12th Oct 2012

Jeremy Rosner looked ashen. The American pollster, a veteran of the Clinton White House, had just learned that the United National Movement (UNM) of President Mikheil Saakashvili had lost the country’s October 1 parliamentary elections in an upset to the Georgian Dream (GD) coalition led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. Rosner, an executive vice president of the D.C.-based consulting firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, is one of the world’s most successful political pollsters, having advised leaders ranging from Tony Blair to Israel’s Labor Party to Ukrainian Orange Revolution leader Viktor Yushchenko. He had been working for Saakashvili since 2007, and his polls for the Georgian leader had always been pinpoint accurate. He is not used to losing, and when he does lose, he expects it.

But standing that evening in the bar of Tbilisi’s Marriott Freedom Square, Rosner was visibly shocked. Just two days earlier, he had met me in the lobby of the city’s other Marriott hotel, just down the street, to tell me how a UNM victory was all but assured. His internal polls showed it — one he conducted in August found the UNM leading GD 55 to 33 percent — as did a series of focus groups across the country. Polls conducted earlier in the year by rival firm Penn Schoen Berland (hired by GD) which showed the opposition in a virtual dead heat with the UNM, he told me, “are fabricated.” Regaling me with stories about how Saakashvili is “more like Clinton than anyone I’ve ever worked with” and “a force of nature,” Rosner had reason to be upbeat: A series of polls by non-partisan outlets had shown the UNM with a healthy lead over the opposition. The National Democratic Institute, for instance, found the UNM leading GD by 25 percent. Granted, all these polls had been taken before the September 19 release of undercover videos documenting torture and anal rape in Georgian prisons, shocking images that turned thousands of people — many of them having nothing to do with Georgian Dream or politics whatsoever — into the streets. But Rosner was not worried. “I don’t know any scandal in the world that’s wiped out a 20 point lead,” he told me.

Whether it was the prison scandal, a combination of grievances, or — as the opposition long alleged — a widespread unpopularity not accurately accounted for in political polls due to a “climate of fear,” Saakashvili’s party lost the election, a development that took the international media, Western governments, and the bevy of political consultants hired by both sides by surprise. When I asked Rosner what accounted for the discrepancy between his expectations and the outcome, he repeated to me what he had said two days before: In his decades of politics, he had “never seen a single scandal wipe out a nearly 20 point lead.” But while the prison video was almost certainly the decisive factor in turning the election in Ivanishvili’s favor, there were other elements at play that largely eluded international observers and most Georgia-watchers.

There were many clues that the UNM would lose much of its support, if not suffer an outright defeat at the polls, one just needed to know where to look. The widely touted National Democratic Institute poll showing a 25 point UNM lead, for instance, found that a plurality of voters (43 percent) either did not know whom they would vote for or refused to answer. In retrospect, this relatively high number ought to have been seen as a boon for the opposition, as undecided voters everywhere tend to be. But much of the other evidence of voter discontent was anecdotal. Spending a Saturday afternoon with some Ivanishvili supporters in Tbilisi, I was told by one that, of her 600 Facebook friends, only two “dared” to post anything in favor of Saakashvili. The seemingly over-confident claims of impending victory from opposition supporters were also somewhat deflated, for me at least, by their wild predictions that the government would use fraud and, failing that, violence, to resist an Ivanishvili victory, all somehow under the watchful eyes of thousands of international election observers, media and Western governments. This excitable and, at times conspiratorial, tone, led me to discount much of what opposition activists were saying.

For their part, government supporters acknowledged that Tbilisi has long been an opposition stronghold. They told journalists to discount the large crowd (estimated as anywhere from 60,000 to an improbable ten times that) that turned up in the city’s central Freedom Square for an Ivanishvili rally on the Saturday before the election. But a trip outside the capital demonstrated that the discontent with the government, if not Saakashvili himself, was deep, particularly among the country’s poor and long-term unemployed. Though Saakashvili can claim tremendous success in reforming a post-Soviet backwater into a nation with real (albeit, long-term) prospects of joining the European Union, poverty and unemployment have remained consistent problems over his 9 years in power.

