Previous history has provided little with which to predict how Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili would respond to the parliamentary victory this week of an opposition coalition led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili.
I was on Saakashvili’s small presidential jet ahead of the last parliamentary elections four years ago when he excused himself from chatting with me and two other journalists who were covering his campaigning.
The American-trained lawyer was his usual chatty, sometimes blustering self, easy to talk to and prone to sweeping predictions about Georgia’s imminent success and gruff denunciations of his nemesis Vladimir Putin. He got up abruptly as we were descending to the capital Tbilisi and headed into the pilot’s cabin. Minutes later, the plane’s wings began tipping unsteadily ahead of a rough landing.
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Apparently the Georgian leader likes to control his plane himself on landing — or so we were told. True or not, the possibility was part of his persona: The confident, lucid and usually reasonable-sounding forty-four-year-old sometimes seems crazy.
That would be a fatal flaw for a typical politician. But Saakashvili is from Georgia, where clannish politics are often mad. Four years ago, his party was running against a coalition backed by another billionaire named Badri Patarkatsishvili, whom the government accused of planning a Moscow-backed coup. Although the allegations were never conclusively proved, neither was the opposition able to convincingly refute them.
Despite Saakashvili’s heavy handed rule, dirty campaigning tactics and apparent belief only he is fit to govern his country, there was little sense then that the country’s direction would be any more democratic under his opponents.
It was clear, however, that after taking power during the Rose Revolution in 2003, the president transformed Georgia from a failing state whose capital had very intermittent electricity supplies into a developing country that had a very long way to go to alleviate widespread poverty in the countryside, but had taken great strides toward improving Georgians’ lives.
His main trouble appeared to be believing his own propaganda. I traveled to Georgia several times in 2008, when a war of words with Moscow was escalating along with a series of shootings and rocket attacks. In August, Saakashvili — who predicted he’d easily win a military conflict with Moscow — was goaded into a Russian trap when he attempted to seize the separatist region South Ossetia.
When I covered the subsequent Russian invasion from the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali, the burning and bulldozing of surrounding ethnic Georgian villages whose inhabitants fled for their lives belied the Kremlin’s claims its troops intervened to stop ethnic cleansing. Nevertheless, Saakashvili’s rashness contributed to the widespread perception both sides were more-or-less equally to blame.
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Although Georgia’s economy subsequently began recovering, Saakashvili’s moves to marginalize his rivals added credence to claims he’s authoritarian. Which is why his admission on Tuesday that his party lost this week’s parliamentary elections is so important.
Although the final outcome is unclear, especially because half of parliament’s seats go to the winners of elections in single-mandate districts that may alter the initial results, it appears an opposition has been voted into power for the first time in Georgian history.
The parliamentary election is especially significant this year because it comes ahead of constitutional reform next year that will transfer key powers from the president to the prime minister, whom the new parliament’s majority will choose. Saakashvili’s two-term limit also expires next year.
Stepping down will enable him to silence his most vocal critics and seal his reputation as a historic leader whose strong-willed, sometimes crazy seeming rule helped to push a venal, dangerously corrupt political system toward greater democratization.