8 November 2016
features

Win it like an oligarch

Author: Régis Genté / Source:
So will it come to pass? For the first time in the world history, would an oligarch put his country’s interest above his own? Would Georgia become a world curiosity?

Some seem to think so. "I know it’s hard to believe, but yes, I think Mr. Ivanishvili is working only for the sake of his country”, a high-ranking Georgian official told me privately between the two rounds of the elections, in which Mr. Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream (GD) party landed a supermajority winning 115 seats out of 150. His allies dismiss concerns about an oligarch running the country as irrelevant at best, and as hostile muck-racking at worst.

There are no grounds to question either Mr. Ivanishvili’s patriotism, or his sincere desire to make Georgia better. But it would be naïve or worse - hypocritical – to simply brush aside the fact that he is also an oligarch, who gathered most of his 5 billion US dollars of wealth in Russia of mid-1990s and 2000s. And in the Russian politico-financial games, Mr. Ivanishvili was no small fish.

Master in murky politics

Few in Georgia, even among the political pundits, care to remember that Mr. Ivanishvili was associated with the so called "banker’s rule” (Semibankirshchina) led by late Boris Berezovski. In 1996, that "oligarch conclave” forced the election of hugely unpopular, ailing President Boris Yeltsin – he polled around 8% at that time against Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov.

"I convinced Yeltsin, through [Anatoly] Chubais, that he couldn’t win if [General Alexander] Lebed was not running as a candidate against him, because he [Lebed] would capture the communist and nationalist votes. At the same time I convinced Lebed that he should secure these votes and then withdraw [from the race] in favor of Yeltsin. Nobody did as much as I did for this election”, Mr. Ivanishvili told this author back in 2013. Berezovski agreed: "even though Ivanishvili was not among the outstanding representatives of that group [Semibankirshchina], he was in the front row. In this regard [Yeltsin’s re-election], Ivanishvili’s contribution was great indeed”, he told Georgian magazine, Tabula in 2013.

Many international commentators made us believe after Mr. Ivanishvili’s meteoric rise in Georgia’s politics that the "reclusive billionaire” was a political novice. But that was not true: he has mastered the politics of a very particular kind.

During the 1996 election, Berezovski and the oligarchs perfected the dark arts of political manipulation (known in Russian as "polit-technologii”). Dumping of the compromising documents and recordings (kompromat) into media, vote manipulation and bribery were the staple tools of that campaign.
In Georgia of 2012, Mr. Ivanishvili ran as an underdog – this time leading the charge on his own behalf, surrounded by a hastily gathered Georgian Dream (GD) political coalition. GD withstood heavy pressure from the ruling UNM and delivered its decisive strike on the eve of elections. Secretly filmed video of prisoners’ abuse by the guards (as it has transpired, one of them was bribed to film the torture and give the video into the right hands) triggered an avalanche of public outrage that swept UNM from the office.
Secretly filmed video and audio recordings have appeared time and again in the past years, uploaded to remote sites by persons unknown, targeting UNM leaders, but also former allies that split ways from GD. No direct link with GD could be made. The official investigations came to naught, but the ruling party has benefited from the atmosphere of apathy and mistrust in politics.

Landslide but no mandate?

The elections on October 8 were well organized and fairly ran, said the International Election Observation Mission which qualified the campaign as "competitive, well-administered and [where] fundamental freedoms were generally respected.” But the acrimonious political atmosphere meant that 48.37% of the voters didn’t bother to turn out.

If we look at the results, GD was backed by some 25% of the eligible voters (some 857 thousand people), since it has gathered 48.68% of the votes from the 51,63% of the citizens who turned out. This is far from the resounding mandate that the constitutional majority implies. Indeed, GD popularity was rather low according to all polls.

The GD administration’s first term in office left many Georgians complaining about economic stagnation. The lack of jobs has remained the "most important national issue” for 56% of the Georgians (June 2016 NDI bi-annual opinion survey). Over 50% of Georgians felt country was heading in the wrong direction, despite progress in specific areas of economy and the indications that the poverty levels were continuing to drop. UNM could not fully capitalize on this slide in GD popularity: it remained stigmatized by the power abuse scandals, resentment that was kept alive by new formal charges brought against its leaders, ongoing court hearings on earlier cases and the regularly surfacing fresh kompromat.

As late as last April, about half of the electorate felt no desire to vote either for GD, or for UNM.

At that point, Ivanishvili made what looked like a high-risk move. He dumped the smaller members of GD coalition – highbrow liberals of the Republican Party, and rough-spoken protectionist Industrialists alike - and decided to go it alone for October 2016.

