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Saakashvili’s Leadership Claim Puts UNM Under Opposition Fire

Since the United National Movement (UNM) – and the Strength in Unity coalition it leads – proposed Mikheil Saakashvili as their prime-ministerial hopeful, UNM increasingly attracted fire from other opposition parties, which strive to distance themselves from the toxic elements of Saakashvili’s legacy while claiming the bits that are widely recognized as a success. Less than three weeks left before the October 31 parliamentary elections, bitter acrimony in the Georgian opposition parties augurs ill for their combined electoral prospects.

Old Habits Die Hard: Natelashvili vs UNM

Shalva Natelashvili, veteran leader of the Labor Party was the last to slam Saakashvili’s ambitions for a return to Georgia’s politics. Natelashvili found the new political breath when his party’s offices were unexpectedly chosen to host the rag-tag coalition of previously irreconcilable opposition factions, following the “Gavrilov’s night” events. Together, they managed to push for electoral changes that increased the proportion of the proportionally elected MPs in the parliament and lowered the passing threshold, thus giving the opposition a fighting chance at easing the Georgian Dream’s unilateral grip on power.

There is no love lost between Natelashvili and Saakashvili in Georgian politics. Ironically though, it was Natelashvili who yielded the seat of Tbilisi City Council chair to young Saakshvili in 2002, which he used as a springboard to the presidency.

Yet, Natelashvili’s recent statements are just a minor fracture amid tensions that have been going on for months now, with most of them involving the politicians that split off UNM at various stages of Georgia’s stormy politics.

“Punch Bidzina, Elbow Misha!” – European Georgia vs UNM

With this snappy soundbite, former Tbilisi mayor Gigi Ugulava has inaugurated the new thrust of the campaign for European Georgia. Their campaign video and the campaign brochure feature Bidzina Ivanishvili and Mikheil Saakashvili as two political personalities that the European Georgia sets itself clearly against.

While the party sought to differentiate itself from UNM ever since its MPs broke off their former party in 2017, many voters were not convinced: after all, most European Georgia leaders held senior positions in the UNM-led administration. So while bickering with UNM has been a mainstay of the European Georgia,  the open attack on Saakashvili and making his rejection as a potential prime-ministerial candidate the lynchpin of the campaign is relatively new.

Former colleagues and current partners were not amused. MP Tinatin Bokuchava said the European Georgia failed to forge its true identity thus far and is now desperately trying to corral some voters as the polls approach.

Even the Floor Mop Could Get More Votes: UNM vs Girchi

Saakashvili also threw some punches. In his interview with TV Pirveli on September 20, he barred other parties from his potential shadow cabinet.  “I only see making the coalition with the public,” – former President noted cryptically. “I can’t see a governing coalition [with anyone] at all, I do not believe in political parties and ‘mini-parties’ at all, I do not believe in ‘politikans’ [persons misusing politics for their personal gains],” Saakashvili added.

Zurab Japaridze, leader of the right-libertarian Girchi party and joint opposition candidate in Tbilisi’s Didube-Chugureti majoritarian constituency, hit back by calling his former boss “a power-thirsty man” who wants to bring back one-person and one-party rule. He further accused Saakashvili of undermining the opposition unity.

UNM PM Salome Samadashvili retorted and was caught on a hot mic saying “even a floor mop could get more votes as a candidate than Zurab Japaridze”.

Candidate Scorned: UNM vs Strategy Agmashenebeli:

Former Deputy Justice Minister in Saakashvili’s administration, Giorgi Vashadze credits himself with the concept of the “Justice House” – a one-stop-shop-plus for public services which became an attractive shop-window for Saakashvili’s reforms. His relations with UNM turned to vinegar when on August 26, UNM decided to run Khatia Dekanoidze, former Education Minister, against him as a majoritarian candidate for Isani constituency in Tbilisi. Vashadze had already been named more than a month earlier as joint opposition candidate.

Joined by Tako Charkviani, another opposition politician, Vashadze left the UNM-led coalition “Strength in Unity” to form a new “Strategy Agmashenebeli” (referring to David IV the Builder, medieval Georgia’s Charlemagne equivalent).

Ever since, Vashadze used all his knowledge in digital technologies to push his candidacy as the future prime minister through direct mobile messages, in social media, the internet, and every other available platform.

Still, parties don’t seem to agree on their joint future leader, as seen from the European Georgia’s presentation ceremony of MP candidates where party leaders denounced the premature naming of prime minister candidates as a quest “for seats and offices.” Labor’s Shalva Natelashvili has been also projecting his ambitions to take up the position of a future head of government in his latest TV campaign ads.

The gradual UNM breakup started when then-MP Zurab Japaridze, with 3 other lawmakers, quit the UNM and formed his own Girchi party in 2015. Giorgi Vashadze followed in his steps a year later, forming the “New Georgia” party. The UNM suffered another blow when dozens of party members, including 20 out of 27 UNM MPs, quit the party in 2017, distancing themselves from Saakashvili’s leadership and eventually starting the European Georgia party.

In Search of Common Ground

The polls show that no single opposition party stands the chance of dethroning the ruling Georgian Dream party, which currently polls in the upper 40s. Given a good performance in majoritarian districts, the Georgian Dream may have enough seats to form the government alone – but good money is on it falling just short. The United National Movement with its committed army of supporters is set to remain the largest opposition party, perhaps even crossing the 20% threshold – just. Any smaller opposition party wishing to dethrone Ivanishvili’s team will have to team up with UNM. But they need to get there first.

The European Georgia’s thinking, clearly, is that by putting a firewall between them and Saakashvili they will reassure those “soft” GD supporters that fear UNM’s restoration and revenge. At the same time, they hope to capture some of the reassured undecided voters who don’t want to see Misha back into the country’s top office.

This clearly is a risky gamble. The opposition presented itself as a unified front – surprisingly for many Georgians – and forced reluctant GD to the concessions that were reflected in the so-called “8 March Deal”. Despite the frictions, the opposition forces, led by Shalva Natelashvili’s Labor party, were able to reach numerous deals, including agreements “On Protecting Each Other’s Votes” and on running joint majoritarian candidates in several single-mandate constituencies. Some parties also formed smaller unions to offer joint reform packages as part of their campaign. 

But Saakashvili’s unchained activism has caused the accumulated venom with former colleagues to spilling onto media waves, which makes that show of unity unconvincing, brittle, illusory.

All is played on the assumption level: do the Georgian voters only refrain from ditching the Georgian Dream because they fear Misha’s return?! The election day would show.


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