Who Is Bidzina Ivanishvili?

And what does he stand for? An interview with the head of the party that beat President Mikheil Sakashvili's in Georgia's parliamentary elections.

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Opposition Georgian Dream coalition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili speaks during a news conference at his office in Tbilisi, the day after his party won the country's parliamentary elections. (David Mdzinarishvili/Retuers)

Perhaps yesterday's parliamentary election results in the Georgia, where billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition scored an upset victory over president Mikheil Sakashvili's United National Movement, should not have come as a surprise. After all, according to political scientist Jay Ulfelder's statistical model, Georgia was the fifth likeliest out of 73 autocracies to undergo a democratic transition in 2012, and a prison rape scandal that broke just days before the election was a last-second reminder of the more unsavory aspects of Sakashvili's record.

There's much to admire in the Georgian president's nearly decade-long rule, which looks to be coming to an unexpected end. After the 2003 Rose Revolution, which he helped lead, the western-educated Sakashvili inherited a country emerging from more than a decade of Russian client-hood, separatist warfare and economic and political stagnation. Sakashvili overhauled a chronically-corrupt police force, invested in much-needed infrastructural improvements, and shifted Georgia's political orientation westward. But his rule took on an increasingly authoritarian character, and the country's stilted relations with Russia -- partly a matter of policy for Sakashvili, who was president during Russia's devastating 2008 invasion of his country -- had a negative impact on much-needed cross-border trade. An uneven economy, and plummeting trust in a once-effective but autocratic government, provided an opening for a unifying opposition figure.

In August, The Atlantic interviewed that figure.  Before this election cycle, Ivanishvili was so enigmatic that most Georgians didn't know what he looked like -- even though he was personally responsible for as much as half of the country's GDP. Georgian Dream is a loose alliance of mainstream opposition parties and elements of the anti-Sakashvili political fringe: "free-market liberals, xenophobic nationalists, and those who hanker for the era before 2003," according to The Economist. Yet even if the coalition is ideologically incoherent, Ivanishvili's money, influence and name-recognition made Georgian Dream an instantly credible alternative to the ruling party.

But what was the substance of this alternative? Ivanishvili gave only scant idea, even over the course of an hour-long interview -- even on questions of immediate regional and geo-strategic importance, like relations between Russia, Georgia and NATO:

Would NATO membership and normalization with Russia come before Russia's withdrawal from [the Russian-occupied separatist republics] Abkhazia and South Ossetia, or would it come as a result of Russian withdrawal from Georgian territory?

It's hard to say which comes first, but we will not sacrifice one for the other. We will not sacrifice withdrawal of troops for the sake of NATO membership, and we will not sacrifice NATO membership for the sake of the withdrawal of troops. This needs to happen in the right time, and both of these need to be achieved. It's hard to answer precisely.

It's somewhat wishful to believe that you could convince the Russians to withdraw from Georgian territory while Georgia has NATO membership, given Russia's opposition to Georgian and Ukrainian NATO membership in the past. I'm wondering how you foresee building trust with the Russians while being a member of NATO.

Well, it's a very hard question. We need to see this within a global political landscape. The United States, Europe, NATO members, the West in general is trying to normalize its relationship with Russia.

Saakashvili was waving Georgian NATO membership in front of Russia's eyes like waving a red cloth in front of a bull. This was very bad rhetoric. This was provoking Russia, from [Russia's perspective]. But we'll be able to convince Russia that Georgia's NATO membership will not be so devastating for them, and we'll be able to normalize the relationship and not use this aggressive rhetoric that has been adopted by Saakashvili.

In one portion of the interview (which was mostly cut from the published version), we asked why Georgian voters should trust him, given Ivanishvili's reputation as something of a recluse, and Sakashvili's arguably successful record of rebuilding the country. His answer had less to do with his own plan for Georgia than with his opponent's allegedly failing record of democratic reform:

You entered politics somewhat recently, and you're running against an incumbent party and a leader who has a certain amount of popularity and legitimacy both within Georgia and internationally. Why should the Georgian people select you over Saakashvili, and how can you assure them that you won't repeat what you see as his mistakes in managing the country's democratic development?

First, it's been almost 21 years that I have supported my country through charitable contributions. Ever since I started to make money, so to speak, I've been supporting my country.

And second, Sakashvili has managed for people to hate him because he devastated the economy. About 1.5 million Georgians have fled Georgia and are living in immigration. And he has built and constructed a police state that is intimidating its own population. 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.

Finally, we asked Ivanishvili how he would reform the country's economy. Once again, he used the question as a chance to attack Sakashvili:

If you were in power, how would you further deregulate the economy?

Sakashvili's a professional liar. He learned how the World Bank is doing their ratings. If you come to Georgia, you can open up a company in a day. You yourself can come tomorrow and establish a company in a day and you're not halted by paperwork.

If we look only at the paperwork, yes this is an achievement, for Europe and for the World Bank, yes, this gives them the right to say that yes, in Georgia you can found [businesses]. But as soon as the smoke hits the chimney and that company starts to generate revenue, they come after you and they take away from you. So opening up in a day doesn't really matter much. And no real business is coming.

A report from James Kirchick gives a vivid sense of the intense polarization of Georgia's political climate, as well as the potentially inflammatory nature of Georgian Dream's election strategy of portraying Sakashvili as a "dictator hell-bent on staying in power no matter the cost." Whether the new ruling party can transcend such tactics, and offer a substantive way forward for the deeply divided country it is now partly in control of, remains to be seen.