Putin, who threatened four years ago to hang Saakashvili “by the balls” and refused any contact with the 44-year-old U.S.-educated lawyer, will now have the option to deal with billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, poised to form the next government. Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia, promised to mend ties between Georgia and its powerful neighbor.
The U.S. and European Union, which backed Saakashvili’s Rose Revolution in 2003 as well as the Orange Revolution a year later in Ukraine, have seen the pro-Western leaders that came to power suffer electoral reversals, boosting Russian influence in its former Soviet empire. Georgia, home to energy links between Europe and the Caspian that bypass Russia, angered Putin by seeking NATO entry.
“Saakashvili was very much disliked in Moscow, to put it mildly,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, an analyst at the Moscow-based Council on Foreign and Defense Policy. “While relations won’t change dramatically, the overall atmosphere will improve.”
The Georgian president, who has one year left of his mandate, yesterday conceded defeat in the election and said his party was going into opposition after garnering 40 percent of the vote to 55 percent for Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition with 97 percent of the ballots counted. Most of the powers of the presidency will pass to the prime minister after Saakashvili’s term ends because of legislative changes two years ago.