The Billionaire Who Would Rule Georgia: An Interview With Ivanishvili


Georgia Dream candidate Bidzina Ivanishvili discusses Russia, NATO, democracy, and President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Georgian tycoon and politician Ivanishvili takes part in a mass anti-government protest in Tbilisi this past May. (Reuters)

There is arguably no American analogue to Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire and now presidential hopeful whose Georgia Dream political coalition is vying against western favorite Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement in the Republic of Georgia's upcoming parliamentary elections. "The best way to fathom the influence and impact Bid­zina Ivanishvili has in the former Soviet republic," wrote Julia Ioffe in Forbes, "would be to imagine that a businessman worth $8 trillion -- Ivanishvili's $6 billion net worth is half of Georgia's GDP -- had established a statewide system of philanthropic patronage in, say, West Virginia and the whole state was subservient to him." At the same time, Ivanishvili, who Ioffe reports was once rumored to have bankrolled everything from the country's police force to its intelligentsia -- and who was one of Saakashvili's most important allies until a falling out three years ago -- is an enigmatic figure. "Before he announced his run, few people in Georgia had ever really seen Ivanishvili," wrote Ioffe. "He had given few interviews, and photographic evidence of him was scarce."

The Democracy Report

Now that he's leading a coalition that could potentially unseat the ruling party, Ivanishvili's public profile is far less opaque. A U.S.-based P.R. firm recently reached out to the Atlantic International Channel on Ivanishvili's behalf to help arrange a nearly hour-long Skype interview. Over the course of our talk, conducted through an interpreter but with no rules or preconditions from Ivanishvili's camp, the Georgian Dream leader was unsparing in his criticism of the country's direction. He accuses Saakashvili of harassing Georgian Dream supporters, a charge substantiated by a recent Amnesty International report. He says Saakashvili has been overly aggressive in his relations with Russia, whose military occupies the Georgian breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and was the alleged-aggressor in a brief-but-crushing war with Georgia in August 2008. He argues that Saakashvili's reputation as an economic and political reformer, which may help explain his party's lead the polls, is calculated to mislead outside observers. But he thinks that Saakashvili's sometimes-aggressive domestic political tactics could actually alienate Georgia's democratic partners. "A very large portion of the political spectrum within Europe and the United States are realizing that Sakashvili is a liar, and that he is building a façade democracy, not a true democracy," he told me. During our conversation, Ivanishvili spoke quietly but intensely. He never sounded bombastic or less than controlled, even when calling his opponent a liar and a fraud.

Although Saakasvhili's final term as president expires in 2013, he hasn't rule out trading jobs with Vano Merabishvili, a close ally and Georgia's current Prime Minster. Freedom House flatly states that "Georgia is not an electoral democracy," and relations with Russia remain tense. The American-educated Saakashvili is credited with reforming Georgia's post-Soviet bureaucracy and transforming the country's institutions and strategic orientation by helping lead the "Rose Revolution" in 2003.

An Ivanishvili presidency seems unlikely at this point, although not impossible. A Penn, Schoen, and Berland poll from July found a near dead-heat between Georgian Dream and Saakashvili's UNM. A National Democratic Institute poll from this past June found that the UNM led by 36 percentage points to Georgian Dream's 18 percent, but that the gap between the parties had closed considerably since the beginning of the year. In addition, 38 percent of respondents either refused to say who they were voting for, or were undecided. The most recent poll, by a Washington-based research firm, has Saakashvili's party up 55 to 33. But the billionaire and his party's entrance into Georgian politics could still bring meaningful change. Below, Ivanishvili provides a sense of what that change might look like, why he's running, and where he sees his country going.

Freedom House currently labels Georgia "partly free," calling it a "transitional government" or a "hybrid regime." Do you think this a fair assessment, and do you think that Georgia is currently a democracy?

There is a real and evident problem of democracy in Georgia and this was the core reason of my entrance into politics. We have no rule of law. It's absolutely absent.

Do you think that Saakashvili's goal is to impose a Russian-style electoral autocracy on Georgia?

At this point he's not even hiding. Even when Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton was visiting Georgia, a reporter asked the question, are you going to be the Prime Minister? And he circled around and never gave a solid response to the reporter.

"We have no rule of law. It's absolutely absent."

And three days ago he made a very, very vivid statement about how he's not going to give what he built and what he achieved to anyone else, how he's going to retain it for himself. He's not hiding this at all.

Georgian Dream and its supporters claim they've been harassed by some in the government, and you've had some of your assets taken away. How have you been able to run a campaign in this atmosphere?

Not taking into account the fact that I have been personally targeted by the government, that I've been fined, and my assets have been seized, our supporters have been intimidated and imprisoned. We cannot finance the campaign. We were only able to raise 4 million lari [$2.4 million] in the beginning, and after that the government shut down all the sources to fund our campaign. No company can fund any political party, and even individuals cannot do it anymore because [the governments] fines them, and then they seize their property and then sell it on auction.

You say you want Georgia to have both NATO membership and normalized relations with Russia. How is that possible, and what does it even mean for Georgia to have normalized relations with Russia?

Of course I acknowledge the fact that it's a very tough question. The fate and the future of Georgia is Euro-Atlantic integration. Every conscious politician realizes it, and I'm not inventing a bicycle by saying this. This is given, and this is Georgia's fate.

With respect to Euro-Atlantic integration, we have to realize that we need to normalize the relationships with our neighbors, and especially with Russia. I am very confident that Georgian Dream will be able to open up the Russian market, regain the territories, the occupied territories [of Abkhazia and South Ossetia].

It's not an easy process. I realize it will not happen overnight. But the key to regaining the territories that are now occupied, the key to that is within Georgia, within building democratic institutions, rebuilding civil society, a true one, not the façade which is being imposed by Saakashvili. Georgia will not be able to do this on its own. We need the help of the United States and our European friends in order to see the right moment and resolve this conflict through negotiations.

"In no case will we call upon civil unrest."

At the same time, for Russia, those two regions are not an easy thing. It's a burden for them also. We hope Russia realizes that the current situation of having Abkhazia and South Ossetia as occupied regions is not a good thing if Russia wants to show its democratic side. It should be possible to find common ground.

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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