A visit to Georgia’s rural areas the day before the election indicated that the election would be closer than the government’s sanguine predictions. I began my day visiting the village of Metekhi, a dusty, depressed industrial town in the central Kaspi region. When I talked to the villagers — nearly all of the working age unemployed and those too old to work living on measly pensions of 110 Lari (about $50) per month — none of them mentioned the prison videos as a reason for their displeasure with the government. Elguja Gejadze, a 55 year-old man who said he had two university degrees, told me that he had been unemployed for four years “Everyone who supported this government is an enemy of Georgia. Everyone is guilty,” he declared, echoing the virulent rhetoric of Ivanishvili, who took to painting Saakashvili and his colleagues as criminals. “This is what I think and the majority thinks but because of fear they don’t speak it loudly.” (Metekhi, some 10 miles from Josef Stalin’s birthplace of Gori, also has the dubious honor of being home to a woman claiming to be the mother of Russian President Vladimir Putin. When a local man brought me to her house, surrounded by a wire fence, she emerged but refused to talk to me, nervously picking the shrubbery while saying that unnamed persons had warned her not to speak with the press.)

Other Georgians I spoke to felt that Saakashvili had indeed done much to change the country, but only on the surface. “He spends so much money but nothing goes to us,” a despondent, 49-year-old Irakli Mamasakhlisi said, citing an alleged half-million-dollar New Year’s tree from China as but one example of Saakashvili’s excess. “Normal people, we don’t feel the wealth ourselves.” Saakashvili’s building spree — like Tbilisi’s Public Service Hall, which opened just a week before the election and guarantees Georgians access to necessary government documents with fast-food efficiency (it even boasts a drive-thru window) — failed to impress many rural voters. Denigrating that building, which looks like a martian spaceship hovering over the Mtkvari River, 75-year-old Kako Chiavireli in the village of Gurjaani complained to me about, “facades of buildings but nothing inside. We need something more than painted houses.”

If my interviews outside the capital were any guide, support for the government closely tracked one criterion: whether people had jobs or not. This observation was richly illustrated for me in a heated argument I witnessed between three heavily made-up women who co-owned a convenience store and one of their customers. “We love the policies the government is implementing,” Mtvarisa Mekoshkishvili told me when I asked her why she had put signs for the UNM in her shop windows. She ticked off roads, pension increases, and “improved buildings” as examples of Saakashvili’s success. “The opposition says the election will be falsified and it will be stolen and nothing will change it,” chimed in Shorena Surmanidze, one of her colleagues. “It looks like they want the election to be falsified and people to come out in the streets. It will be profitable to them.”

The argument began when one of the store’s customers overheard what they saying. Soon, the four women were bickering over whether or not it was the government’s fault that unemployment remained so stubbornly high, with the shop owners claiming, like the archetypical American immigrant supporter of the Republican Party, that “if someone wants to find work, they can.” The customer, in turn, replied that the only work available to her was manual labor, which she was unable to do.

Ironically, part of the reason why these factors likely eluded Western consultants, journalists, and NGO types (both those inclined to support Saakashvili and those who wanted to see him lose) is that they focused so heavily on the salacious prison video scandal at the expense of these deeper trends. A cool assessment suggests that the impact of the prison videos was somewhat overblown. Most of the documented abuse took place over a year ago, yet the videos were released less than two weeks before the election and on an opposition television station owned by Ivanishvili’s wife. Of course, this doesn’t in any way excuse the abysmal conditions in Georgian prisons. But it does lend credence to suspicions that some of the abuse might have been staged, suspicions later validated by a Lithuanian forensic expert invited by the Georgian government to examine the prisoners. A few days before the election, he told the BBC that he saw no evidence of forcible sodomy. This skepticism toward the video and its origins seemed to characterize the attitude of those who continued to support the government, like George Abuladze, a 26-year-old bank worker, who told me that “this kind of violence happens in most countries and prisons, but I’ve never seen it broadcast on foreign television.”

