Bidzina Ivaishvili

To Leave, or Not to Leave, That is the Question

Tamar Chergoleishvili
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"Once Saakashvili has gone and the presidential elections have been conducted, I will stay for no more than several days," Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili told the Estonian media a short while ago. Although he started speaking about exiting politics as soon as he entered politics, he has never set the time with such precision before. "Perhaps, Mr. Ivanishvili believes that with that [Saakashvili stepping down] he has performed his duty to the country and the people," the leader of the parliamentary majority, Davit Saganelidze, later explained.

By exiting politics, Ivanishvili does not mean losing power. As he himself asserts, he will go on to undertake a way more difficult and all-encompassing task – that of developing society: "The government, its branches – parliament, the judiciary – are all segments of society. So too are the experts and non-governmental organizations. By only developing the government – just one segment of society – we will not be able to develop the entire country. Therefore, I would like to dedicate the rest of my life to the development of society."

The prime minister's ambition to leave office in order to develop the entire Georgian society brings to mind the example of Muammar Gaddafi. Having come to power as a result of a popular revolution, the Libyan dictator established a system of direct democracy in his country, however, without holding a position, he went on to personally take each and every important decision under the symbolic status of leader of the socialist revolution. That is how he "developed" Libyan society for the rest of his life – over the period of a mere 42 years.

Why should Ivanishvili want to leave his post?

One reason is that a large segment of followers support the billionaire not for any concrete ideas, but for their mercantile interests – one group of people wants new fridges; another holds an expectation of their bank loans being paid off; a third get married because they have heard that Ivanishvili promised to bestow each and every married woman with 1,000 GEL on 8 March; whilst a fourth group wishes for severe hail storms so that they can buy luxury cars with the compensation they receive for any damage sustained.

Photo: Tabula
It is also fair to say that a large segment of voters rally around Ivanishvili because of their hatred towards Mikheil Saakashvili and the United National Movement (UNM). Although this factor will fade away with the passage of time, the mercantile interests will not.

Naturally, meeting the mercantile interests of voters costs money. This would have been much easier if Georgia were rich with natural resources. In such a case, Ivanishvili would have had a chance to run Georgia with his incompetent team much like the populist Hugo Chavez ran oil-rich Venezuela, though only for a certain period of time. We, however, have neither oil, natural gas nor diamond fields.

An alternative way of raising money for the budget is the development of the economy. What we have witnessed over the past few months, however, is a significant slowdown in the economic growth of the country, resulting in a downscaling of the forecasted 6% growth rate to a mere 2.4%. The budget deficit has also deteriorated. International financial institutions note that the stagnation of the Georgian economy has continued for a longer period than expected and the key reason for the worsened economic indicators is the ambiguity of the government's policy scaring away investors.

The International Monetary Fund has illustrated a number of examples of these ambiguous policies; citing uncertainties about the Labor Code, the reduction in electricity tariffs and the establishment of an investment fund, which had been announced by the prime minister. All that is further complicated by the legislative restrictions initiated by the government on the sale of land to foreign citizens and the continual attacks on foreign farmers by a segment of the local population.

We should not forget the so-called Khukhashvili factor either – businessmen are engaged in numerous property disputes with one another and the privileged ones are able to seek "justice" in the office of the economic advisor to prime minister, Gia Khukhashvili, whereas the unprivileged ones have to go to court. Revanchism in business raises the threat of property redistribution. The situation is further aggravated by a government initiative to set up a commission for the review of earlier court rulings. The threat of businesses being confiscated prompts businessmen to save rather than spend their money.

The point is that Bidzina Ivanishvili is hostage to his pre-election promises. If he disregards the interests of employees for the sake of attracting investments, a segment of his electorate will become unhappy; having come to power on a wave of xenophobia, he fears that his voters will not forgive the "wanton activity" of Chinese and Indian farmers on Georgian soil; he himself gave rise to expectations among the population for cuts in the electricity tariff as well as in fuel prices.

