Georgia voters rallied behind billionaire Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s hand-picked presidential candidate in national elections on Sunday, placing the business giant’s relatively young Georgia Dream party on the cusp of total government control.
Though Ivanishvili intends to step down just a year after sweeping incumbent President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National movement out of power, his well-greased political machine will ensure plenty of influence over national affairs even after he officially returns to being just another citizen. Indeed, he has cemented a grip on public life in the former Soviet republic that future political opponents may struggle to break.
Of course, Saakashvili’s depleted government had its share of corruption woes, feeding the appetite among voters for an alternative. But there are legitimate concerns to be had about the scale of Ivanishvili’s takeover. After all, his party has arguably been seeking retribution — rather than justice — in its crackdowns on former Saakashvili officials, and though the billionaire is a fan of the West and seems likely to speed Georgia’s path toward stronger ties with (and perhaps even membership in) the European Union, this kind of aggressive politicking by the country’s wealthiest citizen is sure to raise eyebrows among the same good-government watchdogs and human rights organizations that have long been critical of Saakashvili.
The challenge for Ivanishvili is to balance his obviously quite fervent wish that Georgia modernize its economy with the cultural conservatism of the electorate, and to avoid incurring the wrath of the wolf next door in Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose already-aggressive instincts reached new highs over the past year as he systematically cracked down on domestic political opponents. We already know that Putin is strong-arming neighbors like Moldova into joining a regional trade cooperative that he intends to serve as a counter to the E.U.’s primacy. The clash between the Georgian billionaire and the former KGB officer is coming, regardless of how their official political titles might change in the months and years ahead.