The Magazine

Back in the USSR?

Georgia elects an oligarch.

Oct 22, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 06 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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Tbilisi

Ivanishvili: Democracy? Maybe, maybe not.

Ivanishvili: Democracy? Maybe, maybe not.

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Citizens of Georgia did something bizarre a couple of weeks ago. Having fought a war against Russia in 2008 over the disputed territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, they turned around and chose Bidzina Ivanishvili to serve as their prime minister. Ivanishvili had been one of the richest Russian oligarchs before returning to his native Georgia a few years ago. He will have to rule alongside his despised rival, President Mikheil Saakashvili—the democracy reformer who had promised to bring Georgia into both NATO and the EU and who convinced George W. Bush and Nicolas Sarkozy to think of Georgia as a “beacon of freedom” between the Black and Caspian seas. Georgians do not yet agree with Vladimir Putin, who once urged that Saakashvili be “strung up by the balls.” But they have issued a lashing repudiation of Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) and voted their country back into Russia’s sphere of influence.

Until Saakashvili, Georgia was a rough, tough place. Its best-known native sons include not only Stalin but also his secret police boss Lavrenti Beria. When Georgia’s longest-serving post-Soviet leader, Eduard Shevardnadze, tried to claim power in a rigged election in 2003, Saakashvili led hundreds of thousands into the streets, then into parliament, in what would be called the Rose Revolution. He sought to refound Georgia on different bases: democracy instead of autocracy and the West instead of Russia. He established what one Western ambassador last week called “about as forward-leaning a democracy as there is in the post-Soviet space.”

Saakashvili cleaned house. He preached tolerance for Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and gays. He built a new concert hall and a glitzy, glassy footbridge over the Kura River, and brought electricity to remote villages. He sent 800 troops to back NATO forces in Afghanistan—more than Belgium, and more than any non-NATO country except Australia. He passed a plan to move the parliament from Tbilisi to the western city of Kutaisi. He purged the old Soviet apparat, firing tens of thousands of police, including the notorious traffic squads who used to shake down people on the streets of the capital, Tbilisi. Deadwood would be one way of describing these guys. Bidzina Ivanishvili’s base would be another. 

Ivanishvili thinks Georgia was freer under Shevardnadze than it is under Saakashvili. On the night before the elections, as part of a delegation sponsored by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, I met him at his Japanese-designed compound atop a steep hill overlooking Tbilisi. One of my colleagues asked whether he thought Putin’s Russia was freer than Saakashvili’s Georgia. “When it comes to democracy Georgia has no better situation,” Ivanishvili said. “But when it comes to human freedom, the main value of democracy, things are much worse in Georgia.”

According to this year’s Forbes 400, Ivanishvili is worth $6.4 billion—a bit less than Eric Schmidt of Google and a bit more than Silvio Berlusconi. He started getting rich importing primitive high-tech items from the West into Russia, and acquired the protection of the Yeltsin-era hardliner (and later Yeltsin rival) Alexander Lebed. He wound up with his own bank, Rossiyskiy Kredit, which other oligarchs used. Ivanishvili is a bit like the Dan Snyder of Georgia. Much as the Washington Redskins’ owner has tried to use his billions to restore the team he remembers from his childhood, Ivanishvili is using his to rebuild the Georgia he grew up in. True, he spends money on his mammoth stainless-steel-and-glass home and on a collection of animals (penguins, zebras, flamingos) that he keeps in the west of the country. But he also shells out on weddings in his hometown of Chorvila, gilt for the new roof of the Tbilisi cathedral, big stipends for many of Tbilisi’s artists and intellectuals, and much besides. 

Ivanishvili says that “trust from the people” was the main capital he brought to the election. But he has deployed the more traditional kind of capital just in case. At a rally in Kutaisi in early summer, his aides reportedly distributed “Dream Cards,” inviting supporters to give their name and number and, while they’re at it, to list something they’d kind of like but couldn’t afford, as long as it didn’t go over a thousand lari (about $600). Ivanishvili’s willingness to spend caught Saakashvili by surprise. Saakashvili had long used the Washington consultants Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, but Ivanishvili shelled out millions on Washington advisers (Patton Boggs) and pollsters (Penn Schoen Berland) and European advisers (including former U.S. ambassador to Germany John Kornblum, of Berlin-based Noerr) and pollsters. His campaign warned darkly of voter fraud and issued its own polls showing Ivanishvili winning by a three-to-one margin. Ivanishvili seemed to be setting the stage for a popular uprising should he lose. 

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