In the run-up to Georgia’s parliamentary vote, supporters of President Mikheil Saakashvili derided their opponent, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, as “a Kremlin project.”
Activists for Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition were even chased out of one village housing refugees from the 2008 war, shouts of “Russians” ringing in their ears.
These Georgians say: follow the money.
Not only did Ivanishvili make his fortune of $6.4 billion in Russia during the wild years of the 1990s, but he was able to liquidate his Russian holdings last year at reasonable prices.
In Russia, oligarchs only survive if they enjoy the good graces of Vladimir Putin. Mikhail Khordokhovsky, a political rival, is in jail. Mikhail Prokhorov retreated from politics after a tepid bid for president this year. And Alexander Lebedev finds that the price for opposing Putin is that no one dares to buy his assets.
On Friday, I asked Ivanishvili, in Russian, if he is “a Kremlin project.”
He laughed off the question, responding first in Russian, then in Georgian, that over the last decade he gave $1.7 billion in aid to Georgia. He added jokingly: “If that means being a Kremlin agent, then the Kremlin has in me the best agent for Georgia.”
At age 56, Ivanishvili is a shrewd pragmatist.
My bet is that he will try to steer Georgia into a more neutral course. American conservatives will disparage this as “Finlandization.” But this policy served Finland well after fighting two bloody wars with Moscow in the early 1940s.
Ivanishvili says he wants to normalize relations with Russia.
In addition to reopening embassies, this would mean restoring trade ties. Once Georgia’s main trading partner, Russia now accounts for only 4 percent of Georgia’s trade – behind China and the United States. With 30 times the population of Georgia, Russia is a natural source of visitors for Georgia’s booming tourism industry.
As a new member of the World Trade Organization, Russia is obligated to drop unilateral trade sanctions. The WTO could provide a fig leaf for Moscow to normalize.
Looking forward to the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, Russia has one year to lock in peace and quiet on its southern border. It has created a buffer state, Abhazia, directly across the border from the skiing venues. But it would further calm pre-Olympic nerves if there was a leader in Tbilisi committed to controlling rogue nationalist elements of Georgian security forces.
For Moscow, the red line has been NATO membership.
In 1944, before NATO was created, U.S. diplomat George Kennan wrote: “The jealous eye of the Kremlin can distinguish, in the end, only vassals and enemies; and the neighbors of Russia, if they do not wish to be one, must reconcile themselves to being the other.”
On Tuesday, after winning elections, Ivanishvili repeated his commitment to winning NATO membership for Georgia. But, in reality, Russians and Georgians may privately agree to publicly disagree on NATO – and to get on with trade and tourism.
Realpolitik analysts in Moscow, Brussels and Tbilisi know that NATO membership is not going to happen as long as up to 9,000 Russian troops are firmly entrenched in Georgia’s two secessionist territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Last summer, I stood one kilometer south of the South Ossetia truce line where I borrowed a pair of high-powered binoculars from a Polish peacekeeper. Studying the new watchtowers and fresh concertina wire of three new Russian army outposts, I concluded that the truce line is about as temporary as the inter-Korean DMZ. And that has been around for 59 years.
Georgians know that, given the signal from Moscow, Russian troops could once again break out of South Ossetia, drive south, and cut the country in half — all in about 45 minutes.
With that knowledge, Ivanishvili shows no sign of throwing away the close relationship that Saakashvili forged with the United States. If he seeks to follow “a third way” (my words), he needs Washington to counterbalance Moscow.
Before Monday’s election, he reportedly spent $600,000 a month on lobbyists in Washington. The morning after the vote, he met in Tbilisi with two visiting United States Senators who are members of the Foreign Relations Committee, James Risch, Republican of Idaho, and Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire.
Referring to the United States, he said: “We talked about the future, how to develop our relationship with our big friend, and how to develop democracy in Georgia.”
On Wednesday, as it became increasingly clear that he would be Georgia’s next prime minister, he told reporters: “My first visit abroad will be to Washington and the United States is our main partner.”
On one level, Georgia receives large amounts of foreign aid from the United States. On another level, U.S. engagement frees Georgia to pursue a regional role as a transit country for Central Asian oil and gas through pipelines that are outside of Kremlin control.
Indeed, for Ivanishvili, Moscow is just one point in his mental compass.
Like most successful Georgians of his generation, he has moved far beyond his Soviet upbringing and feels comfortable in the West. He holds a French passport and speaks French. He stores his $1 billion modern art collection in London. He discusses with foreign architects a pet project – building a world class modern art museum in Georgia to house his art collection.
As Russian tourists start to rediscover Georgia, they are discovering that Moscow has lost a generation of Georgians.
If tourists want to speak in Russian, they have to seek out a Georgian over 35 years of age. Two decades ago, Russian language study was largely dropped from schools here. Instead, the study of English is now universal and obligatory. Russian is offered as an optional second language, on a par with Turkish and Farsi.
At concierge desks of new hotels in Tbilisi – the two Mariotts, the Radisson and the Holiday Inn – visitors will find any of five free local newspapers in English. Nothing in Russian.
Picking up the Financial newsweekly, visitors can study Tbilisi’s international flight schedule. This X-ray of modern Georgia’s world view lists direct flights to 22 foreign cities – from London to Urumqi, China. But no scheduled flights to any city in Russia. There is a daily flight to Moscow, but since there are no diplomatic relations, it is a considered a charter.
When I first visited Tbilisi, in Oct. 1991, every street sign in Russian had been spray painted out. This deep Georgian nationalism, coupled with Ivanishvili’s canny pragmatism, point to a future policy with Russia that will be less of an embrace, and more of a détente.
At his press conference on Tuesday, Mr. Ivanishvili told reporters: “If you ask me, ‘America or Russia?’—I say we need to have good relations with everybody.”