Michael Zeller received a bachelor’s degree in political science at the University of Louisville in 2013, with minors in history and Russian studies. He participated in SRAS's Russian Studies Abroad program over the 2011-2012 school year and an SRAS-arranged internship at Memorial, a human rights NGO in Moscow. He went on to spend his summer studying abroad in China. He is currently at the University of Glasgow on an Erasmus Mundus Scholarship working on two master’s degrees: one in political science, the other in Russian, Central and Eastern European Studies. He intends to further his studies with a doctoral degree and hopes to make a career from his language skills and knowledge.

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A map of Georgia showing surrounding countries, Adjara (an independent republic within Georgia) and the breakaway states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Georgian Politics
Major Issues and

By Michael Zeller
and Josh Wilson

Since gaining independence from the USSR, Georgia has suffered a significant amount of political tumult. Ethnic conflict in the new Georgian state resulted in a civil war that ended in a stalemate and de facto, but unrecognized independence of two of its provinces: South Ossetia and Abkhazia, who fought with Russian support.

During the whole period of its independence, Georgia has nearly been rent by competing geopolitical postures, one Western-oriented, one Russia-oriented. The ascent of President Saakashvili following the Rose Revolution in 2003 marked a decided shift westward. But, his failures and foibles while in office—most notably the disastrous shelling of the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali and the resultant war with Russia—have undermined the stature of Westernizers. Recent political trends include the rise of a more balanced approach to Georgia’s geopolitical interests, as well as some noteworthy promotion of greater concentration on relations with Russia, perhaps at the expense of those with the West.

It is typically an error to cast any country’s politics in terms of its foreign affairs. However, in the case of Georgia, the foreign policy disposition of a politician frames their conception on several matters. Georgia’s economy and trade, position as an oil and gas transit country, conflicts with the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, state security priorities, and numerous other political affairs are deeply interrelated with the country’s foreign affairs. In all likelihood, whether Georgia leans east or leans west will continue to frame the country’s politics and society for many years to come. The pivotal presidential elections, which will likely pit these two sides against one another, will likely determine the course of the country for the foreseeable future.

Mikheil Saakashvili


Founder -
United National Movement
(political party)


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President Mikheil Saakashvili is now nearing the end of his second five-year term, the maximum allowed by the Georgian constitution. Pro-western and anti-Russian efforts have marked his administration's foreign policy and massive government reform and anti-corruption initiatives have marked his domestic policies. 

Mikheil Saakashvili was born in 1967 in Tbilisi, at that time the capital of the Georgian SSR in the Soviet Union. After graduating with a law degree from Kiev University’s Institute of International Relations in 1992, Saakashvili received a prestigious Muskie Graduate Fellowship to pursue at master’s degree in law at Columbia University (US).

Saakashvili ran for parliament in 1995 and was elected as a representative of President Eduard Shevardnadze’s Citizens’ Union of Georgia (CUG) party. In parliament, he focused on reforming the Georgian legal system. He became Minister of Justice in late 2000 and focused on reforming the Georgian criminal justice and prison system. After accusing several government elites of egregious corruption, he found himself in direct conflict with the state security apparatus and Shevardnadze's government. Saakashvili resigned his post and CUG party membership.

He then founded his own center-right, pro-reform, patriotic party, the United National Movement. In June 2002, he became the chairman of the Tblisi City Assembly and launched several criticisms of the government, elevating his stature as an opposition politician.

In the November 2003 parliamentary elections, the pro-Shevardnadze bloc was initially declared victorious; however, widespread complaints of ballot rigging and electoral fraud marred the official results. Following a sustained mass opposition protest, that later became known as the "Rose Revolution," Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov brokered an agreement in which President Shevardnadze resigned, new parliamentary elections would be conducted in several months, and an emergency presidential election was scheduled for January, 2004. The latter saw Mikheil Saakashvili elected president with over 95 percent of the vote. His United National Movement Party went on to win a sizeable majority in the new round of parliamentary elections.

In 2008, Saakashvili sent troops into South Ossetia, a Georgian province that had held de facto independence from Georgia since 1992, a result of the Georgian Civil War. Reasserting control over Georgia's breakaway provinces had long been a central goal for Saakashvili. However, Russia and Abkhazia (Georgia's other breakaway province) declared war on Georgia in response. In a matter of days, the Georgian military was decisively defeated. Russia recognized the two provinces as independent states, opened trade with them and established military bases there. It was a major defeat for Saakashvili, who saw his popularity plummet, and it remains a major strain on Georgia's relations with Russia, previously one of its primary trading partners.

