Based on the strong showing of the Georgian Dream in recent parliamentary elections, there is now hope for a broader Russian-Georgian rapprochement that won’t be spoiled by pro-Western parties.

Georgian Prime Minister and leader of ruling Georgian Dream party Giorgi Kvirikashvili, left, hugs with businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili during a rally in Tbilisi, Georgia, Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016. Photo: AP

Georgian voters went to the polls on Oct. 8 to vote in a critical and long-anticipated parliamentary election. The result was an overwhelming victory for the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party, which won with 49 percent of the vote in a twenty-five party race.

This victory came in the face of a renewed challenge by Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) party and a handful of other smaller parties. The election was significant because it demonstrated that the GD could command popular support without its former pro-Western coalition partners. The victory also portends positive developments in Russian-Georgian relations.

It would be no exaggeration to say that the 2016 parliamentary election was perhaps the most anticipated election in Georgia’s post-Soviet history.  The background to the drama leading up to the election is rooted in the Georgian parliamentary election of 2012. In that election, the GD decisively defeated the UNM, wresting control of the country from Saakashvili and his party, which dominated the nation’s political life since the 2003 Rose Revolution.

What is the Georgian Dream?

What exactly is the Georgian Dream (GD)? Many Western publications, including The New York Times, have asserted that there is no significant ideological difference between the GD and the UNM and that both parties are equally opposed to restored ties with Russia.

Others have misrepresented the differences, trying to cast the political rivalry between the UNM and the GD as a struggle between “pro-Russian” and “anti-Russian” forces. As with everything in Georgia, the reality of the political situation there is much more nuanced.

The vision of the GD, as articulated by its patron and founder, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, has important domestic and foreign policy components. Domestically, the GD seeks to steer Georgia away from Saakashvili’s unpopular neoliberal economic policies and embrace a social democratic political model.

Also read: "Keep an eye on Georgian parliamentary elections"

The social democratic orientation of the GD is part of a broader historical tradition of social democracy in Georgia that dates back to Tsarist times and includes the Georgian Mensheviks and the ill-fated Gurian Peasant Republic of the 1905 Russian Revolution. At the same time, on cultural issues, the GD tends to be more conservative and is supportive of family values and the Orthodox Church.

In contrast to Saakashvili’s unconditionally pro-Western stance, the GD favors a more pragmatic and “pro-Georgian” foreign policy. Specifically, the GD is “pro-Georgian” in the sense that it pursues the foreign policy course that it perceives will best benefit Georgia. For example, although the GD has a broadly pro-European orientation, it also supports a rapprochement with Russia and favors dialogue with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Additionally, its leaders have expressed openness to geopolitical alternatives to the West, including closer ties not only with Russia, but also with China and Iran.

Ivanishvili pursued this vision of the GD during his tenure as Georgia’s Prime Minister. After a one-year stint in office, Ivanishvili stepped down in December 2013, though he remains an informal advisor to and the primary political and financial patron of the GD. Ivanishvili’s vision for the party was continued by his immediate successor, Irakli Garibashvili, until his resignation in December 2015. Garibashvili’s successor, Giorgi Kvirikashvili, is instinctively more liberal in an economic sense, but he has adhered to the basic tenets of the GD’s guiding philosophy.

Political challenges prior to the election

After assuming office, the GD quickly ran up against obstacles in its quest to realize a vision for the country. In 2012, the party won a commanding victory of 55 percent, as opposed to 40 percent for the UNM. Yet, this victory was made possible in part because of the GD’s electoral alliance with other parties broadly opposed to Saakashvili but not necessarily ideologically aligned with the GD’s platform.

The two most prominent in this regard were Irakli Alasania’s Free Democrats (FD) and Davit Usupashvili’s Republicans.  Both were liberal pro-Western parties, with a stronger commitment to NATO and the EU than the GD. They also supported a hardliner stance on relations with Russia, whereas the GD favored rapprochement and dialogue.

The uneasy marriage between the GD and its two pro-Western coalition partners prevented it from achieving much of its initial electoral platform.  This was particularly the case with regard to foreign policy. Whereas the GD earnestly pursued a policy of dialogue with Moscow, FD and the Republicans often subverted these policies by pursuing their own and engaging in provocative anti-Russian rhetoric.

This was especially visible during the tenures of Irakli Alasania (of the FD) and Tina Khidasheli (of the Republicans) as Defense Ministers of Georgia.  Both Alasania and Khidasheli were staunchly pro-NATO, creating problems for the successive GD governments of Garibashvili and Kvirikashvili, who sought to open up a dialogue with Russia.

Eventually, the tensions with Alasania and Khidasheli resulted in the split of their parties from the electoral alliance with the GD, leading to speculation about the GD’s possible fortunes in the 2016 parliamentary election without its former allies.

