he key to understanding Georgia is its citizens’ strong national identity and prickly sense of independence. The country has occupied a distinct geographical and cultural position since ancient times. The mythical kingdom of Colchis, where Jason and his Argonauts stole the Golden Fleece in Greek mythology, lies in modern Georgia. So does the rock on which Prometheus was bound as punishment for stealing fire. Georgia was one of the first Christian states, as demonstrated by its many churches and other ruins from the first millennium after Christ – relics unmatched in many Western European countries.

First revolt

In cultivating this national heritage, Georgian society is eager to show its independence from Russia and pro-Western orientation, which usually manifests itself as a determination to “be in Europe.”  Even so, the first years of independence after the collapse of the USSR were largely wasted. Things only changed in late 2003 and early 2004, as the world watched a peaceful uprising on the streets of Tbilisi. The Rose Revolution came at a good time, putting this South Caucasus country back on the radar of experts in international relations. 

Georgia was the first post-Soviet state to undergo a “color revolution” leading to a change of government. The social movement that sparked this transformation was led by two politicians: Mikheil Saakashvili and Nino Burjanadze. The immediate cause of the outbreak was voting fraud. The protesters aimed to overthrow President Eduard Shevardnadze, a well-known figure from his days as the Soviet Union’s last foreign minister under President Mikhail Gorbachev.

After more than a decade in power, Mr. Shevardnadze had brought Georgia to the brink of economic collapse. The country was plagued by organized crime and corruption, starting at the very top levels of politics and business. But the most pressing issue was Georgia’s territorial integrity, as three regions of the country – Adjara, Abkhazia and South Ossetia – were locked into “frozen conflicts” during the early 1990s. In these autonomous republics, separatist authorities were established with the support of the Kremlin to tear them away from Georgia.

Manipulation of such frozen conflicts was an important innovation in Russia’s efforts to reassert control over the post-Soviet space, as it allowed Moscow to act as an arbiter of territorial disputes on its periphery, such as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. As a result, the Kremlin gained carte blanche to intervene in domestic politics of the former Soviet republics. In the case of Georgia, this leverage allowed Russia to curb the country’s ambitions to conduct an independent foreign and security policy, especially as regards NATO membership and integration with the European Union.

Saakashvili’s decade

In the decade after the Rose Revolution, Georgian politics were dominated by Mikheil Saakashvili, who won two terms as the country’s president (2004-2007, 2008-2013). Nino Burjanadze was speaker of the parliament and served twice as acting president while Mr. Saakashvili ran his election campaigns, but slowly lost her influence in political circles. Early on, she fell into conflict with President Saakashvili and gradually shifted to a pro-Russian position.

The American-educated Mr. Saakashvili quickly put his country onto a convergence course with NATO and the EU. This was an obvious move, since (except for the Baltic states) Georgia is the most pro-Western of all the post-Soviet societies. The new president was careful to promote young, Western-educated politicians to key positions. At the start of his first term, Mr. Saakashvili was able to reassert control over Adjara, thus disposing of one frozen conflict. He also scored significant successes in the fight against corruption. 

Georgia under Mr. Saakashvili came to be regarded as a textbook example of successful post-Soviet transformation. Nowhere else in the former USSR (again, except for the Baltic states) has the fight against corruption been so effective. Even so, the most important political event during the Saakashvili administration was a bitter defeat. During the August 2008 war with Russia, Georgia lost all remaining vestiges of control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, after the Russian military intervened massively in their support. Today, territories shelter under Moscow’s protective umbrella and elect their governments in violation of Georgian law.

The catalyst to the Russo-Georgian war was NATO’s plan to expand eastward into Ukraine and Georgia. At the alliance’s April 2008 summit in Bucharest, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a stern warning that these proposals posed a “direct threat” to his country. In the event, he was able to block Georgia’s acceptance into a NATO membership action plan. This scuttled the ambitious concept advanced by U.S. security expert Ronald D. Asmus of extending the alliance “deeper into Eurasia…and across the Black Sea to the Southern Caucasus.”

