Georgia's political transition
Tuesday, 23 October 2012 16:26

DOES a glamorous career in professional football prepare a player for one of the top government jobs? Officials in the country’s energy ministry may wonder. Kakha Kaladze (pictured), a former AC Milan star and national football team captain, is set to become their new boss. He admits he knows nothing about his new portfolio.

Of course, newly appointed ministers often have to learn on the job. But the appointment of Mr Kaladze, one of Bidzina Ivanishvili’s closest lieutenants during the election campaign, may be significant for another reason. During the electoral campaign Mr Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition pledged to reduce utility prices. Will Mr Kaladze be able to deliver?

In the run-up to the parliamentary election on October 1st, Georgian Dream tapped into a wide range of popular grievances. On some issues, they made specific promises; on others, they let people project their own aspirations. As an election strategy, that worked. But as they form the new government, Mr Ivanishvili’s team has high expectations to manage.

So far, Mr Ivanishvili seems to go into the right direction, reassuring the European Union and the United States about his intentions. He has also sent out important signals to the business community, such as his intention to strengthen the country’s woefully inadequate anti-monopoly legislation. Tackling many of Georgia’s other problems will be difficult.

As Eurasianet reports, some people hope to right wrongs suffered under the previous government. Yet the sheer volume of legal cases that could entail would overwhelm an already fragile justice system. Other people have started taking matters into their own hands. Strikes are spreading after roughly 3,500 miners in Chiatura, in west Georgia, downed tools on October 15th in protest against their working conditions. (Georgian Dream has promised to reform the country’s controversial labour code). Some 900 internally displaced people who had been evicted from Tbilisi have just moved back to empty buildings in the capital.

Yet for all that, the formal transfer of power since the country’s feverish elections has been remarkably smooth. The new parliament convened on October 21st after the Central Election Committee confirmed the final vote tally. Mr Ivanishvili finally received his Georgian citizenship, which cleared his way to becoming prime minister. Parliament will confirm the new cabinet on Thursday.

Encouragingly, both Mikheil Saakashvili, the president, and Mr Ivanishvili have shown levels of constructive leadership that was absent in their campaigns. Indeed, in his address to the new parliament, Mr Saakashvili admitted that the election campaign was “difficult, indecent and venomous, probably from all sides”. Both men have called for their parties to work together.

For the United National Movement, now begins a time of re-birth. Mr Saakashvili signaled as much when he admitted that the previous government had not listened enough to the Georgian people. That is putting it mildly. They ruled by revolutionary fiat, relying on a degree of coercion of which ordinary Georgians soon tired. Five MPs who ran as UNM candidates have since refused to join the parliamentary minority; others may follow. But the party will not wither away. Last week, Mr Saakashvili appointed four senior allies as regional governors, who report directly to him. That will only increase the pressure on the new government.

Could the new government free up the country’s polarised media? Transparency International, an NGO, is gloomy: with media owners retaining their close political ties, they say, little will change. Imedi television, most recently a pro-UNM channel whose ownership is now reverting to the family of Badri Patarkatsishvili will prove an interesting test-case.

The most immediate challenge will be adapting to parliamentary politics. Georgian Dream’s 85 seats outstrip the 65 won by the United National Movement, but fall short of the constitutional majority of one hundred votes that major decisions require. Passing a budget that reflects Georgian Dream’s campaign pledges before the end of the year will provide an early test.

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