Bidzina Ivanishvili and the new-old Georgia

The election victory of Bidzina Ivanishvili has reconfigured Georgia's political landscape, dominated by Mikheil Saakashvili since the "Rose Revolution" of 2003. But there are already concerns over what the billionaire leader is doing with his power, says Donald Rayfield.

Few foresaw either the victory of Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream in Georgia’s parliamentary elections on 1 October 2012, or Mikheil (Misha) Saakashvili’s graceful conceding of defeat. In the past six weeks, the whirlwind of promised legislation, dismissals, appointments, arrests and démarches is as furious as the furore that Saakashvili unleashed in the "Rose Revolution" of autumn 2003. The difference, however, is that the aims and methods that Saakashvili then espoused to purge and revitalise the Georgian body-politic seemed transparent, justifiable and ultimately beneficial, whereas Bidzina Ivanishvili’s pronouncements and actions are making not just Georgia’s electorate, but its western supporters nervous.

Ivanishvili, unlike Misha, has an obscure track-record. It is reassuring that none of his opponents could dig up any dirt to suggest that his success as an oligarch in Russia was owed to criminality, rather than calculated opportunism. Since his return to Georgia, he has spent some of his billions on spectacular projects. Some, like the restoration of Batumi’s botanical gardens to their original 19th-century glory, deserve acclaim. Others, like his distribution of antennas to enable citizens to receive his TV transmissions, are more self-serving.

It is odd that he apparently still has only French citizenship: he has not taken out the Georgian citizenship he needs to be prime minster and which Saakashvili was forced to concede him (for Georgians, though, speaking the language and having family roots, rather than a passport or birth certificate, are true definitions of citizenship). Ivanishvili’s early declarations made him sound like a latter-day Cincinnatus: he promised to return to private life within eighteen months, and he built a team which includes the two most widely respected men in Georgian public life: Irakli Alasania, formerly ambassador to the United Nations and one of the few senior Georgians that Abkhaz politicians will talk to, and Sozar Subari, the former ombudsman whom the outgoing government eventually ousted. Otherwise, however, Georgian Dream is a confluence of very disparate political streams, ideologically united only by the conviction the Saakashvili is no longer a force for good.

The waiting world

An early suspicion aroused by Ivanishvili is that his intentions to open dialogue with Russia, or at the very least to restore some dignity to the tone of Georgia’s diplomatic notes, conceal a policy of appeasement supported by a number of Georgian businessmen with interests in better trading links with Russia. True, Ivanishvili has muted these suspicions by refusing to visit Moscow or reopen diplomatic relations as long as the Russians maintain "embassies" in the separatist territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

For its part, the Kremlin’s Schadenfreude at Saakashvili’s defeat and isolation has resulted only in tiny concessions: Onishenko, the head of Russia’s sanitary inspectorate, will now "inspect" the plant bottling Borjomi mineral water, and Andrei Denisov, a junior foreign minister is "considering" allowing the import of Georgian wine. In both cases, they would only be meeting Russia’s obligations as a World Trade Organisation member. A festival of Russian film again takes place in Tbilisi this November; a similar festival was held in 2011, but Saakashvili then "advised" university students not to attend. Georgian cable TV stations such as Kanal Pik are now allowed to relay Russian TV channels.

Georgia's foreign supporters in Brussels have been unnerved by Bidzina Ivanishvili’s dismissal of the country's delegation to Nato, while his postponement of a visit to Washington probably reflects the disapproval of his American hosts. On the other hand, neither Nato nor Georgia has any illusions: the offer of a "map" to membership is clearly a meaningless gesture. Georgia, no doubt, once again staked its future on a Republican victory in the United States (as in 2008 when John McCain was the party's candidate): Barack Obama’s government is not particularly exercised by or grateful to Georgia, even though with 1,600 soldiers for a population of 4 million, the country makes the highest per capita contribution to western forces in Afghanistan. As Russia accelerates its South Stream gas pipeline through Bulgaria to Italy, Georgia’s importance as a gas-transit country is diminished for southern Europe. The final insult is that Bidzina Ivanishvili will soon be receiving not a foreign minister from any major world power, but the utterly meaningless Catherine Ashton of the European Union commission.

The promised land

What heartens a few and worries many about Ivanishvili’s "new broom" are the many arrests, carried out or threatened, of politicians and civil servants of the old régime. Those officials who have not gone abroad on holiday or in search of asylum are not just deprived of their passports and brought in for questioning: they are, as under the previous government, jailed on remand as soon as they are arrested.