Another legacy of the Rose Revolution was a reorientation of Georgia’s foreign trade. After Russia closed its market to Georgian goods, producers of consumer exports like wine and Borjomi mineral water were forced to find new buyers. The result was to diversify Georgia’s economy and make it less dependent on Russia. The country’s main export products are unchanged: copper ore, ferroalloys and hazelnuts.

Dominant Dream

Starting in mid-2007, a broad-based protest movement against President Saakashvili began to gather momentum, fueled by anger at what some perceived as his high-handed approach to government. The Saakashvili administration’s reforms did impinge on key interest groups, but the real problem was its excessively centralized ruling style, which was very much part of the Georgian tradition. This style fostered the emergence of a strong anti-Saakashvili opposition that increased in strength during his second term (2008-2013), especially after Georgia lost a five-day war with Russia in August 2008.

In October 2012 parliamentary elections, President Saakashvili’s ruling United National Movement (UNM) suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of the Georgian Dream coalition. The creator and head of this opposition grouping was billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia’s wealthiest businessman and a former ally of Mr. Saakashvili. For a little more than a year after the election, Mr. Ivanishvili served as prime minister of Georgia, before stepping down after a candidate from his party, Giorgi Margvelashvili, won the 2013 presidential elections. That ballot marked a definitive rejection of Mr. Saakashvili’s team by Georgian voters, confirmed by Georgian Dream’s decisive victory in the 2016 parliamentary elections.

The political vision that Mr. Ivanishvili offered to the country was considerably less ambitious and eschewed radical reform. Its practical effect was to strengthen the billionaire’s already considerable economic influence. However, there was no pro-Russian shift in foreign policy or a reversal of support for EU integration, as some had feared. Georgians remained suspicious of Russia and of politicians who advocated a rapprochement with Moscow, while support for closer ties with NATO stayed as strong as ever. 

The Ivanishvili government turned out to be an effective negotiating partner with Brussels. In 2013, the two sides reached an association agreement, which was ratified and took effect in 2016. Georgia has also secured a preferential trade regime – the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) – and visa-free travel privileges from the EU, making it one of the three countries (along with Ukraine and Moldova) that have benefited most from the Eastern Partnership formula. 

Most of the economic reforms from the Saakashvili era have been retained or continued, and Georgia is officially categorized as a liberal, free-market economy. The country ranked sixth in The World Bank’s Doing Business rankings in 2019, just behind South Korea and two notches ahead of the U.S. Economic growth is forecast at a robust 4.6 percent this year, little changed from 4.7 percent in 2018 and 4.8 percent in 2017, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Danger signal

Georgia’s political history over the past decade can be described as a personal rivalry between Mikheil Saakashvili and Bidzina Ivanishvili, won decisively by the latter. After the 2012 elections, some of Mr. Saakashvili’s former associates found themselves facing criminal charges or even prison terms. The former president himself left the country to avoid prosecution and was eventually stripped of his Georgian citizenship. After the Ukrainian revolution of 2014, the ambitious Mr. Saakashvili found employment as the governor of Odessa province under President Petro Poroshenko. Mr. Saakashvili soon began criticizing his boss and was promptly sacked, returning to Kiev only after Volodymyr Zelenskiy won the 2019 presidential elections.

Until recently, the position of Mr. Ivanishvili’s party appeared unassailable. This changed with the 2018 presidential elections, when the Georgian Dream candidate – Salome Zurabishvili – won by less than 15,000 votes in the first round. The showing was doubly disappointing because Ms. Zurabishvili ticked all the right boxes. She had no party affiliation, had served as Georgian foreign minister under President Saakashvili, and was a former French diplomat and senior civil servant with a degree from the prestigious Sciences Po in Paris.

Even so, Ms. Zurabishvili received only 38.6 percent of the vote in the first round, compared with 37.7 percent for Grigol Vashadze of the UNM – Mr. Saakashvili’s