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