Is Ivanishvili a Trojan Horse for Russia’s Return to Georgia?

Posted October 3rd, 2012 at 8:17 pm (UTC+0)
14 comments

Bidzina Ivanishvili, leader of the Georgian Dream coalition and future Prime Minister, answers the question: Are you a Kremlin Project? VOA Photo: James Brooke

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.

Ivanishvili greets one of the estimated 100,000 people who attended his final campaign rally Saturday afternoon in Tbilisi’s Freedom Square. On Monday, he received about 75 percent of the votes in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. VOA Photo: James Brooke

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.

“Get out of town while you can” — these Georgian Dream supporters at Saturday’s rally wanted to see the end of Mikheil Saakashvili’s presidency. VOA Photo: James Brooke

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.

On Monday night, back at Freedom Square, these Georgian Dream supporters, seemed to know what the rest of us learned the next day: Ivanishvili’s team had won by a large margin. Official nationwide results: Georgian Dream – 55 percent; Saakashvili’s United National Movement: 40 percent. VOA Photo: James Brooke

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.

Well, at least these Saakashvili supporters went home with free T-shirts. The President’s rally Friday night at the National Stadium seemed to be attended largely by people who arrived by government-chartered buses from the regions. VOA Photo: James Brooke

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.”

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

14 Responses to “Is Ivanishvili a Trojan Horse for Russia’s Return to Georgia?”

  1. Georgian Lion says:

    Regarding VOA photo description by James Brooke. First of all, it seams offensive for VOA to calls all these people provincials. We do not have Provinces in Georgia like they do in Canada for instance. We have regions and some of these Saakashvili supporters were from regions of Georgia and not provinces. Calling them people from province is an insult and a hint that their voice is somewhat less important than the one of the opposition supports who are predominantly from Tbilisi’s old soviet elite that put their personal ambitions above National interests of Georgia.

    Second of all, saying that at least they got a free t-shirt is another insult by VOA, because they god lot more than just a t-shirt, they received hope not t-shirts but I bet you from a lense of the person who described this image in this way it really just comes down to a t-shirt. After all, the way in which this photo was described portreys a view of a person who’s sence of history begins with breakfast and sence of gain is only determined by material gain i.e. I doubt describer of this photo will even have enough intelligence to understand the above let alone have courage to be honest.

    And finally I have a famouse quote for VOA by Chekhov that should enlighted the describer of this image that Provincialism is not the place of your origin but the condition of your sole, which is so vivid in who ever described this image in such an insultive way to the Georgian people.

  2. James Brooke jbrooke says:

    Georgian Lion
    lighten up! I changed ‘provinces’ to ‘regions’ — I am from a town of 4,000 people — it does not bother me if someone calls me provincial — and we don’t have provinces in the US — in the essay, I did not call anyone provincial anyhow, so your point is a little contrived
    cheers
    Jim Brooke

    • Georgian Lion says:

      Georgian Lion
      lighten up! I changed ‘provinces’ to ‘regions’ — I am from a town of 4,000 people — it does not bother me if someone calls me provincial — and we don’t have provinces in the US — in the essay, I did not call anyone provincial anyhow, so your point is a little contrived
      cheers
      Jim Brooke

      My point exactly, that the article or the description of the image was done by the provincial himself and thank you for having enough courage to be honest. I even said it was very vivid. For your information here in Georgia places such as the one you are from (4000 people) are called villages so I guess you are a typical villiger who does not know the difference between a province and a region.

      Of course if would not bother you to be called a provincial, because you are a typical provincial from a town of only 4000. If you read my comment carefully you will see that I did not say the US had provinces, I said that provinces were in Canada not US.

      And finally, you accuse me of being contrived in my point of view and this is simply another contrived opinion of a typical provincial such as yourself, because for me there is nothing more important than Georgia and this is exactly why your misscaracterisation of people’s origin or that it was only the t-shirts that they got is offensive to me and to millions of other Georgian’s who do not feel themselves neither provincial nor their pride can be bought with your t-shirts.

