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.
And as recently as mid-September, an Ivanishvili loss seemed almost inevitable. Saakashvili’s party was up by 25 percent. But two weeks before the election, hidden-camera videos began to emerge of prisoners being tortured at the bottom of a stairwell in a Georgian jail. Taken by a guard who had fled to Belgium, they aired on the television channel Ivanishvili owned. These tapes, the authenticity of most of which the Saakashvili camp did not dispute, exposed as false the government’s claim to be moving Georgia into modernity. And that is how Ivanishvili’s triumphant supporters came to be waving the old-fashioned (1990s) Georgian flags in Freedom Square on October 1, while Ivanishvili’s albino son, Bera, whose rap songs have become popular among party supporters since his father’s run, hopped around on a makeshift stage.
The Saakashvili government had never looked quite so good at home as it did abroad. In 2005, after the minister of justice and minister of health flopped in TV debates, government officials stopped explaining their decisions to the public. In 2006, a young banker named Sandro Girgvliani, who had insulted some employees of the interior ministry in a bar, was found dead on the outskirts of Tbilisi the following morning. After months of protests, observers discovered the government had obstructed the investigation. The government was way too eager to raze housing units and beloved landmarks to pay for increasingly vain development schemes. As Olga Allenova of the Russian paper Kommersant rightly summed it up: “The authorities got carried away with reforms and forgot about the people.”
An assertion heard at all levels of Georgian society was that Saakashvili’s government treated minorities and foreigners better than it treated natives. The French superstore Carrefour got better terms when opening a new outlet than did Georgian grocers—it added prestige, after all. The Saakashvili government, derided in some quarters as a creature of the Bush administration, wound up governing like the Obama administration, a coalition of new-class elites and special interests. It mopped up the vote last week in ethnic minority areas, which supporters attributed to the popularity of its progressivism and detractors to fraud. Ivanishvili, meanwhile, took huge majorities among the country’s Georgian Orthodox and solid majorities in Tbilisi.
We shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming that because Saakashvili was less democratic than he looked, Ivanishvili is more democratic. On the day after the election, before he had even been named prime minister, Ivanishvili called on Saakashvili to resign his post as president, a demand he later retracted. An op-ed in the New York Times recently chalked up Ivanishvili’s saber-rattling to his “bad political instincts.” But Ivanishvili made billions of dollars in Russia in the 1990s, a time when it required almost perfect political instincts to keep from getting whacked. We should assume Ivanishvili’s instincts are excellent until they’re proven -otherwise. That is possibly why he has said he will not disturb Saakashvili’s goal of seeing Georgia in the EU and NATO, although his unwillingness to rule out a strategic partnership with Russia makes this an impossibility.
No matter how loudly he proclaimed his vision, Saakashvili had a weak hand from the get-go. There was always something utopian about assuming Georgia could be wrenched out of the Russian orbit. Rather like Armenia, it is a lonely Christian country surrounded by Muslim ones in what is one of the most perennially violent parts of the world. Its great trump is that it has been closely allied with a massive Christian country to the north, which has traditionally been the biggest and most intimidating force in the region. Even in the wake of the Russo-Georgian war of 2008, there is pretty much zero anti-Russian feeling in Georgia. Most Georgians want more normal relations with Russia, which is the natural market for their wine, walnuts, canned goods, textiles, stone, and migrant labor. Ivanishvili says he hopes to open trade relations in time to sell part of this year’s harvest.
And what did Saakashvili have to offer in return? First, an opening to NATO, an organization that demonstrated unambiguously in 2008 that it would not come to Georgia’s aid if Russia chose to challenge it. Western indifference to Georgia’s defense needs has deepened further in the Obama years. And, second, an opening to the EU, which since 2008 has looked more and more like a machine for dragging all member countries into debt and bankruptcy. A proud people might decline to sell its future to a billionaire if it has options. Clearly, Georgians were not satisfied that they did.
Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.