Not much is known about Giorgi Margvelashvili, but he appears willing to consider Georgian-Russian relations from a rational rather than emotional perspective, even when it comes to the breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
A dark horse in Georgian presidential elections Giorgi Margvelashvili triumphantly wins with an absolute majority. Photo: AP
Mikheil Saakashvili is out, Giorgi Margvelashvili is in. That, in a nutshell, is the result of the presidential elections in Georgia which were held on October 27. Margvelashvili was the candidate of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, a candidate almost unknown to the outside world before his nomination. But he is a triumphant winner, distancing himself from the candidate of the outgoing president by an absolute majority and a margin of more than 40% of the votes.
It is to Saakashvili's credit that he accepted his defeat without making any noise about it, realizing that after 10 years in power as head of state, his time was over. In a farewell address, he made it clear that he is ready to continue his political struggle, albeit in the framework of a democratic opposition. The next challenge will come up fairly soon - in spring 2014, Georgia will hold municipal elections.
Margvelashvili's election victory highlights the remarkable process of a peaceful change of rule in Georgia. It began last October when Ivanishvili quite unexpectedly won the Parliamentary elections and took over the Prime Minister's office. For one year, President and Prime Minister had to arrange themselves in a painful cohabitation where, more often than not, they attacked each other publicly.
Although probably not very far apart in their political ideas, they were very different in political style and character. With his habitual impulsiveness, Saakashvili left out no opportunity to accuse his counterpart for being too accomodating with “the powerful enemy in the North,” which is Russia. Ivanishvili categorically rejected the accusation identifying Saakashvili as the one who bears the “lion's share” of blame for the 2008 war with Russia.
The outcome of the October 27 election confirms a political trend which had loomed for some time in Georgian society. The reform elan of the Rose Revolution of 2003 had slowed down considerably since the August 2008 war, democracy-building and particularly judiciary reform had come to a halt, giving way increasingly to an autocratic style of rule which Saakashvili practiced in the President's chair. In such a situation of stagnation, the appearance of an opposition like Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream became in itself a signal of change. Despite all his rhetorical brilliance, Saakashvili was unable to reverse this trend.
Not too much is known in detail about the political ideas of the incoming President Margvelashvili. In speeches he has delivered during the election campaign, in media interviews and in his public statements, he articulated positions which are known largely to be those of Ivanishvili: continuation of the democratic reform process at home and of the pro-Western course in Georgia's foreign policy. For the rest of his campaign platform, Margvelashvili preferred to pick out themes with which he was familiar from his former job as Minister of Education. So he commented extensively on the need to decentralize school and university structures. But there was another theme which caught his eye, and that’s Russia.
Here Margvelashvili pleaded in favor of relations which would be free of hysteria and rational instead of emotional in nature.
This Russian issue is likely to remain on his priority list as a new head of state, although his competence will be limited on foreign policy matters after substantial constitutional amendments which the Georgian Parliament has adopted recently. In consequence, it is the Prime Minister, not the President, who will play the major role in this area.
However, there is every reason to believe that the course of normalization with Russia will be continued. First of all, this will apply to such matters where a common interest of both sides is apparent, i.e. trade, humanitarian issues, science and education, cultural exchanges. Georgia and Russia are also bound to agree on some sort of security cooperation with regard to the Sochi Olympics in February 2014. At the same time, there is an obvious stop sign: both sides clearly maintain opposite positions concerning the status of the breakaway territories Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both of which Russia officially recognized after the 2008 war.
No change of policy is visible in Georgia's pro-Western course which began under Shevardnadze and was vigorously continued under Saakashvili. This is based on the will to accede to NATO and EU, and on solid cooperation with the U.S. With the EU, Georgia intends to initial an agreement of association and free trade at the forthcoming Vilnius Summit scheduled for the end of November. Cooperation with the U.S. rests on the basis of the U.S.-Georgia Charter on Strategic Partnership adopted in January 2009. It offers some space for further development. Margvelashvili may wish to use it when he embarks on a visit to Washington, which Ivanishvili in his tenure as Prime Minister had repeatedly planned, but never executed.
Georgia's independence dates only from 1991. Since then, the country has set out on a difficult path in order to secure its independence and, at the same time, to proceed on the way to nation-building and democracy-building. Margvelashvili is the fourth Georgian president to stand up to this challenge. He takes over at a time when Georgia, after the turbulence of the 2008 war, has regained stability. His performance will be measured by the extent to which he will be able to cope with the still open issues on Georgia's political agenda. In this context, conflict settlement for the breakaway territories will figure among his most prominent tasks.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.