TBILISI— Georgia’s future prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, met President Mikheil Saakashvili at Tbilisi's modern steel-and-glass presidential palace on Tuesday. Afterwards the two rivals posed for pictures, and the president told reporters, “We will transfer the majority of the government’s function to the opposition peacefully for the first time in this region.”
For his part, Ivanishvili said, “I am glad we have had this chance to meet, and I must say that we are a civilized nation, and we can get along in a democratic way with our opponents.”
Now comes the hard part. Faceless to most Georgians only one year ago, Ivanishvili came from behind to win 55 percent of the vote in Georgia’s October 1 parliamentary elections. Now he faces a new challenge: sharing power with President Saakashvili, who has led Georgia for the last eight years.
As a leader of the opposition, Ivanishvili filled Tbilisi’s Freedom Square with 100,000 supporters. In victory, supporters of his Georgian Dream movement drove up and down Tbilisi’s main avenue with horns blowing and blue-and-gold flags waving.
On October 21, when Georgia’s parliament convenes for a new session, the Georgian Dream majority is set to elect Ivanishvili prime minister. He will, however, have to work together with Saakashvili, who will remain president until his term expires next October. Saakashvili’s party won 40 percent of the popular vote and 45 percent of the seats in parliament - enough to block some legislative changes.
So both sides now have to do something rare for this region, and for post-Soviet politics: compromise.
“The ruling party has had a constitutional majority for a long time now, and it's been a terrible thing for the parliament of Georgia,” said Mark Mullen, a longtime American resident and chairman of Transparency International Georgia. “The ruling party just did whatever it wanted to, and it was very, very frustrating.”
Next comes power-sharing
After the election victory was announced officially, passions cooled, a new Cabinet was named and Ivanishvili said that all but top government officials will keep their jobs.
This was good news to American Lawrence Sheets, Caucasus project director for the International Crisis Group. “The newly elected majority from Georgian Dream, they’ve been very clear about prosecutions, that sort of language,” said Sheets. “All through their campaign they were using the word punish, punish, punish.”
Sheets said it is key that Georgia's two opposing forces work together, at least until Saaskashvili’s term expires.
“It’s very important for responsible international actors to emphasize to the two sides that they have to take realistic positions,” said Sheets. “It’s not realistic to say the president has to quit now because we say so.”
Last week, analysts said Georgia set three rare precedents for a former republic of the Soviet Union: it carried out a competitive and apparently fair election; the ruling party was defeated, and accepted the voters' verdict; and the president accepted his party's defeat gracefully. Now the country's political leaders, both in the government and opposition, have a fourth milestone: running the country in a power-sharing arrangement for the next year.