By Steven Luber
The Republic of Georgia will hold a presidential election this October, an important test for the government after ratifying a new constitution in September 2017. The new electoral system, the prominence of non-traditional candidates, and a perennially complex relationship with neighboring Russia make the election worth watching.
In early August, French-born diplomat Salome Zurabishvili announced her candidacy with an independent affiliation. Approximately one hour later, the ruling Georgian Dream coalition announced that they “will not field a candidate for presidential polls”, instead offering the possibility of endorsing an independent candidate. The coalition did not field a candidate because Georgia’s new constitution abolishes direct presidential elections in favor of fully proportional representation. Parliament Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze stated that the coalition intended to avoid the “difficulties in maintaining political neutrality and in adequately fulfilling [the] constitutional duties”, that a partisan President would have.
Born in France to Georgian political emigres, Zurabishvili was previously a career diplomat in the French Foreign Service. She studied at Columbia University and served as a diplomat in Rome, Brussels, Washington and the United Nations – culminating in her appointment as France’s Ambassador to Georgia in 2003. She was granted Georgian citizenship the following year, possibly the first case of independent Georgia offering dual-citizenship (a practice no longer legal in the country). Shortly thereafter she left French diplomatic service and served as Georgia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2004-2005 under Saakashvili. In order to participate in the 2018 election, she recently gave up her French citizenship.
Though multiple commentators have noted that she seems to have tacit Georgian Dream approval, and she herself has expressed interest in receiving such support, she has had a complicated relationship with the coalition. In 2005 she was ousted as Foreign Minister following clashes with the Georgian Parliament, thereafter founding the “Georgia’s Way” political party before “temporarily quitting” national politics to become Coordinator of the United Nations Panel of Experts on Iran in 2010. Two years later, she made it clear that she would not participate in the Georgian Dream coalition, despite shared opposition to Saakashvili’s UNM. Rather, she maintained an independent affiliation in the Georgian parliament following her return from the UN.
Zurabishvili’s top competitor is Grigol Vashadze, backed by the United National Movement (UNM) and a ten-party opposition coalition called “Power is in Unity”. Vashadze previously served as Minister for Culture, Heritage Preservation, and Sport (2008), as Minister of Foreign Affairs (2008-2012), and led the party “New Georgia”, a UNM ally. The UNM has long been identified with the personality of ex-President Saakashvili, an extremely polarizing figure due to his corrupt practices and hot-headed leadership (which some argue was a cause of the 2008 Russia-Georgia war). This controversial legacy has limited the party’s success in the post-Saakashvili era, rendering 2018 as an important test as to whether the UNM can succeed outside of their founder’s shadow.
It is in this light that Vashadze is an interesting choice. In stark contrast to previous UNM candidates, who tend to be aggressively opposed to Russian influence, Vashadze has an accomplished career as a Soviet diplomat, even representing the USSR during START I Treaty negotiations. Additionally, Vashadze maintained Russian citizenship (granted automatically after Soviet dissolution) as late as 2009. Thus, both of Georgia’s top presidential contenders have held senior positions in the diplomatic services of foreign powers.
The reticence of the Georgian Dream to name their own candidate begs a number of questions. Is this an indication of their commitment to secure Georgia’s young democratic institutions, even at the possible expense of their own power? Has Zurabishvili arrived at a new understanding with Ivanishvili, the billionaire backer of the coalition? Her stated campaign priorities suggest a broad consensus with the Georgian Dream’s platform despite her independent affiliation, leading many to conclude that the Georgian Dream will (at least tacitly) support her. The points she has so far outlined include:
- Hoping to engage the Georgian diaspora (between 150,000-200,000 of whom live in Russia)
- Unifying Georgia’s political factions despite an environment of “hatred and endless antagonism”.
- Confronting gender-based violence and prioritizing care for the disabled and the elderly
- Taking steps toward affordable, low-income housing
- Addressing immigration concerns
- Encouraging the revival of Georgian cultural traditions
- Encouraging tourism to the country
Vashadze’s UNM platform reveals several parallels, the main area of contention being a greater emphasis on EU/NATO integration. As outlined by the UNM’s Action Plan, Vashadze seeks:
- Tax reduction for citizens and entrepreneurs
- A reduction in the size of government bureaucracy
- Affordable health care and a safe pension system
- Police reform, including the abolition of the “financial police”
- Total EU/NATO integration
For the UNM, Georgia’s full membership in the EU and NATO are non-negotiable goals. The Georgian Dream coalition shares these objectives but is far more pragmatic and does not regard this Western orientation as a zero-sum equation. The coalition believes Georgia can move toward the West while still maintaining healthy relations with Russia, Iran, and other regional players. This difference in approach remains a major source of contention between the two factions.
While a return of anti-Russian policies may seem like a likely consequence of a UNM victory, Vashadze’s previous career and long-time residence in Moscow means that a hardline against Russia is not guaranteed. Both Georgia and Russia have benefited from a resumption of economic ties and there is little interest in reverting this openness.