      And lastly who are you to tell me to lighten up? I suggest you or your boss who put you in charge of writing articles in such an important time for Georgia without you having basic knowledge about Georgia get to know one thing very well that Georgia and Georgian’s may very well be in poverty today but that it is a lot more wealthy country with its history and culture than the one you are from.

      And the trueth be told, VOA is nothing else but a tool to contrive public opinions around the world to bant it to your agendas. But make no mistake about it, in order for that to happen one must have a moral authority to do so and that authority you do not possess. I doubt you will understand this but you must know that it is another insult by you, a reporter who’s getting paid and who’s job it is to contrive opinions to accuse people like me, who are Georgian and who love Georgia to have a contrived point of view on something that is more dear to me than this article or Georgia in general to you.

      You lighten up and you stop purging nonsence instead of giving it a thorough thought and unbiased opinion.

  3. Nicole says:

    Interesting opinion, Jim! To mind, Bidzina Ivanishvili seems to be a very motivated and energetic person with new fresh ideas. I like his idea to restore close relationship between Russia and Georgia, to attract Russian tourists, etc. I`ve never been to Georgia but I heard the nature is just marvelous there, the climate is good, a lot of fruites, tasty traditional food,… Our countries and cultures used to be Very close. It would be great if Mr. Ivanishvili could finally remove the existing tension and reconcile Russians and Georgians.

    • Georgian Lion says:

      Interesting opinion, Jim! To mind, Bidzina Ivanishvili seems to be a very motivated and energetic person with new fresh ideas. (NEW FRESH DIRTY BILLIONS FROM RUSSIA TO BUY GEORGIAN VOTES) I like his idea to restore close relationship between Russia and Georgia, to attract Russian tourists, etc. (I THINK CANCELLING VISA TO RUSSIANS WAS A MISTAKE) I`ve never been to Georgia but I heard the nature is just marvelous there, the climate is good, a lot of fruites, tasty traditional food,… (AND NOWHERE NOONE EVER TOLD YOU ANYTHING GOOD ABOUT GEORGIA HUH? ONLY FRUITS AND NATURE?) Our countries and cultures used to be Very close. (WE WERE NEVER CLOSE, WE WERE INVADED BY RUSSIAN EMPIRE AGAINST OUR WILL) It would be great if Mr. Ivanishvili could finally remove the existing tension and reconcile Russians and Georgians. (OBSTICLES WHERE NEVER PUT BY GEORGIA IT WAS PUT BY YOUR RUSSIAN GOVERNMENT, YOU PUT EMBARGO ON ALL GEORGIAN GOODS EVEN WINE WHICH YOU RUSSIANS DRINK LIKE SODA, YOU DEPORTET ALL GEORGIANS FROM RUSSIA, YOU INVADED AND ANNEXED OUR UNDESPUTED TERRITORIES, YOU GAVE IVANISHVILI BILLIONS TO BUY VOTES IN GEORGIA). I PERSONALLY HATE RUSSIA WITH PASSION AND I THINK UNTILL THEY GO BACK FROM ABKHAZIA AND SAMACHABLO SO CALLED S. OSSETIA WE SHOULDN’T HAVE CANCELED VISA REQUIREMENTS FOR RUSSIANS.

  4. Грузия, своим экстримисстки-антиросийским поведением, и поддержкой чеченских сепаратистов, настолько разозлила Российские власти и настроила Российский народ, против себя, что мир возможен лишь если народ грузии одумается. Продемонстрирует преданность России. Выбрав президентом Георгадзе! он кстати, обещал, в случае избрания, отменить таможенные барьеры, на следующий день.
    Даже если грузия, решит вступить в состав РФ, Вряд ли её примут. Для этого нужен референдум, на котором народ России, однозначно, выскажется против, бедного родственника, да ещё проблемного с точки зрения оргпреступности. Не захочет народ русский, опять кормить грузин, как при Сталине! Сами же они себя не прокормят. Ископаемых – нет. Сельское хозяйство – не кормит и себя. Вино и минералка – не нефть, да и их мало. Мы не столь богаты сами, чтоб кому то помогать! И не столь слабы, чтоб с кем-то заигрывать!
    У грузии один путь наладить отношения с Россией. Покаятся и терпеливо ждать!
    Народ должен образумится! Перестать, на выборах, менять одних руссофобов на других. А на пока – можно вступить в ЕС или войти в состав США, но это слишком амбициозно – хотя-бы в состав штата Джорджия. Запад вас прокормит! Если элита – этот корм не разворует.
    Не в обиду ребята. Но нельзя, ругая Россию – выпрашивать преференции.
    Судя по всем прошедшим у Вас выборам – не власти виноваты, они лишь идут на поводу у толпы, как в, Украине.
    с уважением Геннадий Калугин