In October of 2010, Saakashvili supported constitutional amendments to weaken the presidency and strengthen the parliament and office of prime minster. It was widely believed that Saakashvili would become the next prime minister and thus remain the country's most powerful politician despite the constitutional term limits he faced as president. 

In September of 2012 a major scandal erupted when videotapes appeared online showing abuse of prisoners and corruption in Georgia's prisons. Much of Saakashvili's popularity was based on his having built a strong military and having reformed Georgia's justice system. This blow to the second of Saakashvili’s erstwhile successes, just a month before the November 2012 parliamentary elections, helped solidify his downfall. The new Georgian Dream party defeated the United National Movement. While Saakashvili has stated that he will remain in politics, he will likely need to do so by heading up the opposition in parliament.

Bidzina Ivanishvili

Prime Minister

Founder -
Georgian Dream
(political party)

Net Worth:
$5.3 Billion
(Forbes rating)

Bidzina Ivanishvili, Prime Minister of Georgia and billionaire businessman is a former recluse who entered politics to unite (and fund) the opposition against President Saakashilli. He has stated that he would prefer to leave politics as soon as possible.

Ivanishvili was born in Chorvila, a small town in central Georgia, in 1956. He graduated from Tbilisi State University with degrees in economics and engineering and then completed a Ph.D. in economics at the Moscow State University of Railway Engineering.

Under perestroika, Ivanishvili, while still in Moscow, began importing electronics for retail sale. He eventually built a fortune worth about $6.5 billion with holdings in metals, banking, tourism, and real estate, mostly acquired for very low prices in the post-Soviet privatization schemes (a common "oligarch" model of the 1990s).

Early in 2012, Ivanishvili created the Georgian Dream party, which united opposition movements including pro-western liberals, Georgian nationalists, and Shevardnadze supporters that were displaced by the Rose Revolution. Georgian Dream formed specifically to oppose President Saakashvili’s United National Movement in the parliamentary elections in October of that year. Winning approximately 55 percent of the vote, Ivanishvili’s party gained 85 of the legislative body’s 150 seats. Ivanishvili assumed the post of Prime Minister.

Although Ivanishvili sold many of his Russian holdings in the run-up to the election to show his independence from Russia, many predicted Prime Minister Ivanishvili would push improved relations and trade with Russia, given his longstanding personal and professional connections in Moscow. His supporters pointed to the economic slump that Georgia experienced after the 2008 war with Russia (see above), when GDP slid from over 12% growth for 2007 to a nearly 4% contraction in 2009. Ivanishvili has promised to enforce a pragmatic, economic-based foreign policy that, while warming to Russia, will also develop relations with Europe and the US. The first year of his government has thus far witnessed an easing of tensions with Russia, including a reversal of a Russian ban on major Georgian exports such as wine and mineral water. 

As Ivanishvili has expressed his desire to leave politics as quickly as possible, Giorgia Margvelashvili (see below) has been nominated by Georgian Dream as a candidate for President. Ivanishvili, however, is expected by most analysts to serve as Prime Minister at least until 2016’s parliamentary elections as it is doubted that his diverse coalition could operate without his personal involvement and funding.

Giorgi Margvelashvili

Minister of Education

Presidential Candidate
(2013 - Georgian

Giorgi Margvelashvili is Georgia's Minister of Education and the Georgian Dream party’s nominee for the 2013 Presidential election.

Born in 1969 in Tbilisi, Margvelashvili earned a doctoral degree in philosophy at Tbilisi State University in 1998. Prior to entering politics, he served as a consultant, department chair, and rector to several prominent think-tanks, most notably with the National Democratic Institute (a US organization) in Georgia as well as the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs.

Margvelashvili was drawn into politics with 2003’s Rose Revolution. As a supporter of Nino Burjanadze’s Democratic Party—a key opposition bloc of the Revolution, but with many critics of Saakashvili’s leadership—Margvelashvili has vocally opposed the President’s party and administration over the last decade, although he also vocally upholds many of the Revolution's central goals of promoting democracy and transparency. 

Following Georgian Dream’s electoral victory in 2012, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili named Giorgi Margvelashvili Minister of Education. Shortly thereafter, he was nominated by Georgian Dream for the presidency. He is currently the top-ranked candidate. However, the United National Movement has yet to announce a nominee and, while Saakashvili is barred from running, could still nominate a viable candidate to oppose Margvelashvili.

