Billionaire Ivanishvili Offers to Lead the Opposition In Georgia

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 192

Boris Ivanishvili (Source: Interpress News

Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose $5.5 billion, made-in-Russia wealth equals Georgia’s state budget, has announced his candidacy for one of Georgia’s two top posts under the new constitution: prime minister or chairman of parliament. Parliamentary elections are due in May 2012 to usher in the new constitutional dispensation. From his overwhelming resources, Ivanishvili plans to launch his own political party, a coalition around his party, a media conglomerate, and an electoral campaign he says he is confident of winning against the governing party. Ivanishvili has released two lengthy “open letters” on October 7 and October 12, outlining his intentions (Civil Georgia, October 7, 12; see EDM, October 14).
Ivanishvili seems unaware of the conflict-of-interest situation arising when the country’s richest individual – in this case, as rich as the state itself – starts his own political movement to capture power in the state. Such a move would seem inconceivable in any country anywhere. This message does not seem to have been conveyed to Ivanishvili yet.
His two documents call aggressively for regime-change. The agenda is uncompromisingly radical; but the overall tenor is one of didacticism and provincial naivete. Long-winded and repetitive, “rambling and eccentric” (The Economist, October 14), the two open letters reveal nothing about Ivanishvili’s policy views and options for Georgia. However, they reveal something about his mindset and comprehension of politics.
Ivanishvili addresses dozens of opposition politicians directly, by their first names, in these documents. He variously scolds, praises, or instructs them, identifying several groups as possible allies, and rejecting others – always by name and using the second-person dialogue form. Those solicited seemed stunned by this open-letter procedure, as Ivanishvili had never approached them privately. He met with some of them following the documents’ release.
With this move, Ivanishvili enters the traditional, free-for-all competition over supremacy inside the Georgian opposition. His money, however, can decisively resolve that contest in his favor. Ivanishvili condemns some of the most militant opposition factions as “pseudo- oppositionists.” He feels certain that these work “with and for the government.” But he offers to forgive and indeed enrich some of them, if they agree to sell their television channels, Maestro TV and Kavkasia TV, to him for this campaign. He also offers employment to several media personalities by name, and promises jobs to any and all journalists on his planned campaign staff and media conglomerate.
His documents do not propose any program or policy. His only specific goal is to “stop Misha” [President Mikheil Saakashvili] in the May 2012 parliamentary elections, then to finalize the regime-change in the January 2013 presidential election. Ivanishvili’s vision for Georgia seems to end there. He even promises to stay only two or three years in power, if he wins it. Whether this limitation stems from pure selflessness or tactical improvisation, it adds to the overall impression of amateurishness and treating the state as a plaything.
Ivanishvili addresses the Internal Affairs Minister, Vano Merabishvili, with an appeal to insubordination and switching sides. The second open letter incites the interior minister to urge President Saakashvili to resign (well ahead of elections), failing which, Merabishvili should himself quit as interior minister. Aware of Merabishvili’s role as a pillar of Georgia’s stability, Ivanishvili flatters him as a “great manager” and competent in economics; which can easily be read as a business offer to the interior minister. But he contradicts himself again by warning Merabishvili against recruiting informers from Ivanishvili’s own circle.  
The accompanying open letter blames the government for “offending that which is most sacred to any Georgian: the Church and its Patriarch.” This suggests that Ivanishvili is prepared to inject religion into electoral politics and complicate church-state relations. The tradition-bound clergy regards Georgia’s rapid modernization under this government with misgivings. The state leadership therefore exercises utmost tact in its handling of church-state relations. Ivanishvili, himself a financial donor to the Church, must know both sides of that equation.
Surprisingly for a businessman of his caliber, Ivanishvili keeps nearly silent about Georgia’s economic development in his letters to the country. He only drops a passing hint about possibly investing $1 billion in agriculture (no specifics). His own investments and assets are currently located almost entirely outside Georgia. Within the country, Ivanishvili only operates the Kartu Group to finance his many charities.
Nor does he address the institutional development of the Georgian state and the issues of its modernization. Ivanishvili views Georgian politics in terms of personal interactions among leaders of parties and factions, not in terms of institutions and interests of state. This immature comprehension of politics is common among irreconcilable Georgian oppositionists. It is a throwback to pre-2003 Georgia, the un-institutionalized state on the brink of failure, torn apart by personality-centered factions, and manipulated by a handful of presidentially-approved businessmen.
The late billionaire Badri Patarkatsishvili attempted to bring back that kind of Georgia in 2007. He failed, but destabilized Georgia during his attempt. Ivanishvili’s project looks like a second edition of Badri’s project, revised and enlarged, this time with a more pronounced geopolitical dimension.