Moreover, the techniques remind the oldest inhabitants of Stalinist procedures. Ministers are left for a while in post while their underlings are interrogated; prisoners, like Bacho Akhalaia (who was blamed for the abuse of prisoners in Gldani prison just before the elections), are kept in solitary confinement, with an empty cell on either side, just as Stalin kept his own disgraced ministers. Some of the charges against military officers (shouting at soldiers) seem trivial, while the financial irregularities that the deputy mayor of Tbilisi is charged with seem barely worth prosecution.

It is true that, while Saakashvili eliminated corruption from everyday life (traffic police and university professors no longer take bribes), his ministers evidently had access to enormous wealth. When the disgraced minister of defence Irakli Okruashvili was arrested for money-laundering, he virtually admitted his guilt in taking kick-backs from Israeli arms-merchants by finding several million dollars in bail money before fleeing the country. (He has since returned to Georgia, only, to his own puzzlement, to find himself re-arrested by the Georgian Dream government.)

To make room for these new prisoners, a review of every criminal conviction has been promised (with over 22,000 prisoners, this process seems beyond the resources of Georgia’s legal profession.) New trials, it has been promised, will be video-recorded - and, when of public interest, broadcast on TV (under Saakashvili, even taking notes during a criminal trial was often forbidden.) The working of the Georgian justice system has hitherto been so arbitrary, cruel and irresponsible that, at a guess, a third of the prisoners are innocent, and a third do not deserve to be in custody. Those two-thirds have now been broadly classed as "political" prisoners. (Some miscarriages of justice, such as Anzor Sharmaidze, who served a full fourteen years for the murder - commissioned in 1993 by the KGB - of CIA agent Fred Woodruff, are internationally notorious.)

But how Ivanishvili will select and train a generation of honest, competent and independently minded judges to review so much injustice is as yet unexplained. Meanwhile, not everyone looks forward to a mass release of prisoners: Tbilisi citizens are convinced that a wave of muggings, pickpocketing and burglary is due to Saakashvili’s recent amnesty of criminals who had completed two-thirds of their sentence.

Most families, in a country where people still know who their cousins are, have a relative in jail: that was why the video of a prisoner in Gldani being tormented and apparently sodomised aroused such fury that it brought crowds of protesters onto the streets (in what other country on earth would prison abuses lead to a public demonstration?) Saakashvili’s vigorous punitive reaction, clearly, did not save the situation, let alone ensure his party’s re-election: prisons in Georgia have been notorious, whether under Lavrenti Beria or Eduard Shevardnadze, for their inhumanity - hells where violent criminals have been used to torture political prisoners into confession or to death (Georgia’s prisons were humane only under Tsarist rule.) Ivanishvili has appointed Sozar Subari to take charge of these Augean stables, but not yet given him the means.

Some election promises have, however, been set aside: energy bills will not now be reduced; pension increases are postponed; the new "development" bank seems to be benefiting a supermarket chain rather than small business. The only promises by Ivanishvili which are being energetically fulfilled are to regain control of his lost media outlets and money he was compelled to contribute to the budget. Most significantly, this Cincinattus now says he is not going back to the land until "everything is all right" in politics.

The permanent state

In all this, the mystery is the passivity of the old régime. The lights in the resplendent presidential palace now go off at night (Ivanishvili complained that Saakashvili was spending hundreds of thousands of dollars annually on electricity.) Vano Merabishvili, former prime minister and strong man of Saakashvili’s régime, watches while his deputies are arrested; on 26 November, as this article is being written, he has been told that he may face eight years' imprisonment. Gigi Ugulava, the mayor of Tbilisi, likewise must have packed his suitcase, as he waits for his deputy to provide the necessary kompromat to arrest him. Giga Bokeria, the president’s chief adviser and reputedly Georgia’s most intelligent man (his mother is the women's world chess champion), says nothing.

Whether they have a cunning plan to use what is left of presidential power to counter Georgian Dream, whether they see the cracks in Ivanishvili’s coalition which will destroy it, or whether they have been infected by the same fatigue that broke Eduard Shevardnadze’s resistance, is still hard to say. Though Shevardnadze, at least, secured immunity from prosecution, a path Saakashvili might do well to follow. For the president faces not only the prospect that charges of corruption levelled against his uncle will be extended to him, but that Ivanishvili reopens the enquiry into the death of prime minister Zurab Zhvania in February 2005, which would seem inevitably to entail a murder charge against the highest level of the régime.