Paata Zakareishvili

State Minister for Reintegration 

Paata Zakareishvili is State Minister for Reintegration, a post wherein he works to improve ties between the national government and the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Zakareishvili thereby represents one of the key figures in Georgia’s most pronounced geopolitical conflicts.

Zakareishvili was born in 1958 and received degrees from Kazan State University (in 1984) and the Tbilisi Ecclesiastical Academy and Seminary (in 1993). Over the past twenty years, under Shevardnadze, Saakashvili, and Ivanishvili, he has headed many government efforts to promote minority rights and state integration. This has included working with religious minorities and persons displaced from Georgia's several conflicts.

He has also worked with international organizations such as the Georgian-Abkhazian Conciliation Resources (London), and the Open Society Foundation (US).

As Minister for Reintegration—a position he has held since October 2012—Zakareishvili stresses a strategy of engagement (especially at societal and low political levels), as opposed to isolating the de facto governments of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This policy had been favored by Saakashvili until the 2008 war – afterwards, due in part to Zakareishvili’s advocacy, this grassroots approach to reintegration became particularly prevalent. 

His long career working on unification and humanitarian issues has won Zakareishvili respect from regional authorities, Russia, and from around the globe. Zakareishvili’s positions—especially his insistence that the “Rose Government” (Saakashvili’s government) bungled the dialogue between Georgia and Abkhazia—frequently brought him into conflict with President Saakashvili’s administration. Nonetheless, Zakareishvili will undoubtedly play an important role in any forthcoming negotiations between Georgia, Russia, and the separatist regions.

Kakha Kaladze

Minister of Energy

Soccer Star (Retired)

Kala Capital 

Kakha Kaladze, the Minister of Energy in Prime Minister Ivanishvili’s cabinet, is a retired Georgian soccer player.

Kaladze was born in Samtredia (of the Imereti Province in the center of Georgia) in 1978. Over the course of a lengthy and illustrious playing career, Kaladze invested much of earnings into several businesses in Georgia, Italy, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. He manages these investments through his firm, Kala Capital, and helps fund several charities through the affiliated Kala Foundation.

He retired from soccer in late 2011and entered politics soon after as a member of Georgian Dream. He has been Energy Minister since 2012. He supports the development of new pipeline projects through Georgia, including the proposed KazTransGas line between Georgia and Kazakhstan. Minister Kaladze also oversaw the resumption of gas shipments from Russia, which had long been effectively banned by President Saakashvili. Despite criticism that gas shipments from Russia undermines Georgia’s energy independence, Kaladze continues to stress his focus on balancing Georgia’s energy security and keeping energy affordable. 

He also supports the development of new energy sectors like wind and hydroelectric. However, even in that he also has critics who cite, for instance, a conflict of interest in that Kala Capital owns 45% of The Georgia Hydropower Construction Company.

Maia Panjikidze

Minister of Foreign Affairs 

Maia Panjikidze is Georgia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and highest-ranking female governmental figure.

Born in Tbilisi in 1960 she is the eldest daughter of celebrated Georgian writers Guram Panjikidze and Dali Panjikidze. Maia Panjikidze was educated at Friedrich Schiller University of Jena in Germany and Tbilisi Javakhishvili State University, receiving a Ph.D. in Philology. She speaks Georgian, German, English, Russian, and Dutch. After teaching German at Guram Tavartkiladze University in Georgia from 1988 to 1994, Panjikidze took up the First Secretary position in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Panjikidze has served as Georgia’s ambassador to both Germany (2004-2007) and the Netherlands (2007-2010). The Foreign Ministry recalled Panjikidze from the Netherlands and dismissed her in early 2010. She alleged this move was politically motivated. Over a year earlier Panjikidze’s borther-in-law (and current Minister of Defense) Irakli Alasania had resigned his government post in order to formed an opposition movement, the Alliance for Georgia, that later became part of Georgian Dream.

Following her dismissal, Panjikidze returned to Guram Tavartkiladze University as a professor of German language for a year before joining Georgian Dream at the invitation of Bidzina Ivanishvili. She was named Foreign Minister in October, 2012. 

In her ministerial role, Panjikidze strives to balance Georgia’s connections to the West (including Georgia’s bid to join NATO) with the effort to normalize relations with Russia. On this latter count, however, Panjikidze has clearly stated that Georgia will not tolerate what Georgia considers to be the Russian occupation of the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and that normalized relations cannot be restored until Russia's military bases and embassies there are removed.

