Georgian Upset Could Prove a Turning Point

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By Marc Champion

Russia's Vladimir Putin, Azerbaijan's Ilham Aliyev and other Eurasian autocrats take note: Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili just conceded defeat in an election that international monitors declared free.

For a moment this morning, it looked like the vote for a new Georgian parliament had produced the worst possible outcome: a victory for the opposition Georgian Dream coalition in the popular vote, but with a majority of seats going to Saakashvili's incumbent United National Movement. That would have guaranteed weeks of unrest in the streets and accusations of a stolen election.

What actually happened may turn out to be the best of all possible results: namely a win for the opposition and -- most important -- an admission of defeat by Saakashvili, once seen as the region's best hope for democracy, but more recently lumped with other regional leaders as an autocrat.

Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire who funded the opposition and declared victory, now has a chance to show if he really is the better man to lead Georgia. His first reaction -- to call for Saakashvili to step down as president before his term expires next year -- was not a good sign. Ivanishvili should abide by the same constitution that just won him victory.

What Georgia has a chance to do now is to have its first real experience of power-sharing and next year, to execute its first ever complete transfer of power through the ballot box. This is tough stuff. The level of rancor between the two sides and the temptation to secure revenge mean that the odds are stacked against success. Either or both men may well balk.

Saakashvili, for all his faults, has done a lot for Georgia. The election result was an upset relative to most polling during the election campaign, which mostly put the ruling party in the lead. In all probability, the vote was turned by the release of horrific prison torture videos in the final days. Those videos stirred popular outrage against Saakashvili's government, which had failed to address a well-known problem in the country's jails and paid the price.

It may be that nothing Saakashvili has done before will prove as important as the simple act of conceding defeat. It has become fashionable to paint the Georgian leader as an ogre, with a worse record on political and human rights than Putin. But these elections, though far from perfect, were not fake; police didn't break up opposition rallies; Saakashvili appeared to have ruled himself out of a Putin-style switch to prime minister, even before the loses; and there were TV stations on air (if not nationally) that were able and willing to show the torture video and promote the opposition.

Russia's political opposition would doubtless like to have that kind of autocracy.

(Marc Champion is a member of Bloomberg View's editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)

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-0- Oct/02/2012 17:35 GMT