Georgia's Main Opposition Party Splits over Saakashvili, Strategy
Georgia’s largest opposition group, the avidly pro-Western United National Movement, has broken apart amid infighting over the role of the party’s chief, ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, and the party’s loss in the 2016 parliamentary vote. The divorce could further weaken the country’s already fragmented political opposition.
The split was essentially between the brain and the body of the party, which ruled and reformed Georgia for over a decade until it was ejected by the Georgian Dream coalition in 2012. Top figures in Saakashvili’s presidential brain trust, including ex-National Security Council Secretary Giga Bokeria, ex-Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava and ex-Parliamentary Chairperson/Foreign Minister Davit Bokeria are among the score or so who opted for a political life after Misha.
Citing irreconcilable differences with the party and their former boss, the group announced a new party, as yet unnamed.
Fresh from prison, where he served a year and nine months for allegedly misspending public funds, Ugulava went straight for the jugular, blaming Saakashvili for the split.
“Saakasvhili was the party’s founder, but he has become its undoing,” he thundered, excoriating his former mentor for refusing to let go of the party and for engaging in divisive “ravings” from afar.
“This man does not radiate leadership anymore. It pains me to say this, but he is not the Mikheil Saakashvili who united the people in 2002 [ahead of the 2003 Rose Revolution] . . .” Ugulava said. “We need to look forward. If you turn back, you turn into a pillar of salt.”
The country’s problem now, he claimed, is billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, founder of the ruling Georgian Dream, and his informal rule. “Mikheil Saakashvili is his own problem,” he said.
Saakashvili, now an opposition politician in Ukraine, returned the volley via his Facebook page. He described the outgoing team as "losers" he won't miss, and accused his archrival, Ivanishvili, of a failed attempt to gobble up the party.
He announced January 12 as the day of the UNM’s “return for freedom and the people.”
Breaking up has been the name of the game in Georgian politics since the Georgian Dream gained a parliamentary super-majority in the 2016 vote. Long-established politicians saw themselves shut out. The opposition went into a tailspin, with leaders quitting and members changing sides.
The UNM struggled to maintain unity, but bickered bitterly over past campaign tactics, pecking order within the party and plans for the future. At the heart of the row was the question of whether Saakashvili is boon or bane for the party.
The answer apparently did not come easy even for those who opted against Misha.
“This is personally very hard for me,” said Davit Bakradze, the ex-parliamentary speaker who was the face of the UNM in last year’s parliamentary election-campaign. “These people have been the face, the spine and the foundation of the UNM for all these years,” he said, pointing at those lined up behind him in front of the UNM’s headquarters.
Bakradze and his friends remained with the UNM all through what he termed a vindictive campaign of arrests and persecution by the Georgia Dream, but it is time to move on, he said.
The group’s new party will work with the UNM against the Georgian Dream, he added.
The rest of the UNM put up a brave front about the split. “A small group of schismatics is leaving the party,” dismissively said Nugzar Tsiklauri, a diehard Saakashvili loyalist, PalitraTV reported. “More than one member left the UNM throughout the 17 years of its existence . . . including political heavyweights . . . but the UNM remains,” said another UNM member, Nino Kalandadze.
Be that as it may, this is the largest rift in the party’s history. Even though the bulk of the UNM appears to be staying put, 21 of the party’s 27 MPs opted to quit.
In online discussions, many UNM supporters accused billionaire Ivanishvili – supposedly, ever present -- of fostering a fight to weaken the opposition.
Ivanishvili himself, who receded into the shadows after the Georgian Dream’s second parliamentary triumph last October, has not commented.
Public opinion is split between those who believe that controversial Saakashvili was a drag for the party and those who believe he was its main selling point. Those of the latter opinion, predict a meager future for the new political team, arguing that its members made it to the top only by riding on Saakashvili’s coattails and have no public appeal of their own.
The counter-argument is that the split creates an opportunity for a new beginning in Georgian politics. And a chance to finally take it beyond the long looping Saakashvili-Ivanishvili feud.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a journalist based in Tbilisi, and author of Tamada Tales.
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