When Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili took to the air to concede his ruling United National Movement party’s defeat in the country’s Oct. 1 elections and announce the UNM’s plans to head into the opposition, it signaled the end of the Rose Revolution era. That the revolution’s leaders were shown the door through the ballot box and not by street protests marks a significant advance for Georgia and the region. If it has not quite achieved mature democracy yet, Georgia has at least reached an unprecedented level of political competitiveness for the post-Soviet world outside the Baltic states.
Among the many questions as to what comes next, the country’s geopolitical direction under billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition has become the subject of extensive inquiry and supposition. Cast by Saakashvili and his allies during the campaign as a Kremlin stalking horse, Ivanishvili has publicly maintained his commitment to continuing Georgia’s Westward trajectory. In a press conference after his victory, Ivanishvili reiterated his support for continued Euro-Atlantic integration and, tellingly, emphasized his prioritization of Tbilisi’s strategic partnership with the United States. "Our strategy is NATO and moving toward NATO," he told reporters. Ivanishvili has already made it clear that his first trip abroad as prime minister will be to the U.S.
Some wary Western observers are not convinced, however. Citing some of Ivanishvili’s more erratic coalition partners and alleged links to Kremlin authorities, critics are framing the Georgian Dream victory as the first step toward a Ukraine-like backslide into the Russian orbit. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, who has overseen serious democratic regression in that country’s political system, expressed similar pro-Western sentiments upon election in 2010. Yet Ukraine’s progress with Euro-Atlantic integration is now effectively moribund.