US takes wait-and-see approach to Georgia's Ivanishvili
Although US supporter President Saakashvili lost Georgia's parliamentary elections, the US says that the peaceful electoral transition was a good start for Georgian democracy-building.
When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed that Georgia’s Oct. 1 parliamentary elections were a “litmus test” for President Mikheil Saakashvili’s commitment to democracy, nobody expected he would pass this test by conceding to a surprise defeat.Skip to next paragraph
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Now, the US has stepped back to see if the victor, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, and his Georgian Dream coalition are as committed to democracy-building as Mr. Saakashvili.
Speaking at the Atlantic Council on Oct. 9, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas O. Melia, of the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, said Georgia’s remarkable parliamentary elections and power transition are “very hopeful developments,” but added that much more needs to be done to consolidate democracy.
Tedo Japaridze, a seasoned diplomat and adviser to Mr. Ivanishvili, couldn’t agree more. He says Saakashvili’s foreign policy exploited the “beacon of democracy” image that President George W. Bush created on his visit to Tbilisi in 2005, following the Rose Revolution.
“The US created their own narrative. The Rose Revolution didn’t bring democracy to Georgia, it was just an evolutionary step toward becoming a beacon of democracy. Our victory is part of this process,” Mr. Japaridze says.
It was the absence of democracy in Georgia that Ivanishvili says propelled him into politics last year, and drove him to expand his campaign to Washington. According to documents filed with the Foreign Agents Registration Unit in the US, Ivanishvili paid more than $3 million to five different PR firms whose work focused largely on demolishing Saakashvili’s democratic image in Washington, not building up Ivanishvili’s name. (In July, one State Department official remarked, “So who is this Ivanishvili guy? Didn’t he bankroll Misha [Saakashvili]? What, now he’s against him?”)
Ivanishvili now must convince Washington that he is a reliable partner. He has indicated that Georgia has no alternative but to join NATO, and announced that his first official trip abroad would be to the US. But he is still a political unknown.
“So far, his style of foreign-policymaking is much different than Saakashvili’s,” says Cory Welt, associate director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs. “He is more modest about Georgia's role in international relations and in its partnership with the United States and NATO.”