Destination Today

After 10 helter-skelter years of reform and modernisation, Mikheil 'Misha' Saakashvili and his United National Movement were ousted in the elections of 2012 and 2013 by the Georgian Dream coalition led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia's richest man. Ivanishvili stepped down after a year as prime minister and handed the reins to protegés, but by all accounts he remained very much a power behind the scenes. Under his watch, it has often been hard to discern what direction Georgia was moving in.

Sometimes it seemed Georgian Dream's main objective was simply to reverse the things it didn't like about the Saakashvili administration. It called a halt to the spending on grand showpiece infrastructure projects, and it gave the judiciary greater independence, addressing a widespread grievance against the previously Draconian court system. Yet it also launched a wave of court cases against former officials from the previous administration. Saakashvili himself went into self-imposed exile and in 2015 took up the post of governor of the Odessa region in Ukraine.

Georgia's relations with Russia warmed slightly but the big-bear neighbour continued to tighten its grip over the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, signing alliances in 2014 and 2015 that tied the two territories ever closer to Russia, including in matters of defence and border control.

Georgian Dream has, however, continued Saakashvili's pursuit of closer ties with the West, signing an association agreement with the EU in 2014. Part of the deal is that Georgia must enact a raft of reforms to bring it into line with European norms in areas including human rights and democracy. The prospect of too much Western liberal influence on Georgian culture, however, alarms the country's many social traditionalists, especially the Georgian Orthodox Church, which has enjoyed a massive revival since the end of the Soviet era and is the most powerful social force in the country. Some 40% to 45% of Georgians now attend religious services at least monthly, and the church is a highly conservative body. Clergy were involved in violently breaking up a Tbilisi rally marking the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia in 2013. While many of the population at large have more liberal attitudes, conservative morality prevails. One survey in 2015 found almost 70% of Georgians believing it was never justified for women to have sexual relationships before marriage.

As the 2016 parliamentary election approached, the path forward was as uncertain as ever. While most Georgians would agree they were better off than 10 or even five years previously, many were now disillusioned with Georgian Dream, a common complaint being that the government was 'doing nothing'. There was no obvious rival movement to replace Georgian Dream. It was, however, a mark of how far Georgia had come in the past 10 to 15 years that the election, whatever its outcome, was unlikely to be anything other than democratic, free and fair.