Georgia’s Election Becomes Tom-and-Jerry Show
As Georgia prepares to dive into another stormy parliamentary vote, two men stand on the opposite shores of the bordering Black Sea, shaking their fists at one another and calling each other names. Yes, they’re at it again. Mikheil Saakashvili and Bidzina Ivanishvili, the perpetual Tom and Jerry of Georgian politics, are getting ready for another of their grand showdowns.
Three days ahead of the October-8 vote, Saakashvili’s smiling, plump face presented itself on a giant screen in downtown Tbilisi. “We may be separated by this sea,” said the 48-year-old ex-president, speaking from Ukraine and pointing at the Black Sea swishing behind him, “but my heart beats in unison with yours, counting . . . the days and seconds to our final victory.” he told a rally for the United National Movement (UNM), the party he founded and Georgia’s largest opposition group.
Vowing to end the dominance of the “Russian oligarch” Ivanishvili, Saakashvili, now governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region, signed off saying that “three days are left before I cross this sea . . .see you in a victorious Georgia!”
The oligarch in question said that a well-fitted prison cell will be ready for Georgia’s former leader should he come ashore in Georgia. “That wretch can go nowhere…He is even afraid to get stuck in an elevator because he has a fear of confined spaces,” alleged Ivanishvili, the 60-year-old former prime minister and billionaire founder and benefactor of the ruling Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia.
It is the second parliamentary election in which the national discourse has been hijacked by the exchange between the two men. Ivanishvili soliloquizes about how he ended Saakashvili’s nine years of one-upmanship in 2012, when the Georgian Dream coalition wrested parliament from the UNM’s grasp. The latter still accuses Ivanishvili, who made his money in Russia, of being in cahoots with the accursed Russian leader, Vladimir Putin.
Saakashvili’s mild-mannered, Dutch-born wife, Sandra Roelofs, 47, who is running her own, lively campaign as a UNM candidate in the western region of Samegrelo, has taken aim at the Georgian Dream, too. “I was told they will send in БТР-like women to drag me by my hair. . . . “ Roelofs recently told a cheering crowd in the regional seat of Zugdidi. In Georgian, the Russian acronym for an armored personnel carrier doubles as a pejorative for physically stout, politically zealous women. “I’ve straightened my hair today to make it easier for them,” the former first lady quipped in effortful Georgian.
For all the jousting, Saakashvili and Ivanishvili themselves are not running for office in Georgia. As Odessa’s governor, Saakashvili is supposed to be preoccupied with fixing that struggling Ukrainian region. Ivanishvili may have claimed that he has quit politics, but remains at the front and center of it, with a fresh TV show geared for the elections.
The pair is seen as both the boon and the bane for the parties they back. Even among UNM supporters, fatigue exists with what many see as Saakashvili’s overbearing ways, but, for others, he is the party’s biggest sell for his reputation as Mr. Fix-It. Cursing the government for not doing anything about ever-worsening traffic jams in Tbilisi, many cab drivers say that Saakashvili would have done something. There is a substantial dislike of Ivanishvili lording it over the Georgian Dream, but his vast fortune attracts many to the party.
The billionaire, who has is wont to appear on TV to explain to Georgia where things stand, recently insisted that the UNM would only get a few backseats in the national assembly and “the time of them pushing people around will be over.” He insisted that his protégé party will get 100 seats in the 150-member assembly.
Ivanishvili’s prognosis that the oft-criticized Georgian Dream will get more seats than it did in the last election appears overly optimistic.
The Georgian Dream prevailed in the 2012 vote as a coalition of Saakashvili’s adversaries. But once Saakashvili was out of the picture, the parties took turns to break off from the coalition, with their leaders taking turns to accuse Ivanishvili of acting as Georgia’s shadow boss.
In an “expert survey” conducted by the Georgian Institute of Politics, a Tbilisi-based think-tank, analysts and observers predicted that the Georgian Dream will get between 30 to 42 percent of the votes and the UNM between 19 to 32 percent. A vast number of Georgians, though, remained undecided.
Some interpretations hold that this loud silence denotes a voter desire to move on to a post-Saakashvili-and-Ivanishvili era, and pick alternatives from the country’s baroque assortment of other parties. Opera star Paata Burchuladze showed promise, with his State for the People Party and his velvety bass, but a last-minute split in his team dashed hopes that Georgia could be gaining another serious political contender.
Georgian Institute of Politics Director Kornely Kakachia believes that, for all their bickering, the two main parties and their patrons benefit from having each other as rivals, instead of dealing with new arrivals. “It easy for them to fixate on each other’s mistakes and shortcomings -- both had many -- rather than deal with newcomers with a clean slate,” Kakachia told Tamada Tales. “In that sense, they [they Georgian Dream and UNM] need each other.”