Tbilisi is bathed in autumn radiance these days. There’s renovation and construction in progress everywhere in the Georgian capital, a city of young faces, antique streets, chic cafés, and leggy outfits, all looking just like a Camelot-style advertisement for President Mikheil Saakashvili’s tenure in power. The Kremlin disparages Georgia as “a PR project for the West.” But as Saakashvili sees it, the Russians’ idea of a withering insult is actually a compliment. “It shows they think we are doing quite well,” he says with a chuckle. His country of 4.5 million people seems to be approaching escape velocity from Moscow’s orbit, at last emerging from the dark past of Soviet subjugation and post-Soviet chaos.
But that momentum has suddenly hit a bump. Less than two weeks before the country’s Oct. 1 parliamentary elections, a succession of shocking video clips began airing on an opposition-owned television network, documenting the vicious abuse of prison inmates, including scenes of men being beaten, kicked, and, in one case, apparently sodomized with the end of a broom. Antigovernment protests erupted almost immediately, and Saakashvili did his best to contain the damage, immediately going on national television himself to announce the arrest of a dozen officials at the prison and call for a full investigation of the country’s penal system even as he suggested that the video clips might have been staged.
The opposition channel continued to fuel the scandal with more clips, some featuring scenes of a mentally handicapped prisoner being mocked. Some Georgians reacted by demonstrating in the streets, while others charged that the timing of the scandal was politically motivated. The government counterattacked by releasing details of shady financial dealings around the videos. No one yet knows how badly the mess will hurt Saakashvili’s ruling United National Movement at the polls. Everyone agrees that the outcome will be critical, not only for Georgia itself but also for Moscow and the West as their geostrategic struggle once again intensifies with the Black Sea republic in the middle. Georgians have not forgotten the 2008 Russian invasion, or the relentless pressure campaign they have faced ever since from their neighbor to the north.
Even before last week’s revelations, the election was shaping up as a bare-knuckle contest. Georgia’s hitherto fragmented opposition has at last found a unifying leader—or perhaps, more accurately, Bidzina Ivanishvili has found his base. A Georgian oligarch who made a fortune from Russian investments (Forbes says $6.4 billion, a figure that exceeds Georgia’s entire national budget), Ivanishvili abruptly entered politics last year, vowing to rescue his country from President Mikheil Saakashvili, a man he has called a “son of a dog” in both domestic and international media.
In private the billionaire challenger has won plenty of friends over the years, sharing his wealth with the Georgian Orthodox Church, various arts organizations, and charitable causes in his home region, Imereti. Now he has successfully brought together a formidable political organization under the umbrella of his Georgian Dream coalition, all dedicated to no coherent ideology but to one supreme goal: wresting parliamentary control away from Saakashvili’s UNM. The 56-year-old Ivanishvili and his supporters have repeatedly denounced the president, 44, as a sham reformer whose economic successes have been illusory and whose commitment to democracy is nothing but an act.
The government’s initial response to Ivanishvili’s political debut looked heavy-handed. Authorities revoked the oligarch’s citizenship and seized his Cartu Bank. They contend that he deliberately forced their hand by publicly announcing that he has a French passport. Georgia has a formal procedure for obtaining dual citizenship (triple citizenship in Ivanishvili’s case, since he already holds passports from both Georgia and Russia), but government spokesmen say the oligarch refused to follow it. They say the opposition engineered the whole dispute just to support the claim that Saakashvili is ruling like a dictator.
As for the bank, officials say they merely suspended its operations temporarily until the oligarch paid a fine for a breach of Georgia’s strict election laws. (Ivanishvili’s brother had distributed thousands of free satellite dishes, putting the challenger afoul of restrictions against any appearance of vote buying.) “Actually we are bending over backwards to integrate Ivanishvili into the process,” says Raphaël Glucksmann, a top Saakashvili aide. “We want him to run openly and legitimately because we believe he will clearly lose on the merits. The polls show it. The real danger comes from any strategies to bypass or negate the democratic process.”
The threat is not to be scoffed at, say the president’s supporters and others in Russia’s near abroad who keep a weather eye on Moscow’s maneuverings. They wonder if Ivanishvili might be a “Kremlin project”: a sleeper who has come in from the cold in order to destabilize Georgia’s elections and the country itself with prolonged civil disobedience. After all, the Russians have certainly been known to use unrest in neighboring countries as a pretext for intervention. Ivanishvili has spoken repeatedly of bringing “a million people onto the streets” if his coalition doesn’t win on Oct. 1, and he seems oblivious to any evidence that Georgian Dream could legitimately lose. Instead he focuses on the specter of a stolen election, openly preparing to demand justice.
It unsettles most Georgians that he refuses to speak ill of Vladimir Putin, always answering that Georgia needs to work with him and there’s no reason to antagonize the Russians. Meanwhile the Georgian challenger has made a public display of selling off the assets he owned in Russia, including prime Moscow real estate worth close to $1 billion. In fact, however, a considerable amount of murk surrounds his Russian transactions. No one knows how much his Gazprom and Lukoil shares have gained him or where that money is now.
This much is certain: the assets he has liquidated are the kind of properties that require clearance from the Kremlin, approval that can take months if not years to obtain, according to critics. Kakha Bendukidze, now a respected academic, similarly grew rich among Moscow oligarchs and later returned home to Tbilisi to serve as Saakashvili’s economics minister. “Absolutely, the Kremlin has to OK such deals,” he says. “If you look at who purchased Ivanishvili’s top assets, they were all close Putin allies.”