Regardless, Saakashvili immediately took responsibility for what was depicted in the videos, denounced the apparent abuse, and fired two ministers. He then appointed the country’s human rights ombudsman, a fierce critic of the government’s prisons policies and acknowledged by even Saakashvili’s critics as an independent man, to be the country’s new penitentiary minister. In light of the fact that abuses happen in all prisons (particularly former Soviet ones), and that the responsible ministers were given their marching orders, it’s unclear what more the government should have done in response to this scandal.

The government seemed to bank its hopes of winning the election on its swift and uncompromising response, acknowledging that some swing voters would defect to the opposition, but not nearly enough to overcome a 25 percent deficit. Raphael Glucksmann, a senior Saakashvili advisor, broke down the Georgian electorate for me over drinks shortly before the vote. 25 percent of the country, he said, “thinks Misha ruined their lives” and will vote for the opposition regardless of who leads it. Meanwhile, 40 percent is “hardcore Misha.” That is precisely the percent of Georgians who ended up voting for the UNM, meaning that Ivanishvili was able to persuade roughly the remaining 35 percent that the country was in need of change.

Ivanishvili’s confrontational rhetoric also struck the government as a sign of desperation, not confidence. Lambasting Saakashvili as a “son of a dog” and an autocrat was a sign, Glucksmann told me, that Ivanishvili was aware he had no chance of winning and was thus waging “a post-electoral strategy” that would force a showdown on the streets between an invigorated opposition that believed the election had been stolen from them and the government. “If he had accepted a moderate strategy,” criticizing the government for substantive policy shortcomings rather than attacking the institutions itself, “he could have won after the prison scandal,” Glucksmann said. In hindsight, it’s clear that the government underestimated the level of disappointment people felt with it. Ivanishvili, with his vast fortune, was able to unite the country’s disparate opposition and capitalize on that dissatisfaction.

While analysts have exaggerated the importance of the prison scandal, the video speaks to a deeper, more underlying problem that ultimately hurt the popularity of Saakshvili and his party. One of his undisputed successes is tackling petty crime and corruption, Georgia has one of the lowest crime rates in the world, which is rather incredible when you factor in that it’s a young, post-Soviet democracy that has experienced more than its fair share of war and civil strife. Yet in exchange for this low crime rate, the country also has one of the highest per capita prison populations in the world. This is a trade off, but one that appears to have weighed too heavily on the side of imprisonment, as the country’s judicial system is widely criticized for lacking independence and too often being the plaything of prosecutors. One Georgian told me that practically everyone in this country of 4.7 million people has some connection to one of the country’s 24,000 or so prisoners, or the 200,000 people on probation. This is one surefire way to create an army of angry voters.

These factors, however, escaped the notice of most of those whose jobs it was to know this small country like the back of their hand. “If the Georgian government was unable to see [discontent], so too were its friends and counterparts in the West, who were impressed by Georgian GDP growth and its high rankings on international indices,” Caucasus expert Michael Cecire recently wrote in the National Interest. “And the UNM and its leadership, which had long been enthusiastic partners to the United States and Western Europe, had become a metonym to many analysts — and especially the more casual observers — for modernization and liberalism in a region traditionally hostile to both.”

It’s not hard to see why Georgia’s friends in the West were blindsided by the challenge unleashed by Ivanishvili. Daniel Kunin, an American advisor to Saakashvili from the day after the 2003 Rose Revolution until January of 2010, told me that in his six and a half years at the president’s side, he never once heard Ivanishvili’s name mentioned. This underscores Ivanishvili’s secretive nature; for a time there existed just one, blurry photo of the man on the internet, and still no one was even sure if it was of him. “We used to joke around that he could be sitting next to you on an airplane ride and you wouldn’t know who it was,” Kunin told me in Tbilisi the evening before the election. Now, everyone in Georgia knows the eccentric billionaire with the Albino rapper son, $1 billion art collection and private zoo, who can add one of the world’s most dramatic electoral upsets to his list of accomplishments.

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