Tbilisi is located among hills, which do not stand out against grey and brown panorama of the early spring, except for their height. On these hills, however, live the titans of Georgian politics. The future of the country may depend on their decisions. Will October parliamentary elections be another turning point of a history-making significance?
Georgia’s White House is located on one of the hills on eastern bank of Kura in Tbilisi. It is a palace of the first of the titans, the ruling lord and master, the Rose Revolution hero, former Minister of Justice and the master of PR – President Mikheil Saakashvili. On the other side of the river, on the hill near the Old Town, Bidzina Ivanishvili – the titan of business and free market, and leader of the “Georgian Dream” – has built his villa and business centre. From Ivanishvili’s “Convention Centre”, Saakashvili’s White House can be seen as plain as anything. And the “Georgian Dream” is simple – to remove the tyrant from power.
Georgia, similarly to other countries in the region, is noted for the very strong position of the President. This, combined with Saakashvili’s temperament, results in an ultra-presidential system – nothing happens behind the President’s back or without his approval. He opens schools, builds roads, conducts reforms, changes ministers who did not discharge their duties, helps farmers, digs ditches with a spade and gives money for renovation of medieval Georgian cities. He goes skiing to Svaneti region. He stands in the queue like all Georgians, patiently waiting for a free chair in a chairlift. Sure, he waits surrounded with his bodyguards, but still. Georgian people, whom I met at the 1st EU-Eastern Partnership Forum in Tbilisi, said that he is the embodiment of PR 24/7.
Saakashvili’s second term ends at the beginning of 2013. He will not hold the position perpetually, like Aliyev did in Azerbaijan. He will neither allow Medvedev 2.0 to substitute him, nor amend the constitution, so that he can run for the third and fourth presidential term. This does not mean, however, that the constitution will not be amended at all. Georgia will reform its political system and transform it from a presidential into a parliamentary cabinet, with a strong position of a prime minister. European style that will be adopted by the country arouses enthusiasm of the West. The amendment to the constitution is to be introduced in 2013. Why? Well, Misha’s presidential term ends in 2013 and he will be able to run for prime minister. If there is no revolution, with an overwhelming majority in parliament, he can be prime minister for the next few terms. If the plan is a success, there will be at least a dozen years of one man in power. It is far too long for the Georgians. But do they have anyone else to choose from?
If not Misha, then who?
There had not been any political force capable of undermining Saakashvili’s position for a long time. Demonstrations for Saakashvili’s resignation were effectively dispersed by Georgian police, reformed by the President himself, or presented by the government’s TV channel as a coup d’état. However, in 2011, Bidzina Ivanishvili made a sudden appearance – a businessman and entrepreneur who says he is the last free man in Georgia. A year ago few people knew about his existence, even in Georgia. He comes from Chorvili, a village in central Georgia, 162 km from Tbilisi. According to Forbes, Ivanishvili ranked 153 in the 2012 List of Billionaires with a reported net worth of USD 6.4 billion. He earned his first big money in Russia in the 1990s, but he says he has not been there for 10 years. To avoid being considered a Kremlin man, he renounced his Russian citizenship and promised to sell his business in Russia. In December 2011, he established a social movement – “Georgian Dream”, the aim of which is to remove the incumbent president from power.
Saakashvili, or as you may say, Georgian judiciary system, did not agree on re-granting Ivanishvili Georgian citizenship, making it impossible for the billionaire to run in the elections for the prime minister’s office (Ivanishvili was to be granted Georgian citizenship in 2004, but he was refused, because he had French citizenship; more on the subject here). Therefore, Ivanishvili appointed his wife Yekaterina Chvedelidze the leader of the “Georgian Dream” and made her the face of the opposition. According to the polls, in autumn parliamentary elections “Georgian Dream” will obtain 30 percent of votes. As for Tbilisi, Ivanishvili will take it by storm. In the previous local government elections, the capital city turned its back on Saakashvili. Allegedly, the President will punish Tbilisi by moving the Parliament into Kutaisi – the second largest city in Georgia.
Saakashvili looks over the shoulder
The Georgian Church may yet play a crucial role in the forthcoming elections, even though Ilia II of Georgia usually tries to remain neutral in political conflicts. Ivanishvili openly admitted that he is an atheist, which is quite a courageous step in traditionalist Georgia. This did not hamper, however, his decision on giving funds for the construction of the third largest Orthodox church building in the world – the Trinity Cathedral in Tbilisi – headquarters of politically neutral Catholicos. The church is located 300 metres away from Misha’s presidential palace.
Many Georgians support the billionaire, though it may result in severe consequences. It is a common belief in Tbilisi that working for Ivanishvili or even supporting him may have a negative impact on one’s career or private life. The rumour has it that an acquaintance with Irakli Alasania (long-standing employee of the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, diplomat in the United States of America, Canada and Mexico, and the biggest ally of Ivanishvili) may lead to dismissal from work at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Such stories can be heard only on opposition TV channels, which do not broadcast outside Tbilisi. The rest of reality is created by the media controlled by the government.
Ivanishvili’s camp is an eclectic team of former politicians, actors, sportsmen and academics who share only two things – willingness to remove Misha from power and their support for Ivanishvili. “Georgian Dream” has not presented a coherent programme yet. The fixed points, however, are: removing Misha, an agreement with Russia and bringing order to the dismembered country with the use of different methods than those from 2008.
I came, I achieve, I go
Similarly to Saakashvili, Ivanishvili builds roads and schools, renovates theatres and sports halls – the difference is that he pays out of his pocket. He changed his homeland into a feudal village with free healthcare, TV, gas cookers, sport facilities and private ZOO with kangaroos, penguins, etc. He financially supports people of culture and Tbilisi intelligentsia. In Ivanishvili’s opinion, Misha’s rule is authoritarian and devoid of any realistic judgment. Ivanishvili wants to become prime minister, lead Georgia on the road to democracy, leave politics and start building civil society. When does he want to leave? The titan from Chorvili lives on a grand scale and wants to build democracy within two or three years.
Even Heroes need support from Olympus
Ivanishvili will have to convince not only Georgian society but also the great of this world. Saakashvili can say: “Georgian – US relations – that’s me”. The billionaire undermining Georgian army’s presence in Afghanistan and perceiving joining NATO as a bargaining card in negotiations with Russia will have to spend a lot of money to get approved by Washington. He has already made his first steps by buying whole pages in American newspapers, on which he placed advertisements encouraging to refuse support for Saakashvili. When in autumn 2011 Nicolas Sarkozy came to Georgia, Misha announced a public holiday. Unwise President of France met up with Ivanishvili, a French citizen after all. He cannot be blamed – the last hours of election campaign in France make every Euro count. Saakashvili was mad. After Sarkozy’s visit, no official Georgian delegation was sent to the airport. The French President was walked to the plane by Bidzina alone.
Translated by Marta Lityńska