Saakashvili's Dilemma: Can Georgia's Leader Keep Power and U.S. Support?

As Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili cracks down on a powerful rival, he risks his two biggest constituencies: Georgian voters and American politicians.

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Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili meeting with Speaker John Boehner in Washington in early 2012. AP

It's been six months since Bidzina Ivanishvili, the Republic of Georgia's sole billionaire, announced his new political party, which he said would win a parliamentary majority in October 2012 elections that he would then use to impeach current President Mikhail Saakashvili. Ivanishvili, who made his money in metals and banking, has personal wealth equal to nearly half Georgia's gross domestic product. Until October, he lived a life of monastic quiet while funding major publics works projects and subsidizing the incomes of thousands of Georgians. Saakashvili, apparently recognizing the threat Ivanishvili poses, responded by revoking his challenger's Georgian citizenship outright. Suddenly unable to legally form his party, Ivanishvili applied for re-naturalization, gathered several prominent opposition groups around his planned "Bidzina Ivanishvili-Georgian Dream" party, dispatched his pop-singer son Bera to compose a campaign anthem, and hired lobbyists to spread the anti-Saakashvili gospel in Washington.

But the American capital is Saakashvili's turf -- he has cultivated close ties with a number of political leaders, particularly in the Republican party, as a pro-American democrat in the volatile Caucasus region, and as a bulwark against Vladimir Putin's Russia, with which he waged a brief war in 2008. That war became a foreign policy issue during the U.S. presidential campaign; Governor Sarah Palin suggested Georgia should be allowed into NATO (which, technically, would have compelled the U.S. to declare war on Russia) and Senator John McCain declared, "We are all Georgians." Prior to the August 2008 War, it would have been near impossible for anyone, billionaires included, to turn Washington against its favorite post-Soviet head of state. But Georgia's handling of that war took some bloom off of Saakashvili. His current campaign to hold power could risk his greatest remaining asset in D.C. -- his democratic credentials. If Saakashvili wants to win in Georgia, in other words, he might have to lose in the U.S.

April 4, the day the Georgian government was due to make a decision on Ivanishvili's appeal on his citizenship application, also happened to be exactly six months before the parliamentary elections. The Civil Registry Agency recommended his appeal be rejected, explaining that the application ought to have been for dual citizenship, as he also carries French citizenship (dual citizens cannot form political parties). But Ivanishvili couldn't have relinquished his French citizenship prior to re-naturalization without becoming illegally stateless, so the agency's explanation seems suspicious. Citizenship is formally bequeathed via executive order, but Saakashvili has given no indication about whether he will accept or reject the agency's recommendation.

In a poll conducted by the National Democratic Institute in February, 70% of Georgians said they thought Ivanishvili ought to have his citizenship returned. Saakashvili has painted himself into a corner. If he awards Ivanishvili citizenship against the agency's recommendation, it will make that the agency's initial ruling look like a PR stunt to allow Saakashvili to graciously and confidently bestow citizenship upon his rival. By upholding the decision, he would appear scared out of his wits, and willing to abuse his power in order to keep it.

Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. (Reuters)

Saakashvili will likely suffer politically for blocking Ivanishvili's citizenship and boost Ivanishvili's already substantial popularity in the process. State-sponsored injustice can improve an oligarch's image even in a country that loathes them, and Ivanishvili's reputation as a philanthropist positions him especially well. Abroad, Saakashvili's undemocratic behavior will not go unnoticed, especially among his carefully cultivated allies in the West. Dangerous for Saakashvili, these domestic and international reactions could be mutually reinforcing.

This is not the first hurdle that Saakashvili's state has thrown in front of Ivanishvili. The Georgian parliament revised its campaign finance laws immediately after the super-rich Ivanishvili announced he was entering politics. Since then, the Chamber of Control (an audit agency) has used its broadened powers to fine him and to interrogate his supporters. These and other offenses are listed in the "Republic of Georgia Democracy Act of 2012," a bill introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives on March 26. The bill would make U.S. aid to Georgia in 2013 contingent on the parliamentary elections being conducted in a "free, fair and competitive manner" and would require a report on "whether Bidzina Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream Party participated in the election, and, if not, the reason for their absence." The new bill, while unlikely to make it out of the review in the House Committee on Foreign Affairs (most bills don't), is part of a trend of growing Western concern for the upcoming parliamentary elections. Both the active U.S. ambassador to Georgia and his successor, as well as NATO General Secretary Anders Rasmussen, have spoken out.

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Yael Levine is a researcher in Eurasia Group's Eurasia practice, where she focuses on Russia and the Caucasus. She previously worked as a news producer for Russian-language television station RTVi.

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