All this is compounded by the fact that Ivanishvili lacks vision. He is neither socialist nor libertarian; nor is he fundamentalist or communist. Proof of this is found in the conflicting statements the prime minister often makes. First he names Armenia, Russia's sole strategic military partner in the Caucasus, as a paragon of balanced foreign policy; then declares he has "strictly planned" to receive a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) in 2014. He sets the protection of employees' interests as the supreme objective, whilst simultaneously venting his ire over the neglect of employers' interests. He preaches about the equality of sexual minorities, but then jokes around standing side by side with Father Iakob, the "irreconcilable fighter" against sexual minorities.

Bearing all this in mind, the only solution left to Ivanishvili, if he stays in politics, is to spend his own funds – and he has indeed already done so – but this is a short-term solution. He knows full well that the more he spends, the higher the expectations among his voters will become. There is a simple reason for this – appetite comes with eating. He has already told the women who rally at his business center asking for assistance: once I assist you, a longer line of applicants will start queuing up.

Another problem associated with him expending his own finances is that this money is managed by the government; a government in which official positions have been meted out as trophies according to an individual's contribution to the election, not on merit. It is, therefore, no wonder that a significant portion of the money he has invested has either been spent inefficiently or fuels corruption. The prime minister treats "nepotism" with understanding, but is merciless towards anyone wasting his money. A good example of that is the events that unfolded around the Ministry of Agriculture and the compensation for damages given to people affected by a natural disaster in Kakheti – corruption charges have been leveled against up to 20 officials.

When discussing the motives behind the prime minister's intention to leave office, one should consider the significant factor of domestic and international criticism. Formerly, Ivanishvili was used to a reclusive life and public politics was a novelty to him. Before entering politics, he had given just one or two interviews to the media. Over the past few years, he was known to the larger public as a philanthropist and hence, there was no ground for broad dissatisfaction with him. Consequently, the torrent of criticism directed at the prime minister over the past few months is entirely strange for him, it puts him in an entirely new situation. His previous experience includes nothing that would help him find the correct answer to such criticism. In principle, Ivanishvili cannot tolerate criticism. He demands that his opponents "speak the truth," but cannot understand that democracy also means tolerating something that you consider to be a lie.

Bidzina Ivanishvili repeated this demand over and over again in his interview with the Estonian media. He says he needs a constructive opposition, i.e. an opposition who views as black what Ivanishvili believes is black and as white what Ivanishvili perceives as white. He deems Nino Burjanadze and Irma Inashvili to be an example of such opposition. At the same time, he does not hide the fact that the opposition's "reserve" likely exists inside his current coalition.

The prime minister's rhetoric offends the ears of Georgia's international partners. "The opposition is being threatened publicly with the use of prosecution services if they don't stop criticizing the government. That is unacceptable behavior by European standards," the Foreign Minister of Poland, Radosław Sikorski, recently warned the Georgian government when speaking about the scale of arrests in the country.

Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg has gone further, calling the initialing of Georgia's Association Agreement with the European Union into question if the political persecution of the opposition continues.
The House of Representatives of the US Congress has recently assessed the developments in Georgia as political persecution and has mentioned the possible adverse effect of such persecution on the cooperation between the two countries. The NATO Secretary General has also expressed his concern. The NATO Secretary General's Special Representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, James Appathurai, underlined that the country will have to address concerns about the arrests of former senior officials before the issue of awarding a MAP to Georgia can be discussed. The same issue is a matter of serious concern for partner European political forces, not only for those partners of the UNM, but also for those of the political parties falling within the Georgian Dream coalition.

So far, the prime minister has placed all the blame for the international discontent on the UNM, accusing them of financing lobbyists from the budget. He presumably realizes, however, that this argument will soon be of no use in the eyes of even his staunchest supporters. He controls the budget today, he hires lobbying firms and also has piles of personal money. If international support can just be bought, then why can't he buy it?

