Georgia's presidential election: all you need to know as Saakashvili eyes comeback
Two giants of Georgian politics will go head-to-head on Wednesday when the country votes for a new president.
While neither is on the ballot, the poll is effectively a choice between Mikheil Saakashvili — who last month told Euronews he wants to return to Georgia and clear his name — and billionaire former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Here is our guide to what you need to know ahead of the election.
Who is in the running?
Grigol Vashadze and Salome Zurabishvili go into Wednesday's run-off contest after emerging as the most popular candidates in the first round of voting last month.
Grigol Vashadze: This is the candidate for Georgia’s main opposition, the United National Movement (UNM).
The party was founded by controversial ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili, who was sentenced in absentia for abuse of power earlier this year.
If Vashadze wins it is likely to mean Saakashvili will attempt to return to Georgia from exile in the Netherlands.
“Vashadze is quite likely to pursue Saakashvili policies, a pro-EU and pro-NATO course and pardoning people who are sentenced under the current government, including pardoning Saakashvili,” said Max Fras, an expert on Georgia and visiting fellow at the London School of Economics’ European Institute. “There is quite a huge element of risk with him.”
Tbilisi-born Vashadze, an ex-foreign minister, also served as a diplomat in Moscow during the Soviet era.
Dr Fras said Vashadze was not necessarily pro-Russian but that his connections with the country would upset some Georgians.
While he is not considered the frontrunner, he could benefit if accusations about corruption involving officials from ruling party Georgian Dream are proven (see below).
Vashadze won 37.7% of votes in the first round and was boosted when third-placed candidate Davit Bakradze announced he would be supporting him in the run-off.
Salome Zurabishvili: Some say Zurabishvili, another former Georgian foreign minister, is the favourite to win the race to be the country's next president.
Officially she’s independent but her cause could be helped by the endorsement she received by the ruling Georgian Dream party, founded by former Georgian prime minister Ivanishvili.
This is despite courting controversy by claiming that Georgia started a war with Russia a decade ago.
“Her trademark is her sharp and crude remarks,” said Max Fras, an expert on Georgia and visiting fellow at the London School of Economics’ European Institute.
“She is well-known for sharing off-the-cuff comments that are not always in line with official policy.
“She’s the most likely candidate to win but she is not a totally-known quantity. She might just go rogue and become more independent than Margvelashvili [the incumbent]."
Zurabishvili narrowly emerged as the most popular candidate in the first round of the election, netting a 38.6% vote share.
Which direction is Georgia likely to head?
While other countries on the fringes of the EU are a battleground for influence between Brussels and Moscow, Georgia is a bit different.
A conflict a decade ago with Russia over the breakaway region of South Ossetia helped to put Tbilisi on a path to EU membership.
It signed an association agreement with Brussels in 2014, but is yet to request full membership.
“There is anti-Russian sentiment and the war was massive,” explained Dr Fras, “But Russia is just a much less attractive strategic partner.”
It's unlikely — whoever wins the run-off — that Georgia will be pushed off its pro-EU, pro-NATO pathway, he added.
How could corruption play a role?
In October, audio tapes emerged that appeared to show a corruption scheme between high-level government officials and the Georgian tobacco market, according to Transparency International in Georgia.
If any of the accusations are proven that could affect the popularity of Zurabishvili, said Dr Fras, because she is endorsed by the ruling Georgian Dream party, which is implicated in the scandal.
Whoever is elected could also have an impact on cleaning up suspicions of corruption in Georgia’s judiciary.
“The president has the power to appoint three judges to the constitutional court and a member to the high council of justice,” added Dr Fras. “They can tip the balance of power and make the judicial system have more integrity.
“At the core of this is the independence of the judiciary: there is a lot of evidence out there that the current judiciary serves political interests and whoever the ruling party in government is.”
What could happen next?
Dr Fras said a win for Vashadze — and the expected return to Georgia of Saakashvili — would lead to more instability.
"His [Saakashvili's return] would mean a very serious test for police and the courts and possible unrest as his opponents are many and some openly call for violent resistance against him," Dr Fras added.
"Opinion polls are unreliable as usual but most point to an almost equal chance of victory for Zurabishvili and Vashadze.
"If Zurabishvili pulls through, the situation is likely to stabilise faster."
What is different at this election?
Georgians might want to grasp the last chance to directly-elect their president.
Constitutional changes mean in the future the president will be chosen by a 300-strong college of electors, which consists of MPs and regional government representatives.