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.

Shakh Aivazov/AP
Georgia's opposition Georgian Dream coalition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili speaks to media in Tbilisi, Georgia, on Monday, Oct. 8.

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. 

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.”

Ivanishvili maintains that Saakashvili’s confrontational approach toward Russia may have made some friends among Washington neoconservatives, but it has been a disaster for Georgia.

While understanding the challenge Russia poses as its neighbor, Ivanishvili believes that Georgia could best benefit itself and the West by striving to be a bridge in the region, not the “new Berlin Wall” as Saakashvili once called it.

“Obama and Medvedev met [in June 2010] and said the only thing they didn’t agree on was Georgia. Misha took that as a foreign policy victory. We have the opposite position. It would be in Georgia’s interest to have the US and Russia agree on Georgia,” Japaridze explains.

When President Obama said the US and Georgia were exploring a free trade agreement at a White House meeting in Jan. 2012, both Ivanishvili and Saakashvili agreed it would be enormously important for Georgia. The difference, Ivanishvili said, was that only his administration would be capable of making free trade a reality.

David Onoprishvili, a former finance minister who will chair Parliament’s budget finance committee for the Georgian Dream, says Saakashvili’s policy was actually undermining Georgia's ability to benefit from a free trade agreement. 

“They removed antimonopoly regulations, consumer rights legislation, and food quality laws,” Mr. Onoprishvili says. “But if the idea of free trade is to bring Georgian products to the US market, you have to improve Georgian products to make them competitive.”

Since coming to power in 2004, the Saakashvili administration has been considered a darling of George W. Bush’s neoconservative team. But it was Bill Clinton who began supporting Georgia with aid packages when Eduard Shevardnadze came to power in 1990s. Together, they set up the framework for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, linking Caspian oil to Turkey. And the State Department is quick to remind that Georgia is a bipartisan project: The $1 billion of US aid after Georgia's 2008 war with Russia was proposed by Vice President Joe Biden, for instance. 

Sam Patten, a political consultant who has worked for both Saakashvili and Georgian Dream leader Irakli Alasania, says Georgia has a special relationship with the US that is unlikely to change regardless of who is in power. Saakashvili, he says, was good at strengthening Georgia’s ties with Washington, but Washington usually does a poor job of picking winners.

“What happened on Oct. 1 was a big step forward for democracy in Georgia and, by example, for the region,” he says. “That's what matters most. Everything else is just parlor talk.”

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