Ivanishvili's government responds to the international criticism by claiming the necessity to "reinstate justice" and tries to justify its steps by screening videos featuring atrocities committed during the UNM's rule to foreign diplomats. However, it fails to take into account that in the developed world, justice is sought in courts, not in a movie theatre especially arranged in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and that the international community realizes this perfectly well.

When discussing the motives behind the prime minister's intention to leave office, one should also take into account a relatively insignificant, though still noteworthy, point – that administering the country is something which does not fit into Ivanishvili's mode of life at all. The prime minister goes to bed at 10 p.m. and wakes up at 6 a.m. to have a glass of carrot juice before doing yoga exercises. Even such an extreme development as the deaths of seven Georgian servicemen in Afghanistan did not prove sufficient for him to change this regime and cause him to go to the airport to pay tribute to those soldiers when their corpses arrived in Georgia at 3 a.m.. He may succeed in justifying such gross neglect of his responsibilities by employing such "convincing" arguments as his attendance in meetings in the country's regions once or twice, but not more.

These factors make it clear that the sooner the oligarch discharges himself of the responsibility of being the head of government, the less he will lose – both financially and in terms of public support. After doing so, he will be able to continue his activity relatively calmly in, as the Georgian Dream's presidential candidate, Giorgi Margvelashvili, put it, "a way more difficult and responsible sphere than state governance."

It is obvious that Bidzina Ivanishvili will only be able to maintain the power necessary to perform the role of puppet master if he is able to clear the political field of strong actors and leave only marionettes in their place. One such marionette is Giorgi Margvelashvili, who has been anointed by the prime minister to become the future president of Georgia. Margvelashvili does not have the support of either his team or the public and lacks political experience. In short, he meets all the criteria of a marionette. We may also assume that the prime minister will choose a similarly weak person as his successor. An initiative from the ruling majority in parliament about weakening the role of the prime minister may also be viewed in the light of this desire.

The main obstacle in the path of the prime minister's development into the leader of the nation is the UNM and its leaders. It is important for Bidzina Ivanishvili to also fill the role of the opposition with his puppets. "Shut up or I will arrest you" – this is the essence of the messages he sends to the UNM.

Ivanishvili and members of his team have jumped the gun by making the gravest accusations about their arrested or "to be arrested" opponents while investigations are still underway.

Collective responsibility for actions committed by separate individuals is something that is being established within the framework of building a democracy that will "amaze Europe." The qualities of one or several persons are being generalized over a far broader group of people.

Conclusions drawn by the head of government in advance of any court ruling suggests pressure being placed on the investigations and the courts. Such political pressure renders it impossible to ensure the presumption of innocence and the constitutional right of the accused to a fair trial. Under such circumstances, the court becomes a tool of propaganda, not of the law – all a court has to do is seal the already established crime with a stamp and promote the verdict that has already been delivered by the government in advance.

The point, however, is that the prime minister can no longer easily deviate from the path of repressions and revenge. If he stops the persecution of UNM leaders and allows the former ruling party to continue their existence, that will be perceived as weakness and he will lose face. On the other hand, he cannot become a Lukashenka. He may try to control his nerves and learn to tolerate criticism from the West, but will not be able to ignore it completely because it is in the West where his capital is kept. Consequently, the oligarch in power will never be able to cross those boundaries which would create an image of him in the West as a tyrant and will put his assets under risk of being frozen.

The only path left for him in order to overcome the obstacles that have emerged is to exit from the game as early as possible. This can explain his impatience. In his rush to send the UNM into, as he himself said, "political oblivion" he has received something which he shuns the most – the image and reputation of an autocrat instead of that of an amazing democrat.

Whether Ivanishvili succeeds in realizing his plan is a separate issue, but if he does, the country will come to face additional threats. That the existence of non-accountable leader and a political spectrum filled with marionettes will deal a deadly blow to an already deficient democracy is one thing; but it might also transpire that the non-institutionalized leader easily loses his grasp on the reins of the situation and, no longer being able to control the frenzied mob incited to lynch opponents, chaos may emerge. This is particularly troubling considering that we have already witnessed that under the premiership of Ivanishvili on 17 May.

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