In addition, the GD faced another threat from within its ranks, President Giorgi Margvelashvili. A philosophy professor and bon vivant, Margvelashvili was originally a firm ally of the GD.  However, in his capacity as the Georgian President, Margvelashvili has sought to play the role of the “mediator” between the GD and its main adversary, the UNM. This situation has often created tension between Margvelashvili and the GD regarding where Margvelashvili’s loyalties truly lie.

Domestically, the Georgian Dream made major strides in expanding social policy, especially in the sphere of health care, agricultural investment, and labor rights. Labor in Georgia was virtually decimated under Saakashvili’s tenure, especially with the implementation of the controversial Labor Code of 2006 that the EU ruled was in violation of the European Social Charter. Saakashvili was eventually pressured into revising the labor code.

Recommended: "The Five-Day War between Russia and Georgia, eight years on"

The GD sought even more extensive revisions under Garibashvili, who slammed the Labor Code for creating “practically slave-like conditions” for workers.  However, these advances were overshadowed by significant economic setbacks caused by the Russian financial crisis resulting from the West-Russia conflict over Ukraine.

A good portion of the Georgian economy is dependent on remittances from Georgian migrant workers who engage in seasonal labor in Russia. As a consequence, the depreciation of the ruble badly affected the Georgian lari. The government made efforts to strengthen the lari, but continued facing difficulties. The GD blamed these setbacks on Giorgi Kadagidze, the former head of the Georgian National Bank and a Saakashvili ally.

They accused Kadagidze of deliberately undermining the Georgian economy in a bid to discredit the pragmatists and bolster the reputation of Georgia’s pro-Western political forces. The difficult economy, coupled with the lack of progress of improving relations with Russia, created a sense of political stagnation among Georgian voters and threatened the GD’s re-election chances in 2016.

The GD also faced continuous challenges from the UNM and its leader-in-exile Saakashvili, who has served as the governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region since May 2015. From abroad, Saakashvili has periodically threatened to instigate a Maidan-style revolution in Georgia and to return triumphantly to office in Tbilisi.

Audio recordings leaked in late September revealed that the beleaguered ex-president was still plotting a revolutionary comeback, creating much concern in Georgia about a potential destabilization. Saakashvili is a wanted man in Georgia and would be immediately arrested if he even attempted to enter the country. Still, political leaders and security officials in Tbilisi took Saakashvili’s revolutionary threats seriously, elevating the drama in the run-up to the parliamentary election.

The Georgian Dream’s victory and Russian-Georgian relations

Given the circumstances surrounding the run-up to the election, there was much happiness and relief among supporters of the Georgian Dream when the first results were announced on the evening of Saturday, Oct. 8.  The party won the parliamentary election by a healthy plurality of 49 percent.

Victory for the GD in runoff elections would ensure a constitutional majority for the party, thus giving it a sweeping political mandate. Its closest rival, Saakashvili’s UNM, did better than expected, but ultimately suffered a major electoral setback. In 2012, the UNM won 40 percent of the vote and thus remained a substantial force in the Georgian parliament.  In this election, the party’s support declined to 27 percent.

The victory of the Georgian Dream is good news for the future of Russian-Georgian relations. Under the GD, relations between Moscow and Tbilisi did improve greatly, notably in the economic and trade spheres. The Karasin-Abashidze format initiated by the GD in 2013, which called for regular meetings between Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin and Georgia's special envoy for Russian relations, Zurab Abashidze, has been an effective and important tool for communication between the sides.

However, the relationship has yet to fully recover from the 2008 war. Diplomatic relations remained severed and little progress has been made on the Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-Ossetian peace processes, despite Tbilisi’s new dialogue-oriented approach. Polls in Georgia indicate broad public support for good relations with Moscow, but pro-Western parties, especially the UNM, have consistently opposed a restoration of diplomatic relations.

Recommended: "The tragic roots of the Five-Day War between Russia and Georgia"

However, now that the GD has a potential majority and no longer needs to rely on pro-Western coalition partners, it can pursue a much more intensive rapprochement with Moscow. A potential Russian-Georgian rapprochement could involve the implementation of the long-dormant Russian invitation to the Georgian leadership to visit Moscow. Such a visit could provide the opening necessary to resolving other problems, such as restoration of diplomatic ties, the re-opening of the Abkhaz railway, and perhaps even a peaceful resolution to Georgia’s protracted frozen conflicts.

The idea of a direct meeting was first proposed when Russian President Vladimir Putin invited President Margvelashvili to visit Moscow during the Sochi Winter Olympics in February 2014. However, given the subsequent conflict between Russia and the West over Ukraine, that visit was never realized. In December of that same year, during his end-of-the-year marathon press conference, Putin reiterated his invitation, this time directed to either the President or the Prime Minister. Two days later, Prime Minister Garibashvili announced his readiness to travel to Moscow to visit Putin for “results-oriented” talks.

However, given the domestic political circumstances in Georgia, notably opposition from the Republicans and other pro-Western forces, this second proposed visit was also never realized. That may finally change now that the GD won this new parliamentary election.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.