08TBILISI69, WILL A WEAKER SAAKASHVILI GIVES RISE TO A STRONGER

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Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
08TBILISI69 2008-01-17 09:38 2011-08-30 01:44 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Tbilisi

VZCZCXRO4709
OO RUEHFL RUEHKW RUEHLA RUEHROV RUEHSR
DE RUEHSI #0069/01 0170938
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
O 170938Z JAN 08
FM AMEMBASSY TBILISI
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 8626
INFO RUEHZL/EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE IMMEDIATE

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 TBILISI 000069 
 
SIPDIS 
 
SIPDIS 
 
DEPT FOR EUR DAS BRYZA & EUR/CARC 
 
E.O. 12958: DECL: 01/14/2018 
TAGS: PGOV PREL KDEM GG
SUBJECT: WILL A WEAKER SAAKASHVILI GIVES RISE TO A STRONGER 
DEMOCRACY IN GEORGIA? 
 
Classified By: Ambassador John F. Tefft for reasons 1.4(b&d). 
 
Summary 
------- 
1. (C) By narrowly crossing the fifty-percent threshold to 
gain a first-round victory January 5, Mikheil Saakashvili won 
another five-year term as Georgia's president.  Nevertheless, 
the close result suggests that Georgian politics will be 
decidedly different in this term than in the first, when the 
perception of Saakashvili's overwhelming popular support 
dwarfed all rivals.  Saakashvili maintained his strong 
mandate for nearly four years while leading the Rose 
Revolution, and many Georgians (including Saakashvili 
himself) had perhaps begun to think he might be immune to the 
pendulum swings of public opinion that eventually brought 
down the first post-communist governments that came to power 
during the democratic movements across eastern Europe.  That 
perception of invincibility has now been shattered. 
Saakashvili had huge advantages over his opponents in 
campaign cash, organization, and even in personal qualities: 
the second-place finisher was an inarticulate businessman 
nominated by opposition parties who did not want a strong 
leader, and the third-place finisher was an expatriate 
oligarch whom the government exposed plotting a coup during 
the campaign.  Clearly, the votes for them were largely 
protest votes against Saakashvili.  Saakashvili is now moving 
to repair his image, starting with putting a more moderate, 
compassionate face on his cabinet.  The logic of much of his 
first-term agenda -- to consolidate painful but permanent 
reforms to westernize Georgian society -- will now likely 
give way to a greater sense of give-and-take with the 
opposition and public.  This will at times likely be 
frustrating to those of us familiar with the fast pace of 
reform in the last four years, but if things go well it could 
leave as a legacy something Georgia currently lacks: a 
competitive multi-party system.  This ultimately would 
strengthen Georgian democracy.  End Summary. 
 
Winning Small 
------------- 
2. (C) According to official results, Saakashvili received 
53.47% of the vote, followed by Levan Gachechiladze with 
25.69%, Badri Patarkatsishvili with 7.1%, Shalva Natelashvili 
with 6.49%, David Gamkrelidze with 4.02%, and two other 
candidates with less than 1% each.  After landslide wins in 
the 2004 presidential and parliamentary elections, as well as 
in the 2006 local elections, these results show a Saakashvili 
whose popularity has come down to earth.  This is all the 
more notable because Saakashvili's campaign was immensely 
better funded and organized than any of the others. 
Saakashvili's face was plastered on billboards and buses all 
over the country, while advertising for other candidates was 
rare.  In Tbilisi, for example, one could not find a major 
thoroughfare which did not have Saakashvili's image on it at 
regular intervals:  Saakashvili hugging pensioners, 
Saakashvili playing with children, or Saakashvili greeting 
troops.  Some argue that this campaigning was a 
miscalculation -- that frustration with Saakashvili among the 
public was so high that pictures of him everywhere hurt 
rather than helped him.  Saakashvili soundly lost the 
capital, which includes one-third of the Georgian population. 
 
