Putin Profits as U.S. Ally Saakashvili Loses Georgian Vote

Russian President Vladimir Putin will probably benefit from the election defeat of U.S.-backed Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who led his nation to war with Russia in 2008, said researchers from London to Moscow.

Putin, who threatened four years ago to hang Saakashvili “by the balls” and refused any contact with the 44-year-old U.S.-educated lawyer, will now have the option to deal with billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, poised to form the next government. Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia, promised to mend ties between Georgia and its powerful neighbor.

The U.S. and European Union, which backed Saakashvili’s Rose Revolution in 2003 as well as the Orange Revolution a year later in Ukraine, have seen the pro-Western leaders that came to power suffer electoral reversals, boosting Russian influence in its former Soviet empire. Georgia, home to energy links between Europe and the Caspian that bypass Russia, angered Putin by seeking NATO entry.

“Saakashvili was very much disliked in Moscow, to put it mildly,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, an analyst at the Moscow-based Council on Foreign and Defense Policy. “While relations won’t change dramatically, the overall atmosphere will improve.”

The Georgian president, who has one year left of his mandate, yesterday conceded defeat in the election and said his party was going into opposition after garnering 40 percent of the vote to 55 percent for Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition with 98.8 percent of the ballots counted.

Most of the powers of the presidency will pass to the prime minister after Saakashvili’s term ends because of legislative changes two years ago.

‘More Constructive’

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev yesterday said the opposition’s victory showed a desire for change and offered a chance for dialog with Georgia.

“We can only welcome this as it likely means that there will be more constructive and responsible forces in parliament,” Medvedev told reporters in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, the Russian region neighboring Georgia.

The Russian Foreign Ministry today said Saakashvili’s defeat may allow the Black Sea nation to bring about the “normalization” of ties with its neighbors and to establish “constructive and respectful relations.”

Ivanishvili, 56, said yesterday that he would end Saakashvili’s policy of “waving a red flag” in front of Russia, while still seeking membership of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

‘Not Impossible’

“We will have to sort out our relations with Russia,” he told reporters in Tbilisi. “It will be hard, but not impossible.”

Georgia, the birthplace of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, was incorporated into the Russian empire in the late 18th century, and enjoyed only three years of independence, from 1918-1921, until the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. It withdrew from the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States after losing a five-day war with Russia over a breakaway region in August 2008.

Russian-Georgian relations were tense even before the 2008 war, which was sparked by Saakashvili’s attempt to regain control of South Ossetia. Putin cut transport and postal links and blocked money transfers in October 2006 in a dispute over Georgia’s arrest of Russian servicemen it accused of espionage.

Russia had earlier banned imports of Georgian wine and mineral water, hurting the agricultural industry. Flights resumed in March 2008 before being halted again by the conflict, restarting in 2010.

‘No Stooge’

Saakashvili, in a speech before the United Nations General Assembly, said last week that Russia was plotting to influence the outcome of the election, and called on “friends and allies” to support Georgia’s independence.

There’s no reason to believe that Ivanishvili is a “Kremlin stooge,” said Gemma Ferst, a London-based analyst with Eurasia Group.

“He’s pro-Russian insomuch as he wants to improve relations with Russia,” which is in line with what the majority of Georgians want according to public-opinion polls, she said by phone yesterday.

While Saakashvili’s party held a lead of more than 20 percentage points last month, the Sept. 18 release of footage showing prison guards beating and raping male inmates with a broom handle and truncheon sparked mass protests in the country ruled for the past nine years by Saakashvili.

‘Immediate Problems’

“The Georgian public apparently voted decisively for Georgian Dream not only because of disillusionment with Saakashvili and his government, and not only because of the extremely damaging visual evidence of prison abuse, but because of Georgian Dream’s promise that immediate economic and social problems will be addressed,” Neil MacFarlane, who researches the South Caucasus at Oxford University, said by e-mail.

Saakashvili was seen as a “loose cannon” by some western powers and his departure may ease strains with Russia, their biggest strategic relationship in the region, said MacFarlane.

‘Close Relationship’

The NATO military alliance is committed to its “close relationship” with Georgia, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said today. Four months before the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, NATO rebuffed bids by Georgia and Ukraine to be put on a fast-track toward membership, with Germany and France leading opposition to the U.S.-backed initiative.

Matthew Bryza, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, said that Saakashvili may still manage to retain influence in the country.

“Is President Putin happy to see Saakashvili go? Well Saakashvili isn’t gone,” he said by phone from Istanbul. “Saakashvili is still president for another year and if the opposition wins a narrow victory in parliament, then there is still political jockeying that is going to take place over selecting the prime minister and the presidential elections.”

If the Georgian leader does lose power, he will have laid the foundations of a democratic system in his country, said Bryza, who was responsible for the South Caucasus at the State Department and later served as ambassador to Georgia’s neighbor, Azerbaijan.

Ivanishvili doesn’t accept that good relations with Europe and Russia are mutually exclusive, James Nixey, Russian and Eurasia Program Manager at Chatham House in London, which advises European governments, wrote in a research note.

There is no proof that Ivanishvili “is in any way beholden or even amenable to the Kremlin’s unconcealed desire for influence,” Nixey wrote. “But he is likely to take a less antagonistic policy than Saakashvili.”

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