Georgia: More of the Same with Margvelashvili?

Georgia’s election to pick a new president to replace Mikheil Saakashvili is still about a month away, but, already, the ruling Georgian Dream coalition bills their candidate in promo materials as “President Giorgi Margvelashvili.”

That confidence — or arrogance, depending on your point of view — appears, however, to stem less from any new policy proposals than from the fact that Margvelashvili has the blessing of the politician who currently rules Georgia’s political roost, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Showing trust in Margvelashvili “means showing trust in me,” the prime minister advised attendees at a September 19 rally in Tbilisi to kick off the Georgian Dream’s official campaign.

The question is how strongly that trust will run on October 27, election day. And what will be its substitute afterwards, when, as Ivanishvili tells us, he’ll be leaving office.

While Ivanishvili still ranks as the country’s most popular politician (according to a July survey for the National Democratic Institute), his polling numbers — something the prime minister views skeptically — have been dropping steadily. Meanwhile, in casual conversations, grumbling about the lack of jobs and uncertainty over a cocksure Russia appears to have picked up pace.

The general ideas unveiled by Margvelashvili, a former  education minister under Ivanishvili, covered precepts with which few Georgians would disagree — more jobs, more investment, the return of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a strengthening of ties with the US and EU as strategic allies and an attempt to promote trade with Russia.

Details, so far, have been few. What appears to be the most extensive print interview to date, done by the monthly tabloid Prime Time, focused primarily on the unmarried Margvelashvili’s relationship with makeup artist Maka Chichua, a sometime-singer-actress, and what views the 44-year-old candidate’s parents hold on the matter.

For some, such insights can play a role. In a close-knit country of just 4.6 million people, voters often want to “know” a candidate via their own networks of family and friends. Many say that they only know Margvelashvili via Ivanisvhili’s endorsement.

Whether or not the promise to “keep on keeping on” will override such concerns come election day remains to be seen. During Margvelashvili’s speech at his official Tbilisi send-off, many less-than-attentive delegates wearily fanned themselves, inspected the ceiling, or, like many Georgian theater audiences during a performance, chatted with each other or on their phones, competing with the candidate’s speech for volume. 

As his main opponent, Margvelashvili faces 41-year-old Davit Bakradze, the relatively reserved parliamentary faction head of President Saakashvili’s United National Movement, and, as a former parliamentary chairperson and foreign minister, someone with greater face-recognition and government experience than Margvelashvili.

Still, the betting appears to be that voters, tired of years of political feuding, will put their desire for calm first. Even if it means further concentrating power in one political bloc. 

In his campaign appearances, Margvelashvili appears to emphasize that theme, telling a cheering crowd in one western town that “this word ‘cohabitation’ should never exist in this country.”

“For me, simply a win is not important,” he told another crowd in the mountain town of Oni earlier this month. “For me, what’s important is a win that shows, both inside and outside the country, that . . . there do not exist different points of view about Georgia’s future.”

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