Commentary: WHO WILL BE GEORGIA’S NEW PRESIDENT?
By Irakli Kakabadze, Chair, Gandhi Foundation Georgia
New presidential elections are fast approaching in Georgia. They are scheduled for October 28, 2018. It is very interesting that this time the ruling “Georgian Dream'” party which holds an absolute parliamentary majority and has unilaterally formed four governments over the last six years decided not to nominate a presidential candidate for this election cycle. Leaders of the majority party declared that they will support one of the independent candidates for president. Georgia’s current president, Giorgi T. Margvelashvili has not announced his plans about running for re-election. Many experts think that Mr. Margvelashvili will not run this time and will retire. His candidacy was actively promoted by the Georgian Dream party in 2013 and once he was elected president, he chose to distance himself from the ruling party. This won him a reputation as a moderately independent president, with pro-Western and pro-democracy values.
There are indications that the sole independent female candidate for presidency, Mrs. Salome Zourabishvili will get the support of the ruling party and along with it, its administrative resources, which will give her a big advantage in the presidential race. Mrs. Zourabishvili was born and raised in France, the daughter of immigrants from the first independent social-democratic republic of Georgia (1918-1921). She was educated in France and the United States and served as a French diplomat at different missions throughout her career. In 2004, former Georgian President, Mikheil Saakashvili tapped her as his Foreign Minister and she presided over the Russian troop withdrawal from Georgia in 2005. After a disagreement with Saakashvili on a number of issues, she left her post as Foreign Minister and joined the opposition, becoming actively involved in protests from 2006 to 2009. She continued her career as a UN diplomat in New York City overseeing the problems of disarmament. After her service at the UN, she returned to Georgia and ran as an independent candidate for parliament in 2016 and beat the former Minister of Culture in the Saakashvili government, Nickoloz Rurua. Since then she has been a member of the Georgian parliament, was moderately independent and conservative. If elected, she will become the first female elected president of Georgia. Her political views are close to those of the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. However, she proclaimed that she will be ‘first of all a women’s president’, which caused a lot of debates in the social media. Her good relationship with Bidzina Ivanishvili, head of the ruling party and Georgia’s prime billionaire, will be key in this upcoming presidential struggle.
However, experts are not completely sure that Mrs. Zourabishvili will have the unconditional support of Ivanishvili’s crew. There are a number of strong opponents within the voting electorate. Mr. Grigiol Vashadze is representing the United National Movement of Georgia, the former ruling party of Mr. Saakashvili. Mr. Vashadze is also a moderate figure, who also has a long and distinguished diplomatic record – first in the Soviet and Russian Foreign Services and then as Saakashvili’s Foreign Minister. Unlike many of Saakashvili’s party members, Mr. Vashadze is not known as a hothead and even among his opponents he commands some respect as a distinguished statesman. This gives him some chance at winning. Some experts state that Mr. Vashadze also has a good personal relationship with Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is Georgia’s strongest power-broker. This relationship between current and former ruling regimes is called ‘co-habitation’ by the Georgian populace. If you ask a regular cab driver or construction worker in Tbilisi, they will express their resentment at this ‘cohabitative’ state of events; they see it as an elitist plot against ordinary blue-collar inhabitants.
One additional moderate candidate is the former speaker of the Georgian Parliament during the Saakashvili period, Mr. David Bakradze. Mr. Bakradze belongs to the group that split from Saaakshvili’s UNM and calls itself “European Georgia”. This is the group led by Mr. Giga Bokeria, liberal former deputy foreign minister, who is well regarded as one of the smartest politicians in Georgia. There have been talks in Georgian media that ‘European Georgia” was also paid by Georgia’s leading oligarch and now their financial situation is the best amongst all parties. One group of experts is betting on Mr. Bakradze as next president of Georgia. They note that even though he is from the formal opposition party, he will be a very convenient opposition president for Bidzina Ivanishvili and he will help to consolidate the image of contemporary Georgia ‘as a democratic state’ with divided powers.
Another former speaker of the Parliament, Mr. David Usupashvili, is also running for the Presidency. He is respected for his honesty and high professionalism as a constitutionalist and human rights defender. It should be noted that during Mr. Usupashvili’s chairmanship of the Parliament of Georgia (2012-2016) Georgia had its best human rights record. A number of experts indicate that the current parliamentary leadership is not up to his standard. Mr. Usupashvili is also considered a good dealmaker, although lacks charisma to attract large masses of electors. He also enjoys a good relationship with Bidzina Ivanishvili and it is possible that Georgia’s leading figure would bet on him. But, here again, there are many questions unanswered.
There are number of other less significant candidates. There is still time to apply for this job. However, popular perception in Georgia says that the next president of Georgia will be chosen not by the Georgian people, but by Mr. Ivanishvili. The one most pleasing to him, will get the job.
The Georgian-American community and nation of Georgia are deeply grateful to late Senator John McCain for his long-standing and unconditional support for the independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and democratic development of the Republic of Georgia. We mourn the passing of this great American, one of Georgia’s truest friends.
2018 marks two important dates for the country of Georgia. In May, all Georgians, including many Georgian-Americans, commemorated Georgia’s 100th birthday. The modern state of Georgia began its life in 1918 and survived three years (1918-1921) before falling to a Communist invasion and almost seventy years of Soviet oppression. 2018 also marks the 10-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Georgia. On August 8, 2008, Russian forces, some 80,000 strong, swept into Georgia once more. The pretext was that Russia was responding to a Georgian attack on the separatist enclave of South Ossetia. This ignores the context of almost weekly provocations by Russia leading up to August 2008. Today, in violation of the cease-fire agreement agreed upon in 2008, Georgia remains occupied by Russian troops. They are visible from the main highway which connects East and West Georgia, and are located just 40 miles from Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital city. “Temporary” housing built to house Georgians displaced by the war are also visible from the highway. The cease-fire line continues to advance into Georgian territory, as Ossetian irregulars and their Russian backers arbitrarily shift the border further onto Georgian land. This creeping “borderization” deprives Georgian farmers of access to their lands and homes, and leads to provocations, arrests and the murder of Georgian citizens by Russian border guards.
