Saakashvili’s Successor: Georgia’s “European Course” to Continue

Georgians voted out the man who tried to bring them into Europe yet his successor sees no reason to change course.

Georgia’s newly-elected president said on Monday he would press ahead with efforts to deepen the Caucasus nation’s ties with the West even as Mikheil Saakashvili’s election defeat cleared the way for rapprochement with Russia.

“Europe is our choice and this election is a confirmation of our European course,” Giorgi Margvelashvili, an academic and political novice, told a news conference.

Margvelashvili, who briefly served as education minister, was little known and elected on behalf of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition mainly because voters were tired of Saakashvili’s tenure as president which lasted almost ten years.

Whereas Saakashvili was heralded as a pro-Western reformer when he came to power after the former Soviet republic’s 2003 Rose Revolution, his last years in government were marked by increasingly authoritarian tendencies. Both the United States State Department and the advocacy group Human Rights Watch accused his administration of using “excessive force” against anti-government protesters. The latter also said it had prosecuted dozens of political opponents in misdemeanor trials without full respect for due process. Revelations of prison abuse last year sank Saakashvili’s party’s prospects in a parliamentary election that allowed the billionaire Ivanishvili to come to power.

Ivanishvili has tried to rebuild ties with Russia without abandoning his country’s economic and political integration with the European Union and NATO, a difficult balancing act that has yet to pay off.

Georgia is critical to European countries’ aim of importing oil and gas from Azerbaijan through pipelines that run into Turkey. European Union member states currently get a third of their natural gas from Russia. In former East Bloc states, the dependency can run up to 80 or 90 percent. Efforts to diversify Europe’s gas supply threaten Russia’s economic prospects, however. It currently exports 90 percent of its gas to Europe.

Increased Caspian Sea gas exports could be a boon for Georgia’s economy which expanded just 1.5 percent in the second quarter of this year, down from 8.2 percent in the same period in 2012.

Free market reforms characterized the early years of Saakashvili’s presidency but came to a standstill after a 2008 war with Russia. Unemployment hit 16.5 percent. Two thirds of those under 24 are out of work while corruption still stifles business activity and job creation.

Closer association with Europe could lure foreign investors to Georgia but they are deterred by a lack of political stability.

Ivanishvili is due to step down as premier later this year, saying his work is done now that Saakashvili is removed from office. Under a new constitution that was adopted last year the presidency’s powers have been greatly reduced and it remains unclear who will succeed Ivanishvili and emerge as Georgia’s new leader.