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
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.