In Georgia’s historic parliamentary election on Monday, opposition candidate Bidzina Ivanishvili refused to cast a vote.
It was a strange act of protest, especially since his wife, who accompanied him to the polling station, did not hesitate to submit her own ballot. There was no general boycott, no grand act of protest -- just a puzzling one-man show of abstention.
Ivanishvili told the BBC that Monday’s poll was “something close to a democratic election,” explaining that he didn’t vote because Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili had compromised the system by “distorting” the constitution.
And he’s not the only one who has those concerns.
This election was a battle between two political coalitions, both of which are led by questionable men. Georgian Dreams is the opposition bloc headed up by Ivanishvili, an alarmingly eccentric newcomer. But the incumbent ruling party, United National Movement, or UNM, has presided over severe human rights abuses, as revealed in a recent video scandal.
The winning party, which has yet to be announced officially, will take the reins of a once-volatile country that is only just beginning to reap the rewards of stability but is still prone to pivoting between Russia and the West.
The Zookeeper Politician
Ivanishvili is an odd duck. He was virtually unknown until he made a surprise announcement to enter politics in October of last year, as the front man for the Georgian Dreams coalition.
He lives in a futuristic house of steel and glass, perched high on a mountainside where he can look out over the capital city of Tbilisi. He has his own small zoo, which houses zebras, lemurs and penguins. His walls appear to be adorned with expensive pieces of art, but they’re all fake. He has the real ones locked up in a safe in London.
Clearly, this former recluse is not your typical populist politician. But there is one thing that gives Ivanishvili the clout to run for national office -- his wealth is valued at about $6.4 billion, according to Forbes. That’s nearly half of Georgia’s entire GDP of about $14 billion.
The source of these riches has become a thorn in Ivanishvili’s side. The mogul made his billions in Russia during the cowboy capitalism era of the 1990s, making various investments and sell-offs in diverse industries including real estate, banking and mining. Those are the types of transactions that are difficult to engineer without solid Kremlin connections, but Ivanishvili today denies that he would be Russia's puppet.
Georgia, a former Soviet Republic, has a strained relationship with Moscow that reached a tipping point in 2008 when Saakashvili moved to seize the secessionist territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia recognized the regions’ independence and moved in to fortify them against Georgia. In a brief and disastrous war, Georgia was defeated.
Russian military forces remain there to this day, and diplomatic relations between Tbilisi and Moscow have been formally severed.
Russian President Vladimir Putin would be happy to see a more docile next-door neighbor, and Saakashvili supporters allege that Ivanishvili could make that happen. But the billionaire employs rhetoric that instead accuses UNM itself of having ties to the former USSR.
“I decided to go into politics because of our Soviet-style government,” he said to the Guardian on Sunday. He mentioned the government’s decision to revoke his Georgian citizenship shortly after he announced his candidacy, allegedly because Ivanishvili has a French passport and dual citizenship is not allowed. (A later parliamentary decision made it legal for the billionaire to run as a citizen of the European Union.)
Interestingly, Ivanishvili was once an ally of Saakashvili -- the billionaire funded the president’s earlier campaign and even claims to have given him advice on running the country.
But things have changed.
“He has built a tough, authoritarian government while at the same time trying to prove to Europe and America that he is building democracy," Ivanishvili said to the Associated Press. "The people have been deceived, including me.”
From Roses To Rape
UNM was expecting an easy win this year. It won 119 of the 150 parliamentary seats during the 2008 election, when its leader Saakashvili was still coasting on a wave of public support in the aftermath of the Rose Revolution.
That 2003 movement against a Soviet-installed strongman president was a storybook revolt for Georgia. No one was injured. Demonstrators gave roses to the soldiers who had been sent to contain them. Saakashvili was a leader of the opposition; the people called him Misha, a common pet name for Mikhail.
It was a 35-year-old Misha who led a crowd of people that forced its way into the parliament building while then-President Eduard Shevardnadze was giving a speech on Nov. 23, 2003. Backed by a peaceful mob, Misha held a rose out to the 30-year despot and yelled, “Resign!”
Shevardnadze fled the scene, and Misha became President Saakashvili in 2004.
As he had promised, Saakashvili took steps to modernize Georgian society. Economic reforms, including an increase in trade with the European Union at Russia’s expense, have been a clear success, with GDP growth per year averaging nearly 6 percent since Saakashvili took power.
Then again, that success is a hard sell considering the situation on the ground, especially in the midst of a global fiscal crisis. Unemployment is officially at 16 percent but could be much higher. The percentage of households below the poverty line is was up around 22 percent last year, according to Unicef.
Still, poverty rates are falling, and growth is evident -- that’s something UNM can take credit for.
