Life after Misha? Five countries attitudes Georgia’s future without Saakashvili

Life after Misha? Five countries attitudes Georgia’s future without Saakashvili

The FINANCIAL -- After two years, long time columnist Frank Klobucar is leaving Georgia and he will no longer be contributing to this premier newspaper. I want to use this opportunity to thank him for his hard work in bringing readers up to date through numbers and offering his unique perspectives on Georgia. Of course I am also grateful for the continued professional collaboration with the Financial.

From now on I will be sharing exclusive survey data with you. My aim is to uncover public opinions and attitudes of the Georgian population, describe how other countries are thinking about Georgia, and to present trend data.  Having personally started the opinion research industry in Georgia in 1990, together with a brilliant staff ,I have been fortunate enough to be able to collect data consistently since, and this includes the many difficult times when Georgia was experiencing war and revolution.

Our surveys have reflected dramatic changes in Georgian society over the years. Just to demonstrate these swings, in an early nationwide survey conducted in 1990, environmental problems were considered as the country’s top problem. Unemployment was not on the list. For those who are lucky and did not grow up in the Soviet period, unemployment didn’t exist, and failing to show up to work was punishable by the law.

Naturally it didn’t take long for unemployment to become an issue commanding the Georgian public’s attention, as with most of world. By the late 1990s, as is the case today, joblessness was the number 1 problem according to every single opinion poll conducted in Georgia. Today, very few if any, worry about environmental problems, even as global warming increases and the Georgian authorities move ahead with plans to construct hydropower dams and new sea ports, etc.

Truth to be told, GORBI was the very first organization that introduced paper less, the most environmentally friendly data collection practices in Georgia (using computer assisted data collection techniques) but this is rarely appreciated even by some western agencies operating in Georgia, nothing to say about how the local business community invests money for surveys.

Economic related issues continue to fall within the top 10 issues that survey respondents name as problematic. Corruption, truly the oldest profession in history, has for years led among the top concerns of the population. However, this became comparatively irrelevant, perhaps after being reigned in after drastic reforms launched in 2006. Of course this is not concerning “elite corruption” or the kind found in the private sector and big business dealings. Rather I am referring to the “petty” corruption that a citizen might face on the streets during run in with shady cops or in bureaucratic/state functions. This is the kind that can be measured by public opinion surveys.

Perhaps the most interesting survey outcome of our survey work is in the area of elections. Aside from the 2013 presidential elections, since 1992 when democratically-elected president Gamsakhurdia was ousted in a coup, none of our post-election survey data has matched the official election results! (The 2003 “revolution” could hardly be considered a true power change: autocrat Shevardnadze failed and was replaced by a new autocrat who was his early protégé). This was also the case for the 2012 parliamentary elections, the first peaceful transfer of power in the country even if the pre-election period and the actual Election Day itself lagged behind Western standards.  

Recently, the Georgian Prosecutor’s Office summoned ex-president Mikhail (Misha) Saakashvili for questioning in connection to multiple crimes. While we wait to hear the verdict from authorities (and it does seem things have cooled somewhat after Misha simply refused to come home), let’s take a look at what the public thinks about Saakashvili’s legacy. GORBI asked nationally representative samples in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia and Ukraine about their feelings towards Saakashvili’ departure from office. It is important to understand here that during his two terms in office, Saakashvili was on the radar of many men and women. The Georgian “success story” which Misha is oft credited was carefully crafted, packaged and successfully sold in several countries, especially in the region. He was and still is perceived as a successful reformer in the eyes of many individuals across these countries.

Seen as an Alfa male just less than two years ago, Misha now he has lost most of his supporters and only a shadow remains of his once skyrocketing trust rating. However, he still enjoys more support compared to his predecessor, Edward Shevardnadze, whose trust rating before and after his resignation in 2003 is measured in the single digits. Based on a January 2014 survey conducted by GORBI, Shevardnadze’s trust rating was 6%.

Overall, in all five surveyed countries, people think that Misha’s departure from office will be more than less good for Georgia’s future. However, in surveyed countries outside of Georgia, majority of respondents has either no idea of the possible effect or think that Saakashvili’s absence from the presidency will not make any difference. Interestingly though, across all countries and among various cohorts of society, older respondents and males tend to be more favorable of Misha’s departure compared to youngsters or females.

The survey was conducted in all five countries before Russia “liberated” Crimea in March. Had Ukrainians been asked the same question today, we might have different results. One has to take into consideration Saakashvili’s heavy media exposure and presence in Ukraine and across Western capitals and universities, where he has been a loud anti-Russian “cheerleader” throughout the on-going crisis.

As a regional hub for partner organizations and international clients, since 2003, GORBI is the only Georgian member of the Gallup International research network to have over two decades of experience in survey research in post-Soviet Union countries, as well as  Mongolia and Iraq. All 5 surveys were conducted on a national representative sample of 1,000 respondents aged 15 or older in January 2014;  data retains a 3% margin of error, with confidence at 95%. This data was provided exclusively to the Financial. Please do not visit our site (www.gorbi.com); it is under construction!