As he stood at the lectern before the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 25, Mikheil Saakashvili knew he couldn’t avoid the topic.
“The facts were sickening, and our responsibility was clear,” said the Georgian President, referring to the recently broadcast videos of prison guards violently abusing inmates in a Georgian prison. “Our reaction was swift, and we did what democracies must do.”
Saakashvili then described how his government had fired or arrested the officials responsible — and he cited that response as a sign that democracy was strong and vibrant in his young country.
(PHOTOS: Georgia Conflict Aftermath)
Back home, however, increasing numbers of Georgians aren’t buying Saakashvili’s promises of transparency and accountability. Since the videos first aired on Georgian television on Sept. 18, thousands of students, political activists and frustrated Georgians have been gathering in pockets around the country to protest against the abuse of inmates in Tbilisi’s Gldani prison — and against the increasingly unpopular government. As Saakashvili was speaking, one group of protesters, about 200 strong, made its way from Tbilisi State University to the U.N. office in Tbilisi, shouting slogans as they marched. “We don’t think that this government is capable of changing anything,” says 31-year-old Davit Kirkitadze. “They say we are striving to join E.U. and NATO but I don’t think prisoners are tortured like that in any E.U. country. Our President is a liar, and we must not give this government any more chances.”
Another chance is exactly what the government hopes to get with parliamentary elections on Oct. 1. But the government is facing its strongest opposition to date — the Georgian Dream coalition of parties led by 56-year-old Bidzina Ivanishvili, who ranks 153rd on Forbes magazine’s list of the world’s richest billionaires and is the richest man in Georgia. Saakashvili’s prickly relations with Russia, which shares a border with Georgia, and his embrace of Western-style capitalist democracy have cemented Georgia as a key U.S. ally in the region. “I came here to tell you that Georgia will remain an open society,” he told delegates at the U.N. “This is the choice of our citizens, and there is no alternative to this.”
That may be the kind of talk Western governments like to hear from a former Soviet republic. Yet, after nine years in power, Saakashvili’s democratic credentials have been questioned, and his opponent has characterized the upcoming elections as “a choice between good and evil.”
(MORE: An Uprising in the Caucasus, but No Arab Spring in Georgia)
Allegations of torture in the country’s prisons have been made numerous times in recent years, particularly by former prisoners, but it wasn’t until the broadcast of secretly filmed videos of inmates being beaten by guards or raped with a broom handle that the claims were confirmed. After the videos were aired, outrage swept the country. Spontaneous protests cropped up in Tbilisi, Batumi, Poti, Gori and Kutaisi, where thousands of people took to the streets over the abuse — widely viewed as officially tolerated treatment rather than isolated incidents.
The government went into crisis mode immediately. Police arrested at least 12 prison officials, police officers temporarily replaced all guards in the nation’s prison system, and Saakashvili appointed one of the prison system’s leading critics the new Minister of Corrections. But Saakashvili and his ruling party didn’t accept responsibility for the scandal without trying to claw back some of the political ground suddenly lost to Georgian Dream; several ministers accused the opposition coalition of staging the videos. (Georgian Dream denied the accusations.)
The President appeared on television himself following the release of the videos, saying, “There must be zero tolerance to any violations of human rights, because we are building a civilized and humane country, rather than discipline based on violence.”
(PHOTOS: War in Georgia)
Saakashvili, often referred to as Misha, came to power in 2003 during the Rose Revolution and has been heralded in the West, particularly in the U.S., as a democratic reformer ever since. He has implemented significant change in Georgia, a former Soviet country of around 4.5 million. He ushered in free-market economic reforms, successfully tackled corruption in Georgia’s notorious police force and closely aligned the country with U.S. interests, including sending 2,000 troops to Iraq. Then last fall, out of the blue, came Ivanishvili, a multibillionaire who grew up in a poor Georgian village before making his fortune in Russia. The publicity-shy tycoon, who was known for philanthropy in Georgia’s tiny villages, denied an interest in politics until October of last year when he announced his plan to form a party to stand against Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM).
(MORE: The Strategic Lessons of Georgia)
Svante Cornell, the research director of the Central Asia–Caucasus program at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, describes the coalition as a “very mixed crowd that includes some of the best forces of the Georgian opposition and frankly some of the forces that we would probably not associate with Western liberal values.” But while it may be a motley crew of discordant ideologies, under Ivanishvili’s direction Georgian Dream has loosened Saakashvili’s political foothold.
Saakashvili has battled hard against his new challenger. The government stripped the billionaire of his Georgian citizenship and fined him millions of dollars for allegedly breaking campaign-financing rules. The hurdles didn’t thwart Ivanishvili, as Georgian law allows E.U. citizens with permanent residency in Georgia to run for government, and the billionaire holds French citizenship.
But Georgian Dream doesn’t appear squeaky clean either. While the coalition denies staging the videos, the timing of the broadcasts was certainly fortuitous for Georgian Dream — and critics note that Ivanishvili happens to own one of the channels that aired the footage. The billionaire leaped on the political opening the scandal created. “We promise to come to power and to restore justice,” Ivanishvili told voters at a campaign rally in Georgia, four days after the videos had been released.
(MORE: Moscow’s Dangerous Game in Georgia)
While Saakashvili’s party remains ahead in the polls — the UNM leads Georgian Dream by as much as 20% in an independent poll conducted in August — the prison revelations and ensuing protests have damaged its popularity. “This video inflicted a serious blow to the ruling party,” says Alex Rondeli, a political analyst at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, a Tbilisi think tank. “It will have negative results for the ruling party, no doubt about it.”
But while Giga Bokeria, the head of Georgia’s National Security Council, and part of Saakashvili’s inner circle, concedes that the videos have created a “tense election moment,” he believes the scandal won’t affect the election results. “The record overall of the ruling party and the government during the years is very strong,” he says. “I believe that the Georgian public will trust the team that was able to implement all those reforms to tackle problems that are remaining.”
For many of the protesters who marched on Georgia’s streets, trust in Saakashvili’s government — and all politicians — has run out. Dimitri Khuskivadze, a 21-year-old student from Kaspi, has often appeared at the front lines of protests this past week. He remains unconvinced that a changing of the guard would bring greater democracy to Georgia. “It is a grave mistake to think that another political party will come to power and it will be nice to people and will not do anything bad,” he says. “Without a strong civil society the country will not develop further.”
— With reporting by Keti Mskhiladze and Avto Koridze / Georgia