Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgian billionaire, pauses during an interview at his business center in Tbilisi, Georgia (Photographer: Daro Sulakauri/Bloomberg)

Georgia’s Democracy Recedes Into Russia’s Shadow

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Georgia’s Rose Revolution, one of the most dramatic and hopeful episodes of the post-Cold War era, will mark its 15th anniversary in a matter of weeks. For 20 days in November 2003, citizens flooded the streets of Tbilisi and other major cities to protest a stolen election. By the end of the month, a strongman had resigned and a new Georgia was born.

At the time, most Western observers saw these protests and elections as a triumph of the liberal, democratic world order. Today, as the gains of 2003 erode, this former Soviet republic is in danger of becoming a cautionary tale.

I was able to assess the matter for myself this week on a trip to Tbilisi for a conference aptly titled “The World Upside Down.” It’s a mixed picture. On the one hand, there are genuine opposition parties and a free press. Most urban Georgians consider themselves European, and most of their politicians still openly say they want to join NATO. When the leader of the Rose Revolution, Mikheil Saakashvili, stepped down as president in 2013 after losing an election, another important milestone was reached with the peaceful transfer of power.

On the other hand, one man today dominates Georgian politics: a billionaire named Bidzina Ivanishvili. The founder and chief financier of the Georgian Dream Party, he served as prime minister from 2012 to 2013 and still pulls the strings today (he arranged for the resignation of two prime ministers in the last three years).

Giorgi Bokeria, a leader of the opposition European Georgia Party, told me that he fears the “Moldovization” of his country, referring to how the oligarchy in Moldova began with pro-Western policies but gradually slid into Russia’s orbit. This danger is all the more acute for Georgia, because Russian forces still occupy a fifth of the country after a bitter war in 2008.

“There is a risk all of our achievements can be derailed,” Bokeria said. “We are turning into an oligarch-controlled state, where one man can fire prime ministers and have his opponents arrested.” That said, Bokeria stressed that the rot is not yet complete. Georgian institutions are considerably less corrupt today than they were in the 1990s, he said, in the first years of its post-Soviet independence. There is a deep military relationship with the U.S., which has grown under President Donald Trump. Despite the shadow cast by Russian forces in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the government in Tbilisi still asserts its independence from Moscow.

That may not always be the case. Next month, Georgians will vote in elections for president, a largely ceremonial but nonetheless important position. The frontrunner is a former foreign minister, Salome Zurabishvili, who is supported by Ivanishvili’s Georgia Dream Party and who has said Georgia and Saakashvili are to blame for the Russian invasion of 2008. Had it not been for Ivanishvili’s support, this view would have been disqualifying. She has recently tried to clarify her position, saying that Russia did in fact invade Georgia, but she still blames Saakashvili for baiting Moscow.

That is fake history. John Tefft, who was U.S. ambassador to Georgia in 2008, told me that Russia spent the months leading up to the invasion “raising the ante” on Georgia, stationing troops on the border for a military exercise and then ordering them to remain there even after the exercises were completed. Coordinated bombings in August 2008 in Georgian cities and ports were also evidence, he said, of Russia’s advance planning. “All of this was clearly intended to bring Saakashvili down,” he said.

Condoleezza Rice, who was then secretary of state, concurs with this assessment. In her memoir, she recounts how Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told her that Russia intended to topple the Saakashvili government. The Russians failed in 2008. Now, however, an oligarch who made his fortune in post-Soviet Russia is gradually undoing the democratic revolution Saakashvili started. The 15th anniversary of Georgia’s Rose Revolution promises to be bittersweet.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

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