The path forward in Georgia: Will billionaire Ivanishvili invest in democracy?
Georgia’s Oct. 1 parliamentary elections set up billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili to become prime minister. This presents a unique opportunity to build a consolidated democracy, develop civil society, and seek justice for those persecuted under President Mikhail Saakashvili.
Palo Alto, Calif. and Claremont, Calif.
Georgia’s Oct. 1 Parliament elections were remarkable for two reasons: one, because the opposition Georgian Dream coalition won an overwhelming victory, notwithstanding an extremely unfair pre-election environment, and two, because President Mikhail Saakashvili admitted his defeat. This presents a unique, albeit fragile, opportunity to build a consolidated democracy.Skip to next paragraph
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Many hailed Mr. Saakashvili as a democrat when he rose to power during the Rose Revolution in 2003, but by late 2007 he had established an essentially authoritarian regime in which many Georgians lived in a state of fear. Yet because President George Bush had declared Georgia a “Beacon of Liberty” and because Saakashvili was seen as an opponent of Russian influence, many in the United States, especially conservatives, supported him, ignoring his domestic shortcomings. This deference marginalized the extremely weak political opposition.
Saakashvili’s luck began to run out in 2011 when the billionaire Bidzina Ivanshivili decided to challenge him. Ivanishvili, the new Prime Minister-elect, made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s and afterward settled into a reclusive philanthropic life in Georgia. He spent more than $1.5 billion (according to some estimates) paying salaries of state employees, buying equipment for the military, funding elderly pensions, and rebuilding ancient churches.
Saakashvili’s de facto authoritarianism had three core pillars: control over national TV media (through direct and indirect ownership); weak and financially starved opposition; and people’s fear of reprisal by the state. This sense of fear came from what many have alleged to be illegal surveillances, random arrests, acts of intimidation, extortion, and blackmail undertaken by the Ministries of Interior, Justice, and Prisons and other “law enforcement” powers. These structures of repression were facilitated and legalized by an unconditionally subservient judiciary.
Mr. Ivanishvili’s challenge to Saakashvili did not weaken these power structures, but he united virtually all of Saakashvili’s opponents, and used his immense wealth to create new TV stations that provided the critical alternative to state media. He also ran an exceptional campaign orchestrated by American consultants and financed independent vote monitoring. It was also vital that the US finally turned on Saakashvili: The Obama administration clearly played a key role in preventing fraud and forcing Saakashvii to accept his defeat.
The collapse of Saakashvili’s system creates a narrow window of opportunity for democracy in Georgia. Diversity in Ivanishvili’s political coalition makes it harder for him to try to consolidate his powers for an indefinite term, if he were to be tempted by authoritarianism. While important constitutional changes are mandatory to prevent concentration of power, it appears that Ivanishvili understands this. In addition, Georgia needs to take several other practical steps that can help nurture this democratic moment.
First, rule of law must replace rule by fear. The all-powerful Ministry of Interior must be broken up into small and controllable components. Its successors must be put under the supervision of an independent board not influenced by the executive office. It is incumbent on the US to push for demolishing this Ministry and weakening other “police” structures.