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Back in the USSR?

Georgia elects an oligarch.

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

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