Does the electoral victory of the Georgian Dream coalition spell the resubjugation of Georgia by the Kremlin?
By Pawel Piotr Styrna l December 12, 2012
On October 25, 2012, Bidzina Ivanishvili—the billionaire whose Georgian Dream coalition won the country’s parliamentary elections held on October 1—was confirmed as Georgia’s next prime minister. Since then, his new government has wasted no time in attempts to purge the opposition and establish relations with Russia.
The political bloc headed by the tycoon is a rather eclectic alliance of liberal democrats, conservatives, and nationalists. The rival United National Movement (UNM) associated with the pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili is a moderately nationalist and conservative grouping.
In this context, however, it is important to remember the very limited utility of such standard political dichotomies to which Westerners are accustomed—such as liberal vs. conservative or left vs. right—in post-communist societies. For instance, former communists or secret police assets have been known to reinvent themselves as liberals or even libertarians, especially if that facilitated defending their title to state property looted and privatized during the early 1990s. Other post-bolsheviks yet donned the mantle of radical nationalism and populism, which provided a soap box for continued attacks on the West as plutocratic and degenerate. Thus, in analyzing any post-communist national political scene, it is important to pay attention not only to official political programs but also to old allegiances and money trails.
Ivanishvili, the richest Georgian in the world, made his 6.4-billion-dollar fortune in Russia during the kleptocratic orgy following the implosion of the Soviet Union. While his biographies omit any information about Communist Party membership or ties to the KGB, they also mention nothing about any involvement with the anti-Soviet opposition. Information more readily accessible shows, however, that Ivanishvili held on to his Russian citizenship until late 2011, when he decided to return to his native Georgia to run against the UNM government led by Mikheil Saakashvili.
The new prime minister’s hatred for Saakashvili and his allies can only be matched perhaps by Vladimir Putin. While Ivanishvili did not threaten to “hang [Saakashvili] by the balls,” as did Putin, he played into the Kremlin’s hands by blaming him for provoking the Russian invasion of 2008. Now, even though Saakashvili has one more year remaining in office, Ivanishvili is in a frenzied rush to remove him from office as soon as possible. At his behest, a petition to initiate impeachment proceedings against Saakashvili was circulated around Georgia. However, the idea elicited, in Ivanisvhili’s own words, “a very negative reaction by the international community.” Thus, he backed out of the impeachment gambit, threatening to curtail the constitutional powers of the presidency instead.
Furthemore, Ivanishvili has also cut the supposedly extravagant expenses for the presidential plane. This is eerily reminiscent to the situation in Poland prior to the suspicious Smolensk Plane Crash, when the liberal post-communist cabinet of Donald Tusk—which was extremely hostile to Poland’s president Lech Kaczyński—chose to save money by gutting the budget to maintain aircraft carrying Polish government officials. Does this mean that Saakashvili should now be seriously concerned for his life?
One would think the novice politician, Ivanishvili, would turn his hand to something more constructive for the nation of Georgia rather than doing Putin’s bidding right out of the gate to purge and even destroy Saakashvili, along with those serving in his government.
Other officials associated with the previous government were also targeted. The Minister of Defense and Internal Affairs, Bacho Akhalaya, was arrested, as were the Chief of the General Staff, Georgi Kalandadze, and the commander of the Fourth Infantry Brigade, Zurab Shamatava. In addition, several other individuals holding key Interior Ministry posts under the UNM government were also detained. The head of the presidential party and former prime minister, Vano Merabishvili, was also summoned by the Georgian prosecutor’s office. The new cabinet claims that it is simply attempting to redress abuse of power by Saakashvili’s people, while the opposition sees the purge as a political vendetta. It certainly fits into a larger and disturbing recent pattern of anti-opposition repression in such post-communist countries as Ukraine and Poland.
Ivanishvili has announced that his government seeks to “normalize” relations with Russia. (For a more detailed analysis see Vasili Rukhadze, “Is Georgia’s New Government Shifting the Country’s Geopolitical Course Toward Russia?” Eurasia Daily Monitor, November 13, 2012). Of course, he has offered assurances that this will not alter Georgia’s pro-Western, pro-NATO course. Even so, two of the five parties constituting the Georgian Dream coalition—the National Forum and Industry Will Save Georgia—oppose joining NATO.
The new prime minister and his foreign minister, Maia Panjikidze, have also emphasized that any attempts to restore relations with Moscow withdraws its occupation forces from and diplomatic recognition of the two separatist regions: Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In spite of these official declarations, however, the cabinet has unilaterally restored relations with Russia by appointing the pro-Russian Zurab Abashidze, Georgia’s ambassador to Moscow in 1998-2004, as the Prime Minister’s Special Representative for Relations with Russia, an ambassador in all but name.
In addition, Ivanishili has made several other gestures towards Russia. He has called for the restoration of trade and cultural ties between the two countries regardless of the status of the occupied territories. His State Minister for Reintegration, Paata Zakareishvili pitched the idea of restoring the railroad connection between Russia and Georgia which runs through the break-away province of Abhkazia—a proposal supported by Armenia but strongly opposed by Azerbaijan and the Abhkaz regime itself—and even recognizing documents issued by the separatist governments in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali. Also, Ivanishvili announced that Georgia should participate in the 2014 olympics in Sochi, Russia, which Saakashvili planned to boycott over Russia’s continued occupation of Georgian territory.
The two provinces annexed by Russia following Putin’s invasion of Georgia pose a very difficult problem for Ivanishvili by limiting his room to maneuver. Quite simply, Georgian public opinion will not accept any major concessions in the direction of Abkhazian and South Ossetian “independence.” Any government in Tbilisi which agrees will be sorely penalized at the ballot box or may even face a popular uprising in the streets.
The Kremlin’s response to the numerous unilateral gestures was cold and reserved. Putinist Russia offered no concessions over the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and emphasized that it would continue to “strengthen” their “statehood.” Instead, it offered Georgia readmission into the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a post-Soviet structure in which Moscow is the hegemon. In fact, the Kremlin issued a statement that Russia was awaiting “concrete steps” from Tbilisi. Translation: the Muscovites are graciously willing to allow their insubordinate former vassals to return to Canossa, but first they must come while banging their foreheads on the ground as penance. As anti-Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky warned about the Chekists reigning in Moscow: “For them any other country can [only] be either an enemy, or an agent. Besides these two criteria there is no room for partners or friends.”
One can only hope, for the sake of Georgia’s sovereignty and independence that Russia’s snubbing of Tbilisi’s attempts at rapprochement will serve as a cold shower for Bidzina Ivanishvili and his Putinist government.
Note: See Paweł Piotr Styrna, “Anti-Saakashvili forces win the Georgian parliamentary elections,” SFPPR News & Analysis, October 3, 2012.
Paweł Styrna has an MA in modern European history from the University of Illinois, and is currently working on an MA in international affairs at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC, where he is a research assistant to the Kościuszko Chair of Polish Studies. Mr. Styrna is also a Eurasia analyst for the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.