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