By Neil Hauer
If you’ve seen Georgia in the news in the last few months, it was probably due to one of two reasons: Either you were subjected to yet another breathless tourism write-up imploring you to visit the Caucasus republic, or you saw the mass demonstrations that have gripped the country almost ceaselessly since June 2019.
Tbilisi’s ruling Georgian Dream administration would prefer that the latter not be your introduction to the country. Georgia’s opposition—still largely dominated by the United National Movement (UNM), the party of eccentric former President Mikheil Saakashvili—might be happy with it because opposition leaders have pinned their electoral hopes on the rising discontent. These coalescing narratives will be put to the test in Georgia’s upcoming parliamentary elections, which have to be held by October.
It will be a tough choice for the Georgian people, though. They may not like their current leaders, but they’re not fans of the UNM or its allies, either.
In two recent nationwide polls conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI)—both U.S.-based think tanks with offices in Georgia—respondents supporting either the incumbent or the opposition were outnumbered by those preferring some alternative (whether that was another opposition party or none at all). The IRI poll, released on Nov. 18, 2019, found that 32 percent of those polled did not know who they would vote for if elections were held the next day, compared with 23 percent who would vote for Georgian Dream and 15 percent for UNM. When NDI’s poll came out in December 2019, its more pointed questions produced a more damning indictment of Georgia’s political landscape: When asked “Which political party is closest to you?” a full 34 percent responded “no party” or “refuse to answer”—nearly double the total 19 percent who chose Georgian Dream. (UNM only notched 13 percent.)
With the existing options so reviled by such a large portion of the population, the field should be ripe for a third force to make a splash. Similar to the way outsiders in other countries exploited mass disenchantment with the political system to ride a populist wave to power, Georgia’s version of Volodymyr Zelensky or Donald Trump might follow a similar playbook to upend Georgian political life.
The person most likely to find themselves in the position of spoiler is not an upstart celebrity comedian or even a reality TV host but a recently outcast member of the elite: the banker Mamuka Khazaradze.
The co-founder and former head of TBC, Georgia’s largest bank, Khazaradze found himself at the center of a storm in February 2019 after he resigned from his position as TBC chairman in the midst of an investigation many thought to be politically motivated. On July 24, 2019, prosecutors formally charged Khazaradze (and his co-founder) in relation to an investigation into a 2008 money laundering case involving him and his associates—just two weeks after he announced his intention to found a new political movement, Lelo, independent of Georgia’s leading political forces. Lelo’s platform is not yet fully developed, but the party’s leaders have repeatedly stated that its main purpose is to “defeat the bipolar system” of Georgian Dream and UNM.
Although experts who talked to Foreign Policy agreed that Lelo and Khazaradze have the best outside chance of challenging Georgia’s two main political parties, it probably won’t be enough.
“Everyone is crying out for something new, some sort of savior,” said William Dunbar, a journalist and analyst based in Tbilisi. “Khazaradze thinks he’s this guy, but the best he’s likely to do is 15 percent [in the October election].” For comparison, in the last parliamentary election in October 2016, Georgian Dream won 48 percent of the vote, compared with 27 percent for UNM.
The initial optics have not helped the former banker, either. “Even in his first press conference, people saw his suit with his fancy cuff links,” said Olesya Vartanyan, a South Caucasus analyst for the International Crisis Group. “They already thought, ‘This guy is not one of us.’”
The primary appeal of Khazaradze is not the man himself but what he represents. More accurately, it is what people want him to represent.
“Georgia has this phenomenon with new politicians,” Vartanyan said. “When there are rumors that someone new will enter [politics], people start to project all their hopes onto them. They build up a mythology, regardless of what this person actually is.”
This messiah complex has long characterized Georgian politics. Former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili rode such a narrative to power back in 2012, and his predecessor Saakashvili did much the same in 2003’s Rose Revolution. (Saakashvili served as president, but a constitutional change in 2010 transferred real power from the president to the prime minister.) Unlike them, however, Khazaradze is at a far greater disadvantage.
This is partly because choosing a savior-like leader has never worked out for Georgians in the past. Ivanishvili was an extremely wealthy leader who was ultimately a disappointment because he failed to tangibly improve the living conditions or economic well-being of most citizens. This relatively recent experience has colored Georgians’ perceptions of wealthy candidates, harming Khazaradze’s chances. “Trust towards the wealthy has taken a big hit,” said Iago Kachkachishvili, the head of the Institute of Social Studies and Analysis, a Tbilisi-based think tank.
Khazaradze’s initial poll numbers reinforce this analysis: In the same November IRI poll, only 29 percent of respondents said they had a favorable view of the man, compared with 45 percent who held an unfavorable view.