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Georgia awaiting the Messiah

Ivanishvili.jpg

Georgian businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili has announced he is entering politics, and seemingly in direct opposition to the current Georgian leadership. His philanthropic work has earned him many admirers, but whether he will be given the chance to fulfil his political ambitions is quite another thing, writes Gela Vasadze.

Gela Vasadze
3 November 2011

After the rumbling battles in May of this year and the case of the photographers, the sluggish schizophrenia of Georgian political life has been shattered by a bolt from the blue – oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili is entering politics. The scope and significance of this event will not be entirely clear to someone far removed from Georgian politics; it is worth, therefore, explaining what all the fuss is about.

For many centuries a dream of return, of return to the West, has been harboured by the Georgian elite. By the time the USSR fell apart, the majority of Georgia’s population knew without doubt that the western path of development was the only right path. The words ‘democracy’, ‘civic freedoms’ and ‘civil society’ were very popular in Georgia at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s. Few, however, understood the meaning of these words.

Georgia’s Messaiahs

The hysterical, almost theatrical opposition to empire coupled with a fairly infantile faith in the West led to civil war and the complete disorganisation of government administration. The first Messiah, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, managed to lead Georgia to independence. Admittedly half a year after Georgia’s declaration of independence, everyone received independence – including the Central Asian republics of the Union. The next Messiah was the former first secretary of the Central Committee of the Georgian Communist Party and the USSR’s foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze. He managed to deliver the country from a criminal free-for-all and to secure the minimum conditions for economic development, creating a typically post-Soviet ‘corrupt oligarchy’ model of state administration.

Presidents_georgia

Three Messaihs. Former presidents Eduard Shevardnadze (left) and Zviad Gamsakhurdia (center) and current head of state Mikheil Saakashvili. All three developed government infrastructure and liberalised the economy, but Georgia's civil society remains weak.

Naturally there was no question of any kind of democracy, although it was at this time that civil society institutions began to be established in Georgia. It is necessary to acknowledge that – despite the plutocratic character of the regime – there really was freedom of speech, and a multitude of NGOs enabled the civic consciousness of the intellectual elite to grow. The mass media and the NGO sector in particular laid the ground for the Rose Revolution, but this revolution too was marked by the arrival of a new Messiah, Mikheil Saakashvili.

The new rulers of Georgia achieved a lot: modern government institutes were founded, modern infrastructure was built, the business sphere was liberalized, and corruption – in the lower and middle echelons – was almost eradicated. In the post-Soviet arena Georgia’s reforms became a unique brand; however they did not manage to achieve the chief guarantee of the reforms’ irreversibility and effectiveness. The chief and sole guarantee is a strong civil society with democratic institutions. Of course it is difficult to construct democracy – civil society resembles more a tree rather than a house; it must grow, and that takes time. Creating the necessary conditions for this tree to grow is a different matter, however, and the main condition is the presence of a strong opposition to the existing authorities, ready to take responsibility for the fate of the country via democratic elections.

And as far as this goes, things in Georgia are thoroughly bad. According to the latest data from the US National Democratic Institute, the ruling party polls more than fifty per cent support while the nearest opposition party, the Christian Democrats, barely gets over ten per cent. The majority of Georgia’s opposition spectrum is made up of people leaving the corridors of power for mercenary considerations (Irakli Alasania and the Christian Democrats are the exception here). A fairly significant part of the opposition discredited themselves in the eyes of the electorate by organising acts of civil disobedience without an intelligible plan of action and by links with the northern neighbour.

Self-made man

It is not hard to guess, I think, what effect the appearance of a man whose fortune is half Georgia’s GDP had on the political field. Let me tell you a little about Bidzina Ivanishvili. Born in a backwater Georgian village, one of a miner’s many children, Ivanishvili is what is usually referred to as a self-made man.

'The new rulers of Georgia achieved a lot: modern government institutes were founded, modern infrastructure was built, the business sphere was liberalized, and corruption – in the lower and middle echelons – was almost eradicated.'

His enormous fortune was made in Russia, where he began by trading in computers as early as the end of the 1980s. In the difficult 1990s he managed to create his own financial empire, which is functioning faultlessly even today, and thanks to which he occupies a very honourable 185th position on the Forbes magazine list of billionaires. Despite the well-known fact that behind every great fortune almost always stands a crime, no compromising information on Ivanishvili has been revealed thus far.