Mr. Ivanishvili radiated confidence in winning the elections. Many thought him naïve, but the election results proved him right. How was this feat accomplished?

Quirks, cash and tricks

For one, UNM partially fell victim of the quirky election system that favors the incumbent, and that they refused to change, despite opposition proposals. Parties have to cross a relatively high threshold of five percent to win one of 77 seats up for grabs in a proportional ticket. This means that if people decide to back smaller parties and they fail to cross the threshold, their votes are lost – percentages are assigned to those parties who have crossed the threshold. The majoritarian polls decide the remaining 73 seats, and these have traditionally favored an incumbent ruling party, which masters local executive resources and can distribute political favors. A combination of factors means a party could get under 50% of the votes cast, and still take ¾ of seats in the Parliament.

The election was a sprint race. The official campaigning hardly lasted for two months. GD did not present its program until the dying days of the campaign, neither did it deliver any specific promises. Instead, Mr. Ivanishvili toured each province of the country and spoke through the local media, mostly of the UNMs past sins and the impending doom if they were to come back to power. GD has outspent all other parties taken together by formally declared campaign spending.

Georgia is no exception as a country where the party with deepest coffers wins. But it helps to remind us how massive Mr. Ivanishvili’s private wealth is – it stands at around 1/3 of Georgia’s GDP. And to every political campaign, there is more than just pretty billboards and leaflets.

This election was also full of decoy candidates – just like that of Lebed in 1996. Opera singer Paata Burchuladze’s party "State for People” has emerged out of nowhere, polled around 10-12%, attracted smaller parties and then imploded spectacularly. Most likely, its electorate – angry at UNM, but unwilling to support GD - stayed home. An insider from that party, told us that "at some point Ivanishvili or his guys intervened to find some finances. They thought that Burchuladze could take votes from UNM”.

Leaders of another opposition grouping – Irakli Alasania’s Free Democrats - have recalled their precinct representatives, saying they were perpetrating fraud in favor of GD. Several of Free Democrat leaders deserted right after the polls, some pledging to go into state service. Rumors say, several may get government posts.

In brief, the combined effect of GD strategy was the only thing it needed for winning an overwhelming majority – the opposition voters were kept distracted, apathetic and so they stayed at home.

What next?

Past elections have re-formatted Georgia’s political landscape. The liberal flank, teeming with activity before the elections, now looks empty. The Free Democrats and the Republicans were abandoned by its key leaders and struggle for survival. "State for People” no longer exists. Smaller groups like the New Political Center-Girchi and New Georgia have receded to Facebook pages. Some of the leaders have pledged to fight on, but it would take them a while to re-group.

The largest opposition party, UNM is in the throes of an existential crisis. Before the elections, Mr. Ivanishvili expressed his determination to destroy UNM till the end and asked his voters for the mandate to do so.

On the extreme right flank, the minor Alliance of Patriots has entered the parliament, and will undoubtedly fill the role of the scarecrow, just like Vladimir Zhirinovski’s Liberal Democratic Party did in Russia after 1996. During a long interview with him in April 2013, Mr. Ivanishvili told me that "UNM will disappear on its own, and I see some opposition coming from Mme [Nino] Burjanadze or Irma Inaishvili [of the Alliance of Patriots]”.

On a positive side, without a competitor, the eclectic Georgian Dream can hope to attract some talents into the executive and to improve on its past performance.

But the key result is the takeover of the Georgian politics by one extremely wealthy individual who feels entitled to choose his own opposition, and who has shown willingness to use post-Soviet recipes of success to these ends. Perhaps this might not be as disastrous as some would want us to believe. But it will retard even further the emergence of the normal political process in Georgia.

With its constitutional majority, GD is bound to repeat the mistakes of its predecessors. Some of its representatives are already pining for settling the scores with UNM, but also to either impeach President Giorgi Margvelashvili – who broke the chain that linked him to Mr. Ivanishvili on the day of inauguration - or to abolish the direct presidential elections altogether.

Another concern is foreign policy. As Mr. Berezovski said once, Ivanishili always plays "according to the rules set by the Russian government”. It is possible, even likely, that Mr. Ivanishvili is not the Kremlin’s project. But he certainly is a convenient interlocutor for Moscow. So how sincere and how effective would GD government’s commitment would be to the Euro-Atlantic integration? We are about to see.
 
Régis Genté is a French journalist, working for le Figaro or Radio France Internationale, based in Tbilisi and covering the post-soviet region since 2002 
 

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