3. (C) The close vote overall was definitely not the result 
of effective opposition campaigning.  Several opposition 
leaders in the nine-party United National Council (UNC) told 
us they had chosen Gachechiladze as their candidate because 
he would be the most "credible" spokesman for the 
opposition's pledge to abolish the position of elected 
president.  He also was the one person all could agree upon. 
True to this form, Gachechiladze did not come across as 
particularly presidential in his television appearances and 
rallies during the campaign, and his muddled speaking style 
and often crude speech was in stark contrast to that of the 
fast-talking, multi-lingual Saakashvili.  Patarkatsishvili 
spent a considerable amount of money on his campaign (at 
least if one can judge by the handsome offices and 
furnishings and large staffs who populated his campaign 
offices nationwide) but he spent the entire campaign in 
England.  His most attention-grabbing comments were recorded 
unbeknownst to him in December by a Georgian police commander 
whom he attempted to recruit into a plot to overthrow the 
government after the election. 
 
A Referendum on the Incumbent 
----------------------------- 
4. (C) Simply put, the votes in this election were either for 
or against Saakashvili, and the two categories were divided 
almost equally.  Why the sharp drop in support for a leader 
who seemed largely untouchable as recently as September?  The 
first reason is the sense of many ordinary Georgians that 
 
TBILISI 00000069  002 OF 003 
 
 
their standard of living has not improved since Saakashvili 
came to power.  While Georgia's economy has experienced 
remarkable growth in this period, this has not been 
accompanied by a large number of new jobs.  The government 
has s
truggled to contain inflation, now running at 11 percent 
or more, making even staple products painfully expensive (and 
monthly becoming more so) for middle to low-income families. 
In the meantime, Saakashvili's reforms have disadvantaged 
many: police officers, educators, and others who have lost 
their jobs in re-organizations intended to fight corruption, 
beneficiaries of organized crime networks broken up by the 
government, and government employees whose places of work 
were privatized.  For these people, the fountains and bright 
lights in Tbilisi represented not progress, but a privileged 
few thriving while their own lives worsened. 
 
5. (C) Interestingly, however, Saakashvili's support was 
lowest in the two cities that have benefited most from recent 
economic growth, Tbilisi and Batumi.  Both these cities have 
a large number of educated, politically aware people -- 
sometimes called the intelligentsia, although the number of 
people who fit into this category is much larger than the 
name implies -- and this group, especially those over about 
age 35, soured on Saakashvili some time ago.  There are at 
least two cultural explanations for this.  First, this group 
has a certain classist attitude which disdains the many 
outsiders (i.e. those not for generations born and bred in 
Tbilisi) moving into key government and advisory positions. 
This includes Saakashvili's tendency to place people "from 
the village" into key Government posts.  Despite their 
terrible plight, many of the internally displaced persons 
from the internal conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia are 
viewed as outsiders here.  Similarly, there is a sense that 
Saakashvili's appeal to the ethnic minorities - specifically 
the ethnic Armenians and Azeris in the south -- is somehow 
un-Georgian.  He is in fact the first president (and the only 
candidate) to do so.  Second, this group more than any other 
saw both its influence and status fall with reforms that 
downsized Government, cut benefits, and made selection 
processes for schools and other positions more open and 
transparent.  At the same time, they saw Saakashvili and his 
young team as arrogant and unwilling to listen to advice, 
something Shevardnadze and most Soviet-era leaders had made a 
special point to do. 
 
6. (C) Each of these segments of society had its own reasons 
to be dissatisfied with the government, not all of which were 
mutually shared.  Throughout the crisis in the fall and then 
the campaign, the Tbilisi-centered opposition parties 
repeatedly chose to stress proposals like changing the date 
of elections and reducing the power of the presidency over 
economic themes that might have had greater appeal to the 
poor.  But even before the election was called, one issue had 
come to symbolize the government's flaws in a way that 
resonated with both groups:  property rights.  There were a 
large number of highly public controversies in 2007 as the 
government moved to seize and sell property for development. 
This property was not only that of a large mass of Tbilisi 
residents, but also it hit squarely on the residents with 
long ties to their property and the city who lived in old, 
dilapidated but highly prized sections of the city.  While 
the government offered legal justifications that often seemed 
to us to be credible (in many cases the evicted people and 
businesses did not have valid deeds or even leases) these 
explanations were largely lost on a society with little 
experience with property law. 
 