Students of revolutions and régime-change soon learn that the security services always survive intact, albeit renamed. Even the Soviet Cheka and OGPU were painstakingly instructed by General Dzhunkovsky of the Tsar’s gendarmerie. Saakashvili, who was left a rich inheritance by the Soviet KGB (which included a full toxicology laboratory, which many suspect helped to eliminate both Zurab Zhvania and Badri Patarkatsishvili), retitled his domestic intelligence and repressive forces as kudi (Constitutional Security Defence) and sodi (Special Operative Department). These acronyms have always been unfortunate in Georgia: the KGB was known as suki which is the Russian for "the bitches", while kudi equally appropriately means "the tail", and anyone with a knowledge of English finds sodi a well-deserved nickname.

Ivanishvili promised to abolish these much-hated institutions, but he has now preserved them intact, merely merging them with the ministry of the interior (another Stalinist step). Surveillance by kudi has been one of Georgia’s least democratic aspects: it is Ivanishvili’s pretext for arresting many officials for "eavesdropping". For some time, Georgians have been aware that the high level of IT in the country has facilitated the monitoring of all emails and mobile-phone calls, a process helped by the labyrinthine connections that the ISPs and phone companies have with government-controlled companies. While Georgian TV journalists have shown enormous civic courage - notably in broadcasting a devastatingly sceptical investigation into the death of Zurab Zhvania - other media, especially the press, have nervously fallen into line.

The cost of change

Those of Georgia’s ambassadors who have not resigned look nervous: relations with the new foreign minister Maia Panjikidze are often frosty. This may prove disastrous, for Georgia’s diplomatic staff has generally been more cost-effective than the expensive PR-agencies Saakashvili hired to lobby Washington and Brussels. Meanwhile, the new parliament in Kutaisi (costing $100 million) has been declared a sick building: deputies risk suffocation from their own cigarette smoke, or concussion from the falling light-fittings.

There is no doubt that Saakashvili has much to answer for, but Ivanishvili has yet to convince his country or the world that he can match Saakashvili at his best. A recent example of Misha’s serendipity was the VAT lottery: to force Georgian traders to issue receipts and thus pay VAT, the public was told to enter receipt numbers into a lottery - suddenly everyone began to insist that transactions were properly recorded. Civic society, too, was often inspired by this lateral thinking: for example, the pedestrian’s group airet pekhit ("go on foot!") shames drivers who park on the pavements by displaying their cars and faces on a website.

Civil society cannot cope with Georgia’s major problems, for which so far the new government offers no solutions. Agriculture still produces a fraction of the food that it produced in Soviet times: the only crop where an increase in the harvest has been announced is carrots, one of the few vegetables that plays no part in Georgian cuisine. And the demolition of buildings in Tbilisi goes on: all a developer has to do is make a few holes in a wall, then pay the city council the equivalent of $1,120 for an "instability permit" allowing him to demolish a 19th-century wooden house and erect a concrete monstrosity with a façade like a cheap film-set, which may possibly be an allegory of what the new government is doing.

About the author

Donald Rayfield is emeritus professor of Russian in the school of modern languages, Queen Mary College, University of London. His latest book is Edge of Empires: A History of Georgia (Reaktion, 2012). His other books include Stalin and His Hangmen (Random House, 2005); (as editor-in-chief) A Comprehensive Georgian-English Dictionary (Garnett Press, 2006); and The Literature of Georgia: A History (Garnett Press, 3rd edition, 2010)

Read On

Donald Rayfield, Edge of Empires: A History of Georgia (Reaktion, 2012)

Donald Rayfield, Stalin and His Hangmen (Random House, 2005)

Jonathan Wheatley, Georgia from National Awakening to Rose Revolution: Delayed Transition in the Former Soviet Union (Ashgate, 2005)

Donald Rayfield,  The Literature of Georgia: A History (Garnett Press, 3rd edition, 2010)

Ghia Nodia & Ålvaro Pinto Scholtbach, The Political Landscape of Georgia: Political Parties: Achievements, Challenges, and Prospects (University of Chicago Press, 2007)

More On

Donald Rayfield is emeritus professor of Russian in the school of modern languages, Queen Mary College, University of London. His latest book is Edge of Empires: A History of Georgia (Reaktion, 2012). His other books include Stalin and His Hangmen (Random House, 2005); (as editor-in-chief) A Comprehensive Georgian-English Dictionary (Garnett Press, 2006); and The Literature of Georgia: A History (Garnett Press, 3rd edition, 2010)