Saakashvili still in command ahead of autumn vote

As Russia appears to settle down from its presidential election and brief moment of popular tumult, a poll released today shows that Mikheil Saakashvili’s National Movement would win parliamentary elections, scheduled for October of this year, although he may not exactly be resting comfortably with the news.

Despite his National Movement’s 45% support to just 10% for the latest opposition coalition, the opposition is being funded by Bidzina Ivanishvili, the wealthiest man in Georgia, who gave a fiery interview to Der Spiegel today with some incredibly harsh words for Saakashvili:

America has chosen Georgia as a junior partner. The United States believes that Saakashvili is creating a democratic Georgia, but these are merely facades. I want to show the Americans his true face. Saakashvili is pulling the wool over their eyes.

But I would like to ask the West to take a look at the real situation in our country and stop being fooled by Saakashvili. Europe and America should judge Georgia’s leadership on the basis of their actions, not just their words and promises. Otherwise Saakashvili will transform Georgia into a dictatorship.

Ivanishvili made his fortune in Russia and has, until recently, kept a low profile in the media and in politics in Georgia, as well described in this 2010 Prospect Magazine profile

But as parliamentary elections approach, the 2013 presidential election — the first since Georgia’s 2008 war with Russia over the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (which themselves held non-recognized elections over the weekend)  — could be the first “normal” election in Georgia’s post-Soviet history.

Former Soviet foreign minister and then-president of Georgia Eduard Shevardnadze dominated the political scene until the so-called “Rose Revolution” of 2003 that ushered the pro-Western liberal Saakashvili into office.  Although Saakashvili’s reforms ended much of the corruption and statist tendencies of the prior regime — Tbilisi under Shevardnadze had just four hours of electricity a day because the administration was siphoning off Georgia’s electric capacity to sell to neighboring countries.  Nonetheless, the 2008 election was marred with reports of fraud, and press freedom has long been a concern in Georgia as well.

International commentators believe that his 2008 move to send troops into Abkhazia and South Ossetia was a colossal blunder that provided a fig leaf for Russian troops to intervene, and his record on freedom is more ambiguous than his reformist image in the West might suggest.

Ivanishvili declared in the interview that independence for Abkhazia and South Ossetia are unacceptable, but nonetheless struck a less bombastic tone with respect to Russia:

We will resume direct talks with our brothers and friends. We will talk to Russia. We have to remember our history. We coexisted peacefully for a long time.

He is defensive, however, that he is not merely a Russian puppet:

I’m obligated to my country. Ninety-nine percent of my spending goes to Georgia. I’ve had all the theaters renovated, as well as all the museums. I’ve had roads built, as well as 50 new schools. If that’s how Russian agents behaved, my country would do well to hope for more of these spies. I haven’t been in Russia in 10 years.

So far, Ivanishvili seems to be walking a sensitive line with some skill — a path toward normalization of Georgia-Russia relations, all while continuing to pursue a pro-Western course through continued ties to the United States and Europe and through Georgian membership in NATO.  All the while, he has committed to further democracy and further economic reform in Georgia, even as he remains unsparing in his criticism of Saakashvili.

It will be intriguing to see how Saakashvili responds if Ivanishvili breaks through to become a serious threat — and I predict he will.

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