But the fact that Ivanishvili is the richest Georgian on the planet doesn’t explain much. The heart of the matter is that Ivanishvili has lived in Georgia for more than nine years already (managing his business remotely), and actively involves himself in charity work. He has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on parks and children’s leisure centres, on hospitals and theatres, and members of the creative intelligentsia who are eating out of his hand literally adore him. He has managed to create personal socialism in the region in which he was born, and in his native village he has built high quality homes for all the inhabitants, handing out televisions and fridges, guaranteeing all work and personal pensions. Moreover, Ivanishvili is an entirely private person – even today the media only has access to a few photographs of him, one of which is taken from that same Forbes magazine.

According to rumours, he has financially supported the authorities very actively in his time (especially in the autumn and winter of 2007, when the authorities were struggling with another Georgian oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili). Their ways have since parted, however. In January of this year information was released suggesting that Ivanishvili was abandoning Georgia. Then there was a fairly sharp announcement from the press office of the Kartu Group (Ivanishvili’s financial group in Georgia) which, under the guise of a response to Labour Party members, criticised the current government. Apparently this announcement was something of a trial run.

The Ivanishvili ‘project’: four theories

There currently exist several versions for the origin of the Bidzina Ivanishvili candidacy, which all deserve consideration. The first of them – let’s call it the authorities’ version – alleges that Bidzina Ivanishvili is the latest in a series of projects hatched in Moscow. Arguments in support of this version are as follows: it was in Russia that Ivanishvili knocked up his fortune, and a third of his assets are still in that country. Moreover, the Kremlin has practically no means left of applying pressure on Georgia. At the same time, one needs only to look at a map to understand that without the return of Georgia to its orbit, the Kremlin will inevitably lose its influence on the Southern Caucasus, and – in the foreseeable future – over the whole of the Caucasus. The basic arguments against this version are the fact that if Ivanishvili is a Kremlin project, then it is a very long one – on-going for more than ten years. Many experts note that ten years ago the Russian authorities were incapable of starting such a project, however this does not rule out an opportunistic desire by the Kremlin to use Ivanishvili to overthrow the hated Mikheil Saakashvili. All the more so since for the next twelve years the president of Russia will be Vladimir Putin, whose relationship with the president of Georgia is extremely hostile. But what is more important is that the majority of Georgia’s population do not believe that Bidzina Ivanishvili could be a Kremlin project, and are unlikely to believe it unless they see Ivanishvili singing the Russian national anthem with Vladimir Putin live on television. And even then it would have to be on a television channel that wasn’t pro-government.

'Ivanishvili will surely bear in mind the experience of Badri Patarkatsishvili, and not attempt to topple the existing government by extra-legal means. On the contrary, his strength is precisely in the demand to scrupulously observe the law and norms of democracy. '

The next version is that Bidzina Ivanishvili is a government project. Supporters of this version argue that in the next two years Georgia is moving to a new political system, and specifically to a parliamentary republic. The country’s president will become simply a figurehead, and the central figure in the executive branch of government will be the prime minister. This gives Mikheil Saakashvili the opportunity to retain absolute power in his hands. However, it is highly likely that this would be unacceptable to a significant portion of the Georgian population, including some supporters of the current government. No less important, it is likely to be unacceptable to western partners too. The appearance in politics of a figure such as Bidzina Ivanishvili, threatening to curtail the process of reform, is undoubtedly a serious argument for the advancement of Mikheil Saakashvili as a counterweight. It is entirely evident that nobody from the ruling party scores as highly in the polls as the president. Moreover it is clear to everybody that Saakashvili takes to critical situations like a duck to water. The main counter-argument in this case is that, as a project, it is simply too risky. If Ivanishvili manages to create a serious political force, which he himself is active in, his chances of winning the elections are very high. In such conditions there is no guarantee that the project, if it exists, will not run out of control. One suspects that only the most dedicated conspiracy theorist could be convinced by this particular version.  

The third version is less well-known, but nonetheless has the right to exist. It is well-known that Ivanishvili is a long-standing fan of France. The issue is not even the French citizenship, held for the duration of his nine years in Georgia; the sole diplomat with whom Ivanishvili fraternizes is the French ambassador, who of all western diplomats is the most critically inclined towards the Georgian government. Moreover, it is a noteworthy fact that Ivanishvili timed his announcement to coincide with the visit of French president Nicolas Sarkozy to Georgia. So it cannot be completely ruled out that Bidzina Ivanishvili is a project of the Élysée Palace, tired of Georgia’s continuous confrontations with her major trading partner. Besides, in his interview with Reuters news agency, Ivanishvili addressed European leaders with words to the effect that he knows how to repair relations with Russia – a very telling gesture. This version of events is also rather a conspiracy theory.

