to compete in the runoff.
Two of twenty-five
According to the edited Constitution of Georgia, a special electoral college appointed by the parliament will elect the president in 2024. As a largely ceremonial figure, president will still be the head of state and commander-in-chief able to pardon prisoners, veto parliamentary bills and announce referendums, but will have to agree all the decisions with the government, which will be the main body of the executive power.
The key aspect of the current elections is that the new president will be limited in powers for the next six years. This, however, did not affect the number of presidential candidates, albeit none of the twenty-five candidates could secure 50% of the votes required to win the elections. Former foreign ministers, Salome Zurabishvili and Grigol Vashadze, are the only candidates to run for presidency in the second round of the elections with 38.6% and 37.75% of the votes, respectively.
Born to a family of Georgian immigrants and raised in France, Salome Zurabishvili (66) positions herself as an independent non-partisan candidate. However, the experts assume that she is backed by the Georgian Dream Party (GDP) run by the de facto leader of Georgia, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. GDP leadership has openly acknowledged support to Zurabishvili through party activists and funding. Incidentally, Ivanishvili's previous protégé, the incumbent president Georgy Margvelashvili, refused to run for the second term, as he did not want to be the head of state with limited powers.
Grigol Vashadze (60) is one of the most consistent supporters of the ex-president of Georgia, the founder of the United National Movement (UNM) Mikhail Saakashvili, who had personally supported the UNM nominee through his wife Sandra Roelofs, a Dutch and Georgian citizen, through her active participation during the election campaign. She voted for Vashadze in the Mtatsminda district of Tbilisi and expressed her confidence in Vashadze's victory.
Vashadze has strongly challenged his opponent Zurabishvili, who was considered the winner of the first round. The fact that the UNM candidate passed to the second round showed that GDP, which came to power in 2012, does not enjoy the support of the absolute majority of the population, while UNM is still is one of the most influential forces.
In fact, the entire election campaign was largely a confrontation between the shadow leader of the country Bidzina Ivanishvili, who lives in emigration in the Netherlands, and Mikhail Saakashvili, who lays claim to the highest authority in Georgia. Saakashvili's supporters has failed to initiate a new wave of protest movement like the one that once had brought Saakashvili to the power in 2003. In addition, the low voter turnout (46.74%) signals a certain degree of public apathy towards the political process partly because the public majority is not sure that the leading political parties are able to solve socio-economic problems quickly and effectively and, most importantly, restore the territorial integrity of Georgian.
As stated by the political analyst Gia Khukhashvili: “The voters are limited to select either one of the two candidates: the bad or the worse. I think none of the candidates is a favourite of the voters, which means the winner will be the most resourceful candidate.”
According to Georgian experts, the current elections were the “dirtiest” in the entire post-Soviet history of the country. Opponents openly competed in compromising each other. In particular, the opposition announced that Salome Zurabishvili had received large funding for her election campaign from the fake accounts opened to bypass the electoral legislation, which prohibits funding of candidates from a single source.
In turn, GDP accused Grigol Vashadze of collaborating with the KGB during his studies at the MGIMO and when he worked for the department for nuclear disarmament under the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Vashadze responded with a 'discovery' of the “Moscow trace” in the career path of the GDP leaders. Supporters of the UNM launched a new attack on Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his billions in Russia, accusing him of collaboration with the Kremlin. Then Vashadze harshly criticised Zurabishvili for laying the blame for the military conflict between Moscow and Tbilisi (August 2008) on Georgia and its then leader Mikhail Saakashvili.
Partnership does not tolerate "dangerous statements"
In general, the issue of relations with Russia, which have come to naught after the war in August 2008, plays an instrumental role during the election campaign. With the arrival of the Georgian Dream government, there have been some advances in the dialogue between Tbilisi and Moscow. However, they did not result in large-scale normalisation of relations having been reduced mainly to dwindling militant rhetoric on both sides. Essentially, the issue remains the same: Georgia continues on the path of Euro-Atlantic integration against the interests of Russia, which had responded to Tbilisi by withdrawing Sukhumi and Tskhinvali from the control of Georgia both de facto and de jure.
