At first glance, the prospective new Prime Minister of Georgia, Bidzina Ivanishvili, seems to be a nightmarish version of Mitt Romney. With a net worth of $6.4 billion, he is the richest man in the entire country, and ranks 153rd on Forbes’ billionaires list. His estates house his exotic animal collections, which include zebras, kangaroos, and penguins. And he produces eight-minute-long campaign videos that are sappier than Love Story.
Yet Ivanishvili’s young coalition, Georgian Dream, defeated President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) in parliamentary elections on October 1 after an acrimonious campaign. Just as incredibly, the supposedly intransigent Saakashvili conceded defeat, paving the way for what could be the first peaceful transition of power since the small Caucasus nation achieved independence from the Soviet Union. Ivanishvili’s ascendancy will mark an important shift in Georgia’s relationship with Russia and with the West, while providing an example of democratization for other post-Soviet states mired in autocratic regimes. Furthermore, it demonstrates that the role of the wealthy in the democratic process need not be limited to funding campaigns; in fact, in many developing countries, richer people with political aspirations might be the only ones who can successfully organize an opposition party.
I. Big Brother is Watching
The relationship between the Saakashvili administration and Russia has been, to say the least, unpleasant. In a pivot toward the Western bloc, the president sought to gain Georgian admission into NATO for much of his nine-year tenure in power. Furthermore, he has faced separatist movements in the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have received Russian support. In 2008, tensions between the two nations boiled over when Georgian troops invaded South Ossetia in order to regain control over the territory; in response, Russia invaded Georgia, sparking an international firestorm. Political tensions aside, however, Georgia is also heavily dependent on its northern neighbor for its energy supply. But as fortunes have changed, Tbilisi has begun to import a larger proportion of gas from Azerbaijan, especially since the Russian gas company, Gazprom, has hiked up its rates twice since 2006.
During the election, Saakashvili accused Ivanishvili of attempting to bring Georgia back under the control of Russia—a charge that the billionare (who made his fortune in Russia) denies. He has remained positive about a future in the NATO alliance. At the same time, he wishes to repair relations with Russia. It appears that Georgia will experience a policy shift away from the simply pro-Western policies of the previous administration. In a region that has been historically marked by tension between the West, Russia, and the Middle East, this balancing act could prove problematic.
II. Money Talks
Both Saakashvili and Ivanishvili rose to power partially by riding a wave of anger at their predecessors. In the November 2003 Rose Revolution, Saakashvili led pro-democracy protests after a sham parliamentary election, finally ousting then-President Eduard Shevardnadze, who had been in power for more than 30 years. This year, economic stagnation and videos of guards abusing prisoners have provoked widespread disillusion with the UNM. The political manifestation of this unrest, the Georgian Dream coalition, contains six parties connected only by their animosity towards the old government. Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia Party provide the anchor for the movement.
It is unclear whether a political phenomenon like Georgian Dream could have happened without Ivanishvili. His combination of political motivation, immense financial resources, and high visibility allowed the movement to spread much farther than anticipated, providing unhappy Georgians with a strong political means to express their discontent. It seems that in other nations (particularly those which hold elections that are dominated by a single party) political change can be facilitated by a strong individual with resources sufficient enough to effectively combat an entrenched political establishment.
Of course, it could be dangerous to focus popular support on a single figure; the result could be the establishment of an even more authoritarian state held together by a charismatic plutocrat. However, if the leadership of both the new party and the old party are committed to democracy, then an opposition movement such as the one I’ve described could be successful. I don’t pretend that such a scenario is easily found; however, in Georgia, Ivanishvili’s dream might just work out.