And finally, the most simple and plausible version – in my opinion – is that Bidzina Ivanishvili got his own project underway. His reasons are much the same as those of the previous oligarch to enter Georgian politics, Badri Patarkatsishvili – namely dissatisfaction with the current authorities of Georgia, which he himself actively supported at one time. Ivanishvili will surely bear in mind the experience of Badri Patarkatsishvili, and not attempt to topple the existing government by extra-legal means. On the contrary, his strength is precisely in the demand to scrupulously observe the law and norms of democracy. 

A political martyr?

However, Ivanishvili came up against a problem he had not anticipated – the issue of citizenship. Almost at once after his announcement that he would be relinquishing his Russian and French citizenships, Bidzina Ivanishvili was stripped of his Georgian citizenship by order of the President, on the grounds that the Constitution of Georgia does not permit triple citizenship. What is more, the process of receiving a second citizenship (Ivanishvili had already begun the procedure to give up his Russian citizenship) requires the consideration and personal decision of the president himself. However, Mikheil Saakashvili may find himself in a very tricky situation here, since not to award citizenship to such a significant philanthropist would be very difficult. Basically the actions of the government and Ivanishvili thus far remind one of a game of give-away [where the winner is the first player to lose all his pieces]. Ivanishvili had barely managed to deliver his entirely disappointing first announcement, empty of all but the usual clichés about ‘Saakashvili’s criminal regime’ which already bore Georgian citizens to death, when the authorities announced that they were stripping him of his Georgian citizenship – making him a political martyr.

'Society is divided into three parts: supporters of the authorities, convinced that Ivanishvili is the latest Kremlin project for the overthrow of the current government; supporters of Ivanishvili, who see him as a new Messiah; and the gamblers, attempting to guess the victor and not hurrying to place a bet.'

It is true that, in contrast to the first, the second announcement seemed more promising, basically because it was clearly written by Ivanishvili himself rather than by some political technologist, and it contained a lot of personal reflections. In this the announcement compared favourably with the stream of conventional and banal words which flow from television screens on an almost daily basis.

Today only one thing is clear: Ivanishvili has cut off the radical wing of the opposition and at the same time those who may be suspected of links with the authorities, and decided in favour of the parties of clearly western orientation – the Republican Party and Irakli Alasania’s Free Democrats. The National Forum party, which holds traditional views, has joined them. A fundamental difference from the project of the previous oligarch, Badri Patarkatsishvili, is that whereas Patarkatsishvili attempted to unite the whole opposition under his name, and to force Saakashvili to resign by means of direct action, Ivanishvili is very scrupulous in his choice of political partners. If Badri Patarkatsishvili attempted to repeat the Rose Revolution, even in external appearances, then Ivanishvili is treading the path of opposition party building and electoral victory.

Ivanishvili

Bidzina Ivanishvili is Georgia’s richest man. After achieving so much in business, he seems willing to challenge present Georgia’s president Mikheil Saakashvili. Whether he will be able to avoid the fate of other opposition leaders is another question. 

In the current situation the authorities are behaving like a bull in a china shop. The public revoking of citizenship (albeit on legal grounds), the pressure on the Kartu Group (Ivanishvili’s financial group in Georgia), the arrest of the Kartu bank cash transportation vehicle, the disarming of the guards, the detaining of Bidzina Ivanishvili’s personal representative who had arrived from Moscow with documents relating to his relinquishment of his Russian citizenship – all this evoked a negative reaction in the majority of Georgia’s population and increased the popularity of the newly-minted politician. Today Ivanishvili really resembles the hero of the film ‘The Hulk’, who becomes stronger the more he is hit. Ivanishvili’s meeting with representatives of Georgia’s diplomatic service demonstrates the futility of the authorities’ hopes of booting him out of the country with a single kick. The US ambassador in Georgia particularly stressed that it is important that access to information be secured so that people can come to their own conclusions, that there be a competitive playing field for the parties, and the elections be conducted fairly, and citizens have trust in them. Ambassadors of different western countries spoke in a similar spirit. Essentially this safeguards Ivanishvili’s political career.

Society itself is divided into three parts: supporters of the authorities, convinced that Ivanishvili is the latest Kremlin project for the overthrow of the current government; supporters of Ivanishvili, who see him as a new Messiah; and the gamblers, attempting to guess the victor and not hurrying to place a bet. It is paradoxical, but Ivanishvili’s Achilles heel is his popularity and the great hopes pinned on him. Any mistake by him, any miscalculation will be blown out of all proportion. One way or another, it is too early to speak of the chances of real and most importantly competent opposition appearing in Georgia, although there is public demand for one, and has been for a long time. Time will tell to what degree Bidzina Ivanishvili will be able to realize his political potential.

Peter Geoghegan: dark money and dirty politics

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Peter Geoghegan Dark Money Investigations editor at openDemocracy and the author of ‘Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics’.

Mary Fitzgerald Editor-in-chief, openDemocracy.

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