TBILISI — Mikheil Saakashvili still has a year left as president of Georgia, during which he will have extensive constitutional powers. But the dynamic, sometimes thrilling and sometimes turbulent political project that began here with the 2003 “Rose Revolution” came to an end Tuesday, with what may be remembered as the theatrical “Misha’s” greatest performance.
In a nationally televised address delivered while the Central Election Commission was still counting votes, Saakashvili conceded that an opposition coalition headed by an eccentric billionaire had won Monday’s national election and captured a majority in parliament. He then promised to allow the “Georgian Dream” movement to appoint a new cabinet and prime minister — even though, under a phased-in constitutional reform, the presidency will retain executive power until Saakashvili’s term expires a year from now.
“You know that the views of this [opposition] coalition were and still are fundamentally unacceptable for me,” Saakashvili said in his three-minute address. “There are very deep differences between us, and we believe that their views are extremely wrong. But democracy works in a way that the Georgian people make decisions by majority.” He added: “I express my respect toward the decision of the majority participating in the elections.”
For the Eurasian region composed of former republics of the Soviet Union, that was a landmark statement. Almost all elections in this part of the world in the past two decades have been rigged and sometimes violent affairs in which the losers never accept defeat, much less publicly acknowledge it. The foremost practitioner of this pseudo-democracy is Saakashvili’s nemesis, Vladimir Putin, who ordered an invasion of Georgia in 2008 in an attempt to topple the pro-Western government and now is surely toasting its defeat.
Most Georgians give Saakashvili credit for restoring order in a country on the verge of becoming a failed state, modernizing the economy, greatly reducing corruption and attracting billions in foreign investment. But in recent years his opponents, as well as the lobbyists they hired in Washington, argued that he was becoming another Putin — persecuting his opponents, limiting media freedom and plotting to avoid term limits by becoming prime minister in the new parliamentary system.
The events of the past month should silence such talk. Saakashvili first reacted to the challenge of Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his $6 billion fortune in Russia, by lashing out: The challenger was stripped of his citizenship and fined $45 million under election finance strictures that were rushed into law. But in the past several months Ivanishvili was allowed to spend freely, and cable networks were compelled by law to carry his television station. Two weeks ago, it broke a sensational story about torture in state prisons that dramatically changed the election; urban voters who had stuck with the government because they supported reforms turned on it when they learned it had failed to clean up that Soviet legacy.
Saakashvili’s defeat was produced, in large part, not by his autocratic ways but by his embrace of democratic institutions, from the independent media that pounced on the prison scandal to the tens of thousands of domestic and international monitors who were registered as election observers, making fraud virtually impossible. Now the question is whether his successors will expand on the liberal political foundation he laid or dismantle it, as happened in Putin’s Russia and more recently in Ukraine.
Ivanishvili is an enigmatic character, as I discovered when I met him Sunday in the palatial steel-and-glass pavilion he has constructed on a hill overlooking Tbilisi. As he guided a group of journalists (brought here by the German Marshall Fund) around the grounds while chatting about his pet penguins, lemur and zebra, the trim, 56-year-old oligarch prompted playful comparisons to the evil masterminds in James Bond films.
In reality, Georgia’s new leader appears eager to reach out to the same Western governments that Saakashvili assiduously courted — starting with the United States. When I saw him briefly Monday night at his election headquarters after exit polls predicted his victory, he said his first foreign visit would be to Washington, because “the first country, the first friend, is USA.” Moments later, he delivered a victory speech in which he thanked the crowd of Washington-based consultants in his campaign war room and predicted that Georgia will someday become a member of NATO.
Whether Ivanishvili will be as liberal-minded as Saakashvili is another question. He bristled at probing questions from our group, wagging his finger and demanding to know where the queries came from. His coalition, held together by his own heavy spending, includes pro-Western liberals but also a motley collection of nationalists and xenophobes. One candidate on his list promised to restore a statute of Stalin in his Georgian hometown of Gori.
Georgia’s future — and the hopes that democracy can begin to grow in the former Soviet Union — now depend on whether this unlikely movement can sustain and extend the economic and political reforms that Saakashvili and his crowd of young technocrats began. Thanks to him, we know what success will look like: a speech someday by Ivanishvili, accepting political defeat and reaffirming the democratic system.