Givi Targamadze

United National Movement
(political party)

Linked to several
Color Revolutions

Givi Targamadze, a high-ranking member of the United National Movement party, remains an important figure even after the Georgian Dream victory removed him from his parliamentary Chairmanship of the Defense and Security Committee.

Targamadze was born in 1968. He cofounded the Liberty Institute in 1996 to advocate for political reform and democratic governance in Georgia. Targamadze helped lead the Rose Revolution of 2003 and was elected to parliament shortly thereafter as part of the United National Movement party.

From 2004 to 2010, Targamadze chaired the Committee on Defense and Security. An aggressive proponent of nonviolent democratizing movements (such as Georgia experienced with the Rose Revolution), Targamadze sought to export the methods Georgian democrats had used in 2003. He is credited, in part, with assisting the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the 2005 Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan, and the failed 2006 Denim Revolution in Belarus.

Unsurprisingly, support for these movements—which uniformly challenged governments friendly to Russia—aroused tension with Russia. Targamadze is now wanted in Russia under charges of collusion with Russian opposition leaders such as Sergei Udaltsov who allegedly organized violence at a protest in Moscow in May 2012.

Irakli Alasania

Minister of Defense

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Irakli Alasania is Georgia’s current Minister of Defense.

He was born in 1973 in Batumi, a wealthy tourism and port city in Adjara. Adjara is a region that, like South Ossetia and Abkhazia, once held ambitions for independence. Adjara, however, was later drawn back into Georgia as an independent republic through diplomatic means.

Alasania’s father—Mamia Alasania, a Georgian general—was killed in the Abkhazian separatist conflict, when Abkhaz forces took Sukhumi in September 1993. Irakli Alasania relocated to Tbilisi and completed a degree in international law in 1995.

Since the mid-1990s, Alasania has worked for several state ministries: State Security, Foreign Affairs, Defense, the National Security Council, and the diplomatic service. In 1999, during the Pankisi Gorge crisis—wherein Abkhaz militia attacked a Georgian-controlled pocket of Abkhazian territory—Alasania, as part of the Ministry of Foreign Affair’s CIS and Russian Affairs Directorate, was one of the key brokers of the ceasefire. He served as UN Ambassador and lead negotiator for Georgia during the 2008 war with Russia over the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. His long career and personal acquaintance with the region has made Alasania one of Georgia’s foremost experts on the Abkhaiza conflict.

Alasania’s government service bridges the Shevardnadze (pre-2003 Rose Revolution), Saakashvili (2004 to 2012), and Ivanishvili (2012 to present) eras. However, after expressing disagreement with the Saakashvili government’s handling of the 2008 war, Alasania resigned his government post and formed an opposition party, the Alliance for Georgia. The party received widespread support from Georgia’s diplomatic corps and several other government officials. Alasania’s party reformed into the Free Democrats in 2009, and eventually joined Georgian Dream in 2012.

Following their victory in the parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Ivanishvili named Alasania Defense Minister. 

In his ministerial role, Alasania has focused on new policy toward Russia. He has worked to open trade and ease tensions (and associated rhetoric) on the issues of Georgia’s breakaway territories and aspirations to NATO and EU membership. Although he initiated an investigation of Georgia’s military operations in the 2008 war and lessons for improvement attained therein, Alasania has stressed that his primary objective is to make it practically impossible (logistically, politically, and diplomatically) to renew hostilities with Georgia. For this, for now, Alasania urges trade with Russia and internal development of Georgia.

Ilia II

Georgian Orthodox Church

Ilia II is the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church and has served since 1977. While he is not directly a political figure, he holds considerable influence over the 84 percent of Georgia’s population that identifies as Orthodox Christian. His sermons occasionally delve directly into contemporary political affairs and he openly advocates constitutional monarchy as a preferred political system for Georgia. 

Ilia II was born Irakli George Gudushauri-Shiolashvili in 1933 in Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia. North Ossetia is a Russian region that now borders Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia.

He entered Moscow Theologian Seminary in 1956, was consecrated as a priest and monk in 1957 and returned to Georgia following his graduation in 1960. Ilia II served in several dioceses across Georgia, including in Batumi and Abkhazia. In 1969, he was sanctified as a Metropolitan, the second highest rank in the hierarchy of the Orthodox Church. Shortly after the death of Patriarch David V in late 1977, the Holy Synod ordained Ilia II the Patriarch. Having assumed the position in 1977, Ilia II is widely viewed as a figure of constancy amid the mercurial political and economic circumstances of Georgia of the last three decades.