Saakashvili is also known for successfully clamping down on corruption, an incredible feat for what was once a bribe-based economy. Security forces, government officials, administrators and politicians were all taken to task, and a good many were found guilty and given jail sentences. Today, you’d be hard pressed to find a greasy palm in Tbilisi.
On the other hand, there were early indications that the justice system was becoming a little too ruthless. EurasiaNet reports that by 2012 Georgia had 531 of every 100,000 residents behind bars, giving it one of the highest incarceration rates on Earth. Stories of prison abuse were circulating in Tbilisi and elsewhere, but international superpowers eager to secure Georgia’s economic cooperation turned a blind eye to reports of human rights violations.
The issue could not be ignored after Sept. 18, when a damning video emerged on media outlets linked to members of the political opposition. It showed prison inmates being brutally abused and forcibly raped by guards and officers, despite begging for mercy.
The video exposed the horrific underbelly of Saakashvili’s reform efforts. Within a day, protests against the government had erupted in force in Tbilisi. Thousands took to the streets waving placards calling for justice.
This was a severe blow to UNM. Party officials rushed to condemn the violations, and four security officials, including the interior minister, have since resigned.
At that point, Ivanishvili had already emerged as a viable challenger -- the prison video scandal may have put him over the edge. Now, an eccentric recluse actually stands a chance to pull the rug out from under a once-glorified president.
Of course, Saakashvili is not in any danger of losing his presidential seat.
Monday’s election will only determine the makeup of parliament; Saakashvili’s term doesn’t run out until 2013. But the president still took a leadership role in UNM’s campaign, and he may be interested in more than just a pliable parliament. According to a recent constitutional change, the next prime minister will be awarded some of the powers currently held by the president.
Though Saakashvili has to step down next year, he could very well decide to pursue the prime ministerial post.
The opposition is determined not to let that happen. It maintains that the president who once promised democracy is becoming a dictator who is eager to hold onto power. Ivanishvili, on the other hand, has pledged that if he becomes prime minister, he would step down after two years.
This begs the $6.4 billion question: What kind of coalition would he leave behind?
The eccentric Ivanishvili is the face of a rather mystifying bloc. He has accomplished the formidable feat of rallying the opposition, but opposition alone does not constitute political platform. What exactly does Georgian Dream stand for?
You might begin by asking Ivanishvili’s son. Bera Ivanishvili, an 18-year-old albino rapper, released a single called "Georgian Dream" last year, right around the time of his father’s entry into national politics. In the music video, gangs of smiling twentysomethings roam the streets of Tbilisi handing out black T-shirts emblazoned with what would become the logo of the Georgian Dream political coalition.
The song lyrics are at once rebellious and inspirational. “I know where I come from, I know where I’m going,” says Bera. “Building the future, I am proud of the past!” There are clear notes of determination, optimism and rebellion but no specifics.
So it is with the coalition of Bidzina Ivanishvili. Georgian Dream is an umbrella comprising six political parties of wildly divergent stripes -- their single uniting feature is a vehement opposition to Saakashvili. Ivanishvili’s supporters range from free-market liberals to xenophobic cranks to Kremlin cronies to disaffected youth.
It is no surprise, then, that Ivanishvili’s platform promises for Georgian Dream are vague. There are safe political bets, like his pledge to reform agricultural practices through governmental investments. There are populist planks, like his vow to remove taxes on low-income families. And then there are high-wire balancing acts, like Ivanishvili’s proposal to maintain economic integration with Europe while also strengthening Georgia’s relationship with Russia.
It is this last issue that has the international community holding its breath for Monday’s election results. Ivanishvili gets bristly when he is accused of being a Kremlin stooge, but there is little doubt he would be more Moscow-friendly than Saakashvili.
To the West, Georgia provides valuable routes for gas and oil transportation. Those lucrative lanes could disappear if Russia gains influence over the government in Tbilisi.
Ready For Results
Ivanishvili’s refusal to cast a ballot on Monday suggest that he is suspicious of the electoral system in Georgia, but most international observers expect a fair outcome. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe has determined fair election results in the past, and international observers have not raised any alarm bells in the lead-up to this election.
The real worry is that voters might take to the streets -- and possibly become violent -- if their candidates lose.
Premature exit polling results are adding fuel to the fire. Media outlets on both sides have already claimed victory based on divergent exit poll surveys, putting the populace of the country on edge.
Final results could be ready by Tuesday, but there is no set deadline.
Saakashvili has already predicted a mixed result, whereas Ivanishvili was more bold.
“I expect that we will get no less than 100 seats in the new parliament," he said to a crowd when voting had ended, according to Reuters. "I have achieved what I have long been striving for."
If he’s right, Georgia could be on track for a serious realignment -- one that remains vaguely defined. If he is wrong, the crowds that have amassed in urban centers tonight to support the opposition could act out their disapproval, sparking a whole new round of upheaval in this volatile young country.