Georgian billionnaire Bidzina Ivanishvili launched his political movement, “Georgian Dream,” on December 11 in Tbilisi’s State Concert Hall. The venue and format were tailored to one of his core constituencies: the Tbilisi intelligentsia that lost state support after the Soviet era and survives professionally on Ivanishvili’s subsidies (termed as “salaries”). Ivanishvili’s other core constituency is located in his native Sachkere district (within Imereti province, western Georgia), where he munificently subsidizes the local economy and households.
Starting from these two building blocks, Ivanishvili plans to leverage his $5.5 billion in wealth (much of it in Russia) toward building a movement and coming to power in the 2012 parliamentary elections in Georgia. He came out of his reclusive life to enter politics as recently as October this year (see EDM, October 14, 19, November 7, 8).
Under the law, Ivanishvili lost the right to establish or finance political organizations in Georgia since his Georgian citizenship lapsed in October (due to incompatibility with his Russian and newly added French citizenships). But he is appealing that ruling and has now launched “Georgian Dream” as a “public movement,” intending to turn it into a political party and contest next year’s elections.
In his speech at the movement’s founding event, Ivanishvili stopped short of offering any program or specific policy proposals. His own claim to power seems to rest, thus far, entirely on criticizing the government (Civil Georgia, RFE/RL, December 12).
Ivanishvili’s key assessments differ, however, from those of international organizations regarding Georgia. Thus, he charged that the government has introduced “nomenklatura capitalism” and a “full integration of business with the authorities”; whereas Georgia is in fact rated internationally as one of the most open and deregulated economies. Ivanishvili described the government as a “major obstacle on the path of development of our state and society,” although Georgia is generally recognized as the most successfully and rapidly reforming post-Soviet country. He accused the government of resorting to “extraordinary cruelty dispersing the May 26 protest rally,” fully contradicting the US and EU ambassadors’ assessments of that event (see EDM, May 27, 28).
Although a self-described agnostic, Ivanishvili showed in this speech that he is prepared to inject religion into his political campaign. He accused the government of “inciting confrontation between different confessions and ethnicities,” which only “the Patriarch’s wisdom could avert;” and he complained about the authorities’ “attempts to discredit the Georgian Orthodox Church.” Ivanishvili cited no evidence for such inflammatory remarks. Apparently he is catering to discontent in traditionalist circles of the Georgian Church over the government’s recent approval of legal status for the Armenian Church in Georgia, and, more generally, Church discomfort with rapid social modernization in the country. Ivanishvili himself has lavishly donated to the Church; and Patriarch Ilia II is calling for restoration of Ivanishvili’s Georgian citizenship.
Compared with Ivanishvili’s previous statements, this speech seemed to consider Georgian public opinion trends more carefully. He paid the minimally necessary lip service to the highly popular goal of “integration into the Euro-Atlantic space” (although, apparently, he was not heard mentioning NATO by the international media present). He stopped short of accusing Georgia (“Saakashvili”) for having triggered the August 2008 war with Russia. And he refrained from vitriolic attacks on President Mikheil Saakashvili, apparently understanding that personalized attacks on a popular president could boomerang during an electoral campaign. Tbilisi’s militant opposition groups never understood this fact and are now out of Ivanishvili’s graces. He recently admitted to have financed some of those groups in 2008-2010, but is now seeking more rational allies.
Ivanishvili confirmed in his speech that he intends to create local branches of his Georgian Dream movement throughout the country, so as to “consolidate the opposition’s political and civil society groups.” This suggests absorbing the existing opposition groups and their supporters into Ivanishvili’s own movement. It implies a process of concentration and polarization of forces, with Ivanishviili leading one camp in a two-camp political struggle. Thus far, Ivanishvili does not plan to create a coalition of the opposition, but rather a unified organization.
Ivanishvili’s current allies are only two small groups: Irakli Alasania’s Our Georgia-Free Democrats, and the Republican Party (led by the Berdzenishvili brothers and the Usupashvili-Khidasheli husband-and-wife team). Both depend on Ivanishvili’s funding. According to a survey commissioned by the Ivanishvili-funded Georgian Development Research Institute, just made public, Alasania’s party currently has only 1.5 percent support, and the Republican Party has less than 1 percent support. Alasania and Usupashvili attended Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream launching event, but did not speak (Civil Georgia, December 8, 12).
The Georgian parliament recently enacted legislation on public funding of political parties, with differentiated scales of financing for parliamentary and non-parliamentary parties. Parliamentary leaders and the governing majority, Georgian National Movement, approved this legislation with Western advice and encouragement. Ivanishvili can now derail this process, however. On one level, selected opposition groups can turn to him for funding, which can easily surpass the public funding. On another level, many pro-opposition voters are likely to switch from opposition parties (or even quasi-neutral ones, such as the Christian-Democrats) to Ivanishvili’s “Dream,” rendering the public funding of parties irrelevant on this level also.
“Georgian Dream” and its political version, which is certain to follow in the form of a party, is essentially a proprietary organization. It can soon become the tool for privatizing the opposition. With his own assets equal to one half of Georgia’s annual GDP, and his previous offers to buy support almost everywhere in this small country, Ivanishvili’s political project looks like one of state capture, even if he is unable to conceptualize it in these terms.