7. (C) Then came the events of the fall, starting with former 
Defense Minister Okruashvili's attempt to shield himself from 
arrest on corruption charges by directing his own sensational 
charges against Saakashvili.  The large crowds that turned 
out to protest Okruashvili's arrest in October were the first 
visible sign of a large vein of dissatisfaction into which 
the opposition could tap.  The violence on November 7, 
accompanied by the five-week shutdown of Patarkatsishvili's 
Imedi TV, shocked many Georgians who had previously supported 
Saakashvili, and created a rupture in his support that he was 
not able to heal in the campaign.  In the past Saakashvili 
had been seen as the defender of Georgia against foreign and 
domestic enemies, but public cynicism about him had grown so 
much by this point that many were doubting that Saakashvili 
would obtain even 50 percent in the first round of the 
elections until the audiotape evidence of Patarkatsishvili 
plotting a violent coup turned around the dynamic in 
Saakashvili's favor. 
 
What Next? 
---------- 
8. (C) Saakashvili has a tough task ahead in trying to stop 
the downward slide in his popularity, and the opposition will 
 
TBILISI 00000069  003 OF 003 
 
 
not make it easy in what may be a drawn-out standoff over the 
legitimacy of the election.  This will be followed by a 
spring parliamentary election that is likely to produce a 
much more representative, but also more contentious and 
divided parliament.  Both during the presidential campaign 
and after, Saakashvili has shown signs that he realizes he 
needs a new approach to re-connect with the public and the 
opposition.  His most dramatic public move thus far was 
replacing the dour Prime Minister Noghaideli with banker Lado 
Gurgenidze -- a national celebrity for his role as host of 
the Georgian version of Donald Trump's program "The 
Apprentice" -- in December.  Saakashvili is hinting widely at 
further personnel changes when he announces his second-term 
cabinet, possibly even including members of the opposition if 
they will agree.  Since immediately after the election, he 
has been negotiating quietly and determinedly with the 
opposition on addressing a list of grievances which would 
prompt the opposition to accept Saakashvili's election win 
and focus on the Parliamentary election.  These include such 
items as giving greater representation to the opposition on 
key boards (state television, the courts, the election 
commission, law enforcement oversight, the government's 
auditing firm, and a body to consider changes in the 
constitution).  Part of this negotiation also includes the 
election date (May 4 or 11) and amnesty for prisoners 
convicted for violence during the demonstrators' conflicts 
with police last November 7. 
 
9. (C) On policy, Saakashvili and Gurgenidze rolled out a 
series of new programs during the campaign to aid the 
socially disadvantaged population, and the price for these 
programs is already being paid by other parts of the budget. 
An increase in the defense budget, just approved by 
Parliament in September, has been slashed, with one recent 
consequence being the government's decision to postpone the 
commercial purchase of U.S. made helicopters.  Saakashvili 
has publicly pledged that he will spend more of his second 
term in Georgia, not on foreign trips.  The overall result is 
likely to be a government that is less ambitious (and 
possibly less able) in pursuing politically painful reforms. 
 
Comment 
------- 
10. (C) Georgia has made huge strides in the past four years, 
going from the brink of being a failed state to being the 
"top performer" in World Bank assessments of ease of doing 
business, a major U.S. security partner with its increasingly 
professionalized military making a large contribution in 
Iraq, and a developing democracy that just had the most 
competitive election in its history.  We believe these steps 
forward are not likely to be reversed, but the pace of future 
reforms will likely be slower as the government moves from a 
revolutionary one to one which includes more of the voices of 
the Georgian population.  Saakashvili's mistakes during the 
crisis in the fall brought him to this stage more quickly 
than expected, but the change was inevitable sooner or later. 
 No government in a democracy can remain popular indefinitely 
while pushing through major changes that, in the short term 
at least, negatively impact large segments of society. 
Provided the reform pace does not stop altogether, the new 
political reality is not necessarily all bad: the opposition 
now has the opportunity to transform into a constructive, 
responsible force, and thereby to provide Georgia with the 
most important element of democratic consolidation that it is 
missing:  a competitive, multi-party system.  If so, the 
ultimate legacy of Georgia's winter of discontent could be a 
more mature, stable democracy. 
TEFFT

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