Despite the intense internal struggle between the opposing parties, the current election campaign in Georgia shows an absence of significant differences within the Georgian elite regarding the foreign policy agenda. Both leading forces, GDP and UNM, are committed to the Euro-Atlantic strategy, the country's accession to the European Union and NATO. The only difference is the quality of the rhetoric: Vashadze is against the normalization of relations with Moscow until Abkhazia and South Ossetia return to Georgia, while Zurabishvili and the GDP leadership acknowledge the development of dialogue with Russia. At the same time, Zurabishvili does not assume a real improvement in relations with Russia while the Kremlin recognises Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.
The latter aspect, however, gives some hope to that part of Georgian society, which stands for the development of good-neighbourly relations with Russia. In particular, Georgy Lomia, a member of the Georgian parliament from the Alliance of Patriots, stated that, unlike presidential candidates Grigol Vashadze and David Bakradze of European Georgia, who believe that direct dialogue with Russia will lead to nothing and that only the West to hold talks with Russia, Salome Zurabishvili has never said that.
So, we can assume that the Georgian foreign policy under the new president will not undergo any fundamental changes. This also applies to Georgia’s relations with its neighbours in the South Caucasus.
According to experts, the second round was made possible largely due to the position of Georgian Azerbaijanis, who mostly supported Grigol Vashadze, and have made a choice mainly after the scandalous statements of Salome Zurabishvili during her election trip to the Armenian-populated region of Javakheti. Speaking of the issue of granting Georgian citizenship, Zurabishvili accused the ex-president Mikhail Saakashvili of being biased towards ethnic Turks when he granted the citizenship. “Previously, only the president had the power to grant Georgian citizenship. One such president granted citizenship to many Turks but you,” Zourabichvili said in her address to the Armenian public in Javakheti referring to those of them who are Georgian residents of the region.
Not only representatives of the Azerbaijani community of Georgia, but also many Georgian politicians and public organizations strongly condemned such a statement by the favourite of the presidential race. Thus, the chairman of the non-governmental organisation Democratic Initiative of Georgia, Georgi Mshveniradze, described such statements as “very dangerous because they may provoke turkophobia.” At the same time, he stressed that "it is doubly dangerous when such statements are made when referring to an ethnic group that has a certain painful attitude to the Ottoman Empire that existed before Turkey."
Georgian political scientist Vladimir Tskhvediani drew attention to the fact that playing the national card as a presidential candidate could inflame inter-ethnic confrontation in Georgia, stimulate separatist sentiments among Armenians and spoil Georgia’s relations with its closest partners, Azerbaijan and Turkey. “Remarkably, the xenophobic statement of the presidential candidate, and possibly the future president, was made in the region, which is of strategic importance for Georgia and international transit projects implemented with our participation. The prospects for the economic development of Georgia, which develops friendly, mutually beneficial relations with its closest neighbours, Turkey and Azerbaijan, are connected with these projects,” V. Tskhvediani said.
According to people close to the ruling GDP, the statement of Zurabishvili, “an absolutely tolerant person”, had nothing to do with the Azerbaijanis.
Anyway, S. Zurabishvili also caused concern in Azerbaijan and Turkey. The media of the two neighbouring countries and the closest economic partners of Tbilisi criticised the "Turkophobic rhetoric of the favourite of the presidential race.
As expected, her statements also increased the appetite of Armenian separatists such as the address of the “Javakhk Diaspora of Russia” to their compatriots in Georgia. The statement contains explicitly separatist sentiments urging Georgian Armenians to cast votes for candidates whose priorities include:
"* decentralisation and separation of Javakhk from Georgia” (the Armenian-populated Samtskhe-Javakheti region) broader rights to self-government;
* establishment of a demilitarised zone in Javakhk;
* inclusion of at least one representative of the Armenian Javakhk community (Samtskhe-Javakheti region) in the presidential administration;
* restoration of lost citizenships to ethnic Javakhk Armenians and permission for dual citizenship "...
Although the name of the candidate is not specified in the appeal, observers are confident that almost all of these and other priorities voiced in the appeal of the Armenian diaspora are consonant with Salome Zurabishvili’s campaign promises.
Either way, Salome Zurabishvili, who is still considered the favourite of the presidential election, intends to continue developing a strategic partnership with Azerbaijan. Grigol Vashadze expresses the traditional position of the UNM, the essence of which is to support the closest, friendly, allied relations between Georgia and our country. This means that despite the outcome of election, the strategic component of the Azerbaijani-Georgian cooperation will remain intact. This cooperation will continue to be a key determinant of geopolitics in the South Caucasian.