James Nixey
Head, Russia and Eurasia Programme

It is natural to equate elections with democracy. As Sunday's presidential elections in the ever tumultuous South Caucasus state of Georgia show, it is far from that simple. For all the other 11 states in the former Soviet Union (Baltics apart), elections have no more to do with democracy than they did in Soviet times. Manipulated before and then rigged after, the process serves only to confer faux legitimacy on an incumbent elite.

The weekend's elections will be relatively free and fair – and Georgia is more pluralistic than its fellow former Soviet countries. But a free and fair election is hiding the reality. To explain this – and why Georgia is not a democracy – it is useful to consider the cast of primary characters:

  • Mikhail Saakashvili – president for 10 years, but no more after the election. A mixed legacy to say the least, but the creator of modern-day Georgia. 
  • David Bakradze – candidate for the presidency. One of Georgia's most competent politicians, but tarred with Mikhail Saakashvili's brush. He will lose.
  • Bidzina Ivanishvili – a billionaire businessman who has been the country's prime-minister since October 2012, and now leaving office voluntarily. The extent to which he will remain influential is unclear. 
  • Giorgi Margvelashvili – candidate for the presidency. Backed by Ivanishvili, he is thus bestowed with relative popularity through association. He will win.

So far so complicated; but there's more: Georgia's revamped constitution has emasculated its presidency in favour of prime-ministers. President Margvelashvili will not be the most powerful man in Georgian politics. The next prime minister will effectively be nominated by the outgoing Ivanishvili, through the medium of the president. Ivanishvili apart, no one knows who the next prime minister will be.

Democracy is impossible without maturity. Maturity can only really come with age (although, as someone once said, sometimes age just shows up all on its own). The former Soviet countries are all 22 years-old, and most have never had a free and fair election – so they are, in human terms, still in pre-school. 

Ivanishvili has said he is leaving politics to concentrate on bolstering civil society. This is a laudable ambition if true, and just what Georgia needs. But he still fails to understand that civil society – and democracy – are products of wider society's slow-burning efforts to influence politics and decision-making. By defeating Saakashvili's party in parliamentary elections, and then stepping down, Ivanishvili may martyr himself. But by de facto choosing both of Georgia's next two supremos – President Margvelashvili and Prime-minister ‘X' – he has done his country no favours.

It is not Georgia's elections that do it credit, it is its complexity. Not for Georgia a simple president-for-life or dynastic succession. Despite all the mistakes, and even a probable oncoming storm of Saakashvili's and Ivanishvili's making, one can just about discern the very beginnings of a trajectory towards western-style democracy.  

Saakashvili's legacy

After ten years at the helm, 'Misha's' influence on Georgia merits examination. President at the age of 36, with a western education and work experience, he was unlike anything Georgia – or the West – had seen before in that part of the world. Saakashvili's predecessors had dragged Georgia through civil war and turned it into a failed state. His 'Rose Revolution' of 2003 was the first of many in the post-Soviet space (and more are no doubt still to come) and a genuine turning point. A good start was made when the old government was almost entirely swept away and replaced with young – perhaps too young – officials. Especially good progress was made on tackling low-level government and police corruption.

But two serious issues spoil the glory. Half-way in to his presidency Saaksahvili did what leaders should never do – lose large chunks of territory. Russia's short victorious war in August 2008 left Georgia 20% smaller and Saakashvili fatally discredited. Provoked massively by an unstable and angry Russia, Saakashvili fell straight into the trap and fired the first rockets that started a disastrous war. When the dust settled, the West abandoned Georgia and its leader in droves.

The second spoiler was the atrophying effects of sustained power. Saakashvili's political prowess degenerated as his terms progressed. As he became increasingly intolerant of dissent, the electorate abandoned him, much as western leaders had.

Mikheil Saakashvili deserves considerable credit for the difficult feat of freeing Georgia from Russia's post-imperial yoke and setting it on a path of eventual integration with the West. But his final gift to Georgian politics is to leave it. Gracefully, one hopes.

Read more:

Bidzina Ivanishvili is Trying to Cure Georgia's Messiah Complex
George Mchedlishvili, The World Today, October 2013