Ilia II is a well-known proponent of a Georgian constitutional monarchy, suggesting the restoration of the Bagrationi dynasty that preceded Georgia’s annexation into the Russian Empire. Recently, the Patriarch has made news for his visit to Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, as part of renewed effort to promote unity among the Orthodox Churches. Ilia II has ardently opposed any legislation or public action in favor of gay or LGBT rights, saying in a speech that homosexuality is a disease and akin to drug addiction.

Patriarch Ilia II consistently ranks first in Georgian polls ranking public figures' popularity and perceived trustworthiness.

Nino Burjanadze

Founder and Chairperson:
Democratic Movement – United Georgia
(political party)

Presidential Candidate
(2013 - Democratic Movement – United Georgia Party)

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Nino Burjanadze is Chairperson of the Democratic Movement – United Georgia political party and a candidate for President in the October 2013 elections.

Burjanadze was born in 1964 in Kutaisi, one of the largest cities in Georgia. She completed an undergraduate degree in law at Tbilisi Javakhishvili State University (1986) and went on to earn a Ph.D. in International Law from Moscow State University (1990). Shortly thereafter, she accepted a professorship at her alma mater in Tbilisi.

In 1995, as part of then-President Shevardnadze’s Citizen’s Union of Georgia (CUG) party, Burjanadze won a seat in parliament. She quickly became associated with the reformers of that party, which included Mikheil Saakashvili and Zurab Zhvania. In November 2001, Burjanadze was named Chair of Parliament, a position she would occupy for nearly seven years.

She broke with Shevardnadze and the CUG in 2002 and joined the ranks of opposition parties—as head of the “Burjanadze Democrats”—ahead of the 2003 parliamentary elections. She led her constituents in contesting the fraudulent election results and thus represented one of the key leaders of the Rose Revolution. Following Shevardnadze’s resignation on 23 November 2003, Burjanadze assumed the presidency in an interim capacity. She also served as acting President from November 2007 to January 2008, during another presidential crisis that occurred when  massive anti-government protests and accusations of corruption leveled at Saakashvilli's government forced him to call for early elections and to stand down as president to stand in them. Saakashvilli was reelected in 2008.

Expressing frustration with the National Movement and President Saakashvili, Burjanadze decided not to stand for reelection in 2008. Instead, she founded a non-governmental organization aimed at strengthening Georgia’s democratic institutions and culture: the Foundation for Democracy and Development. The five-day war between Georgia and Russia later that year, however, compelled her to return to politics. She founded the Democratic Movement – United Georgia party, in direct and strident opposition to President Saakashvili. She announced in June of this year that she would run for President in the October elections.

Early in her political career, Burjanadze supported a balanced approach to Georgia’s foreign policy, in equal parts attentive to westernizing objectives (including NATO accession) and to the country’s relationship with Russia. However, in the years following the 2008 war with Russia, she has advocated less focus on the West, which she argues has not sufficiently supported Georgia’s security concerns.

Her bid for the Presidency is based in part on the appeal of a massive political shift in Georgian politics, that is, carrying further the renewed cooperation with Russia begun by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and focusing on that relationship rather than with the EU or the United States. Like practically all Georgian politicians, Burjanadze maintains that Russia is illegally occupying Georgia with troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Yet she suggests that relations with Russia must nonetheless be normalized as soon as possible. This position has won her public statements of support from Vladimir Putin, who said he would be willing to work with her as President. Her election to the Presidency—a very likely outcome given her broad public appeal and base of support—could mark a substantial shift in the geopolitical disposition of Georgia.

More information on

Georgian Politics
(in English)

Civil.ge is a daily news online service devoted to delivering quality news and analysis about Georgia. Civil.ge was founded by the UN Association of Georgia, a Georgian non-governmental organization in 2001. Civil.ge is currently supported by Eurasia Partnership Foundation and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.  

Georgian News TV is the first English-speaking news channel in Georgia, provided by the Palitra Media House the largest independent media company in the country.

Trend.az provides news on the Caucasus region (including Georgia) and the area surrounding it.

The official site of the Government of Georgia provides information on Georgia's regions, government structure, and more.

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