Georgians worldwide are extraordinarily proud of the longevity of their culture and traditions. They have a unique language, are Orthodox Christians, and are dedicated to the preservation of their culture, and their historical connections to the West.
Georgia (Sakartvelo to Georgians) is an ancient land that predated the formation of Rus or Russia. Georgia has survived despite the many invasions and foreign interlopers who have sought to control the strategically placed land which Georgians inhabit. Georgia’s orientation was always westward, and it remains so today. But Georgia is occupied, Russia continues to meddle in its internal affairs, and Georgia’s Western friends are preoccupied. Georgia was the first Ukraine. There should be no concessions to Russia until it observes the conditions of the peace agreement of 2008, which Russia itself signed.
The Georgian Association in the USA believes that Western silence in the face of the ongoing Russian occupation of Georgia will encourage Russia to continue its meddling in the sovereignty of other countries. The United States Congress and European Union should all make plain their opposition to such Russian behavior, which is a threat not only to Georgia and the region, but to global peace.
The Georgian Association in collaboration with the Levan Mikeladze Foundation and the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) held a widely attended conference celebrating the Centennial of the Georgian Democratic Republic (1918-21) with the theme of Past, Present and Future of Georgia. The conference was held on May 9, 2018 at CSIS headquarters in Washington DC with opening remarks by Elisabeth Kvitashvili, President of the Georgian Association in the USA, Redjeb Jordania, son of the first president of the Georgian Democratic Republic, Tina Mikeladze, President, Levan Mikeladze Foundation, and Ambassador David Bakradze, Ambassador of Georgia to the United States. Three speaker’s panels included several distinguished guests, including former US ambassadors to Georgia and former Georgian Ambassadors to the US. Featured speakdrs included Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Bridget Brink, Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, and Foreign Policy Adviser to the Prime Minister of Georgia, Tedo Japaridze. The conference was attended by representatives from government, academia, and the Georgian community who at the conference, heard about the many challenges faced by Georgia in the last 100 years, but also of the bright future ahead for the country.
Following the conference, a reception included performances by Georgian and American singers who provided a medley of folk songs and chants, as well as national anthems of the Georgian Democratic Republic and of the current independent state. Two special guests of the reception, Ms. Toby Davis from the Department of State and Ms. Danica Starks from the Department of Commerce were recognized for their long-term service and contribution to the strengthening of the US-Georgian strategic partnership and friendship. Two members of the Georgian Association Board of Directors, Dr. Mamuka Tsereteli, and Dr. Stephen Jones, who are stepping down from the board, were recognized for their many years of service.
Just as July 4th marks the date of the birth of the United States of America, May 26th serves as the birth date of the modern state of Georgia. But Georgia as a sovereign entity traces her existence for more than 20 centuries. Over these many centuries Georgians had to fight almost incessantly for the preservation of their national independence, faith and traditions. She was many times invaded by the Mongols, Persians and Turks, among others, and in more recent history lost her sovereignty to a greedy Imperial Russia.
It was in 1783 when the King of Eastern Georgia, Erekle II concluded a treaty with Catherine the Great by which Georgia accepted Russian protection from Persians. In exchange Georgia was to retain her royal dynasty (Bagrationi), Church, institutions, language and complete freedom in internal affairs. In 1801 however, Russia violated the treaty and annexed Eastern Georgia to the Imperial Crown. By 1863, Russia had absorbed all of what is today modern Georgia, including currently occupied Tskhinvali region and Abkhazia. Since then, Georgia was a part of Imperial Russia. Georgians however managed to retain their language, and traditions.
When the Bolshevik Revolution broke out in 1917, Georgians took advantage of the ensuing chaos by declaring her independence on May 26, 1918. It is this centenary which we celebrate this year. The Georgian National Council consisting of members of all Georgian parties solemnly proclaimed the restoration of an independent Georgian state. Her independence was recognized de jure by most of the worlds powers including Soviet Russia who, on May 7, 1920, concluded a treaty with the Georgian Republic.
During the next three years the leaders of the new republic led by Noe Jordania, saw a Constituent Assembly elected (February 1919) based on a direct, equal, universal and proportional electoral representation. The right to vote was given to every citizen of the republic 20 years old and older without discrimination. The Assembly’s principal task was to draft a Constitution which they drew up and had adopted by February 1921. Unfortunately, by this time, the Red Army had begun its invasion of the young Republic striking simultaneously from five directions. Despite the heroic efforts of the Georgian Army led by General Kvinitadze, they were unable to resist the Soviet invasion. On March 16,1921, the Constituent Assembly of Georgia held its last meeting in Batumi and ordered the Government of the republic to leave the country, proceed to Europe and continue the fight for the restoration of independence from there. The Red Army entered Tbilisi on February 25, 1921 and the Soviet Republic of Georgia was proclaimed the same day.
Although Georgia was fighting for her life, no help whatsoever was given to her by the outside world. Although several European countries debated the “Georgian question” nothing came of all the meetings, debates and protests. No one was willing to take on the Russian bear. In 1921, the world had not yet come to realize that the principle of collective security must be defended if mankind is to have real peace. The invasion of a free Georgia was an early example in which Soviet Russia cynically broke an international treaty; they did same to Azerbaijan before Georgia. The Russia of today is no less different. They continue to violate international norms of territorial integrity and human rights. How many times must history repeat itself before the world learns its lesson?