Progress despite criticism
Saakashvili, who assumed power after a peaceful revolution, and his young, dynamic circle made enormous strides after taking over a chaotic country with a ruined economy in early 2004. They effectively eliminated crime — the streets are safer to walk, day or night — as well as the everyday corruption that distorts life in the former Soviet Union, and they made a despised police force respected.
But Saakashvili’s critics said he resolutely marginalized any political opposition and, with enough votes in Parliament to change the constitution at will, ran the country without due regard to the rule of law and unchecked by separation of powers.
His party pushed through a redistribution of power, taking effect when Saakashvili’s presidential term expires next October, moving from a strong presidential system to one led by a prime minister elected by Parliament. That set off suspicion that he planned to stay in power by becoming prime minister, as Vladimir Putin did in Russia when he came up against term limitations.
Despite the criticism, Saakashvili brought Georgia further along the road to democracy than any other states that emerged from the former Soviet Union, with the exception of the Baltic countries, considered an exception because they had been independent longer.
But he had difficult relations with Russia, resulting in a disastrous 2008 war and the loss of 20 percent of Georgia’s territory. Although Ivanishvili, who made his money in Russia, is expected to be more palatable to Moscow, it is doubtful that relations between the two countries will improve anytime soon. As Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the foreign relations panel in the upper house of the Russian parliament, pointed out Tuesday, Saakashvili and Ivanishvili are interested in joining NATO, which Russia considers anathema. Both parties desire good relations with the United States.
Saakashvili’s party had been a heavy favorite to retain decisive control of Parliament until revelations of prison abuse two weeks before the election enraged voters. Although human rights groups had complained about the prison system repeatedly, the issue was ignored. Saakashvili quickly appointed one of the system’s chief critics to reform it and fired high-level officials, but the damage was inflicted.
“As the opposition force, we will struggle for the future of our country,” he said Tuesday. “We will struggle for everything that has been created in recent years.”