More than two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Republic of Georgia passed an important democratic milestone this week when the opposition party won the parliamentary elections and the incumbent president, Mikheil Saakashvili, conceded defeat. The door is now open for the first peaceful transition of power in modern Georgia’s history. The development is also a landmark for the Eurasian region of former Soviet Republics, where most elections have been rigged and often violent. … Since the collapse of the Soviet Union twenty-one years ago, the fifteen former Soviet Republics have followed mostly bumpy paths toward and away from democracy. On Monday, Georgians stunned the world when an opposition coalition led by eccentric billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili won the parliamentary election there. President Mikheil Saakashvili conceded defeat on Tuesday, paving the way for Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream bloc to form a new government. When Ivanishvili becomes prime minister, as expected, it will be the first time in Georgia’s history that the government will have changed at the ballot box rather than through revolution.
To be sure, challenges remain. Saakashvili, who was swept to power in 2003’s Rose Revolution, will remain in power until presidential elections next year. Relations between the two men are frosty, to say the least. Due to recent reforms, the parliament and prime minister will acquire greater powers after the presidential election. But the six-party Georgian Dream coalition is fragile, its majority is thin, and its tycoon leader is a political novice.
The campaign was bitter. The opposition accused Saakashvili of monopolizing power, curtailing democracy and suppressing dissent. Indeed, Saakashvili used all the tools at his disposal, including state-run media, to secure a win, but his efforts to block his opponents ultimately failed. For his part, Saakashvili, who waged a war with Russia in 2008 and has aggressively courted the West, warned that Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia, would move Georgia away from the West and back into Moscow’s sphere of influence.