Georgia's elections pit anti-Russian president versus conciliatory challenger

Georgia's parliamentary elections, setting President Mikheil Saakashvili's party against opposition led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, are the most hotly contested in the country's modern era.

By , Correspondent

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    Pedestrians pass election posters in Tbilisi, September 28. Georgia holds parliamentary elections on October 1.
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Since coming to power in 2004, Georgia’s ruling United National Movement party (UNM) has maintained a strong monopoly in the government. It has been impervious to mass opposition movements, and even a Russian invasion.

But come Oct. 1, that may all change.

On Monday, Georgians will go to the polls to elect a parliament in the most competitive political contest in the history of modern Georgia. President Mikheil Saakashvili's UNM faces a serious challenge from the opposition movement led by Georgian billionaire and philanthropist Bidzina Ivanishvili. At stake is the seat of prime minister, a position that will gain additional power next year, thanks to recent reforms, at the end of Mr. Saakashvili's term.

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Last year, Mr. Ivanishvili dropped a political cluster bomb in Tbilisi when he announced his plans to personally take on Saakashvili and his UNM. Authorities reacted swiftly. 

The civil registry stripped Ivanishvili, who holds multiple passports, of his Georgian citizenship and police seized more than $3 million in a raid on a cash delivery to his bank, while the country’s two major TV stations, which are closely linked to the UNM, began to paint Ivanishvili a Russian stooge.

The Chamber of Control, a government-created audit agency purposed to enforce campaign finance regulations, fined Ivanishvili millions of dollars for campaign violations, which he claims are groundless, and rounded up his activists for questioning. The national prosecutor’s office confiscated thousands of satellite dishes, intended for subscribers to Ivanishvili’s opposition television station, as part of a bribery investigation. Most recently, scores of his supporters have been detained under unclear circumstances.

Supporter turned opponent

As a political figure, Ivanishvili seems to be everything Saakashvili is not. Whereas the Columbia-educated Mr. Saakashvili groomed himself for the presidential role, Ivanishvili, a proverbial rags-to-riches billionaire worth an estimated $6.4 billion, was a recluse. 

While Saakashvili ran the country, Ivanishvili quietly funded the restoration of historical landmarks and supported national artists. He bought a fleet of new police cars, uniforms for the army, and paid parliamentarian’s salaries.

“When I was helping him (Saakashvili), I was not looking at politics at all. Then I began to analyze the situation. I realized people didn’t love him and I was being lied to,” Ivanishvili says.

He became disenchanted with the regime on Nov. 7, 2007, when riot police violently dispersed a peaceful opposition rally, stormed an independently owned television station, and destroyed its equipment. When Saakashvili resigned in response to backlash to the crackdown, only to run for president again, Ivanishvili shunned him completely.

Ivanishvili says he entered politics to save his country from growing totalitarianism and has spent millions of dollars on lobbyists to deliver this message to the West. 

“He’s got 18 lobbyists just saying how bad Georgia and the government is, nothing about policies,” remarks Temur Jakobashvili, Georgian ambassador to the US. “It’s as if Russia were undermining Georgia’s credibility. The results are the same.”

Under Russia's shadow

The UNM’s focus of attack is to link him to Georgia’s chief adversary, Russia, where Ivanishvili made his fortune. Yet, the billionaire has sold off all his Russian assets and insists he shares the ruling party’s ambitions for Georgia to join NATO and the EU

Ivanishvili blames Saakashvili for Russia’s occupation of the territories by stumbling into the 2008 war. “Russia has what it wanted, now it just has to digest what it took,” he says.

Ivanishvili concedes that Russia is a big problem for Georgia, but says the best way to normalize relations is to restore cultural and economic links first. He maintains aggressive rhetoric should be a thing of the past and Georgia should create conditions so the break away territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia return on their own free will.

Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, is skeptical of Ivanishvili’s capabilities to deal with Russia. “What does it mean to restore relations with Russia when Russia wants to restore its manipulative power over Georgia? Is he planning to give up? That’s hard to imagine.”

Hidden support?

Giving up is one attitude absent from Georgia’s political landscape. Both the UNM and Ivanishvili’s “Georgian Dream” coalition are fighting an embittered contest that has the nation deeply divided. 

Recent polls by the National Democratic Institute reveal 37 percent of support for the UNM and 12 percent for Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition, however, 43 percent of respondents were either undecided or refused to answer. Michael Cecire, an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, thinks this high uncommitted number cloaks Georgian Dream’s popular support, given the UNM’s frequent misuse of administrative resources, including intimidation. 

Video clips of prisoners being beaten and sexually abused broadcast on television last week have sent shockwaves across the country and stoked nation-wide protests. The outrage is expected to be reflected on election day. While the Saakashvili administration quickly removed high-ranking officials responsible for the atrocities, many feel it is too little too late.

Lincoln Mitchell, a scholar at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, sees the incident as something of a symbol for the faults of this administration. “This is a government that doesn’t have a lot of respect for individuals, that has asserted power, that has boasted about how strong and powerful it is, “he says. “In some respects it has helped build the state and that is important, but these are the excesses. And that resonates very much with Georgians.” 

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