More ingenious critics say the big question is whether the candidate is playing a triple bluff, with the ultimate purpose only of getting his funds out of Russia at a time when the Kremlin is publicly cracking down hard on capital flight. Either way, they say, the election process is providing cover for the pursuit of deeper agendas. Outsiders are sometimes shocked by the bigoted and xenophobic public statements of Georgian Dream candidates around the country. One spokesman was quoted as saying that Russia’s influence is preferable to America’s because at least the Russians “never forced our men to marry men.” Others warn darkly that Georgian identity is being undermined, saying that Tbilisi is “full of Chinese and blacks.”
Despite the opposition’s dire fulminations, Saakashvili’s Georgia is anything but a dictatorship. If it were truly a police state, abuse in the prison system could hardly become an election issue. The very notion presupposes a government sensitive to standards of institutional transparency and probity—a state of affairs effectively unknown in pre-Saakashvili Georgia. Nor would Ivanishvili’s television network have gotten away with airing even the first of its prisoner-abuse clips. Within the hour Saakashvili was on the air, denouncing such atrocities as “a reminiscence of our past that will be eradicated” and promising that “the Georgia we are all building together will not tolerate such behavior in prisons or anywhere else.” The following day he appointed Giorgi Tughushi, long an outspoken critic of Georgia’s penal system, to replace the previous prison minister, who resigned soon after the scandal broke.
Further details became public. The videos had been shot and subsequently leaked by a former prison guard named Vladimer Bedukadze—the head of the unit that had committed the brutal acts. He had preemptively decamped to Brussels before the clips were released. In an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, he said he had recorded the video in 2011 and 2012 on orders from the prison chief and the interior minister. (Both denied the charge—a mystifying claim on its face, and all the more so since interior ministers changed during that time.) Bedukadze’s said his aim in leaking the video was “to lift the mask of the criminal actions of Saakashvili and his regime,” although he denied any connection to Ivanishili. “I am apolitical,” he declared.
Ivanishvili took to the airwaves, claiming that the scandal guaranteed victory for Georgian Dream. He was scheduled to speak with me the day after the release of the first prison video, but he proved too busy to keep our appointment. Instead I met with other opposition leaders, including the head of Georgian Dream’s board of directors, Irakli Garibashvili, who is widely regarded as the party’s top strategist and money manager. In his early 40s and a graduate of the Sorbonne, he has for years been the man in charge of the oligarch’s various foundations. “He is the real brains behind the Georgian Dream party’s finances and the creative strategies for getting the money into the election process,” says the head of the public-interest group Georgia Not for Sale, Giga Nasaridze, who accuses Ivanishvili of trying to corrupt Georgian politics with his billions.
Garibashvili told me about his father-in-law, Tamaz Tamazashvili, a former police general now imprisoned on illegal-weapons charges—an obvious frame-up, Garibashvili said, asserting that the general had been prosecuted merely to dissuade his son-in-law from working for the opposition. The next day I learned a few more intriguing details about the general. According to interviews on the opposition channel, Tamazashvili’s former aide and prison mate, out on bail for some months now, boasts of having given money to the video maker, who is now requesting asylum in Belgium. According to the aide, the money was given as a humanitarian gesture to a good man. (The video maker has denied any relationship with Tamazashvili.)
Meanwhile the pro-government channels aired testimony by the prosecutor-general implicating Tamazashvili as an alleged intermediary between the supplier of the videos and Georgian Dream money sources to the tune of some $2 million. While the government went through paroxysms of public apology and fired officials left and right—most unusual behavior for a truly autocratic regime—Georgian Dream spokesmen dismissed any suggestion of wrongdoing on their part. It will be up to the voters to decide who’s lying—or if the election hangs on more enduring matters, such as their pocketbooks and their country’s freedom from Kremlin interference.
In an economy that despite the Russian invasion and the global recession has posted hefty annual gains over the past several years, Georgians have been solidly behind the president. Before the prison-abuse scandal, most major opinion surveys gave his party a lead of roughly 20 percent in the upcoming contest. The opposition nevertheless has discounted those findings and deployed its own local and imported pollsters, who have delivered a spotty counternarrative of public support for Georgian Dream. Ivanishvili’s supporters talk about “protecting the vote” by mobilizing protesters at polling stations. If that happens, government leaders might be forced to send in the police—which, they fear, would taint the whole process and fall right into Ivanishvili’s hands.
Saakashvili’s term of office ends next year, and the Constitution bars him from seeking reelection. The Oct. 1 elections are about his legacy. The fact is that he took a big gamble in the wake of the Rose Revolution, which toppled Eduard Shevardnadze’s corrupt and Kremlin-influenced regime. Saakashvili canned an entire generation of officials tainted by Soviet and post-Soviet habits. For many Georgians those habits provided a dependable system of sorts, one based on family bonds, regional clans, seniority, bribery, and old-boy mafias. It was the opposite of a system based on “measures and not men.”
Saakashvili, who earned a Master of Laws degree from Columbia in 1994, rejected the old nepotism and back-scratching that prevailed during Marxism-Leninism’s sunset years and beyond. The president’s brother, once a top lawyer, now owns a gelateria. His cousin owns the only substantial bottled-water company that doesn’t get institutional contracts and is failing. The president may be the only leader in the region who fully delivered a Westernizing revolution. Not for nothing did Mr. Ivanishvili, the oligarch, recently say that Saakashvili above all “lacked love.” From Moscow to Tbilisi, many of the older folk still see more humanity and compassion in the old ways—even with the corruption those ways inevitably entail. They would resort to anything, it seems, to keep that “love” in place.