    • Georgian Lion says:

      NASRAT NAM NA ROSSIU NASRAT A CHECHNIU BOLSHE CHEM GRUZIA PODDERZHIVALA AMERIKA AND VSIA EVROPA TAK POCHEMU ZHE VI PIANICI NASTROILIS TAK NEDRUZHNO PERED GRUZIEI. CHECHNIA ZDES NE PRICHOM. PROSTO V GRUZII NE SHITAIUT CHTO ROSSIA LUCHSHE CHEM GRUZIA. ETO NASHE DELO S KEM MI BUDEM PODDERZHIVAT UCHASTIE. XOTIM S CHECHNIOI XOTIM S DAGESTANOM< NASHE DELO, NE VASHE! OPIAT ZABLUZHDENNI RUSSKI.

    • Georgian Lion says:

      Грузия, своим экстримисстки-антиросийским поведением, и поддержкой чеченских сепаратистов, настолько разозлила Российские власти и настроила Российский народ, против себя, что мир возможен лишь если народ грузии одумается. Продемонстрирует преданность России. Выбрав президентом Георгадзе! он кстати, обещал, в случае избрания, отменить таможенные барьеры, на следующий день.
      Даже если грузия, решит вступить в состав РФ, Вряд ли её примут. Для этого нужен референдум, на котором народ России, однозначно, выскажется против, бедного родственника, да ещё проблемного с точки зрения оргпреступности. Не захочет народ русский, опять кормить грузин, как при Сталине! Сами же они себя не прокормят. Ископаемых – нет. Сельское хозяйство – не кормит и себя. Вино и минералка – не нефть, да и их мало. Мы не столь богаты сами, чтоб кому то помогать! И не столь слабы, чтоб с кем-то заигрывать!
      У грузии один путь наладить отношения с Россией. Покаятся и терпеливо ждать!
      Народ должен образумится! Перестать, на выборах, менять одних руссофобов на других. А на пока – можно вступить в ЕС или войти в состав США, но это слишком амбициозно – хотя-бы в состав штата Джорджия. Запад вас прокормит! Если элита – этот корм не разворует.
      Не в обиду ребята. Но нельзя, ругая Россию – выпрашивать преференции.
      Судя по всем прошедшим у Вас выборам – не власти виноваты, они лишь идут на поводу у толпы, как в, Украине.
      с уважением Геннадий Калугин

      SLUSHAI SUDA IDIOT! VO PERVIX V GRUZII UZHE PROVELI REFERENDUM V SOSTAV V NATO I BOLSHENSTVO GRUZIN PROGOLOSOVALO ZA, TOEST ZA VXOD GRUZII V NATO. TI SHTO AXUEL? KAKOI TAM SOSTAV V ROSSIU? ETO TAKZHE BEZMOZGLO KAK NAPRIMER GRUZII ZAXOTET V SOSTAV AFGANISTANA NAPRIMER. GIORGADZE ETO TERRORIST. OTMENIT TAMOZHNIU S ROSSIEI? OXUIEL TI PIDRILA YOBANNAYA TI CHTO DUMAESH TAKIX GAVNUKOV KAK TI KTO NEBUD SERIOZNA PRIDPRINIMAIET ZDES? V GRUZZII NET KORRUPCII A V ROSSI ONA PROCVENAYET NA SAMOM VISOKOM UROVNE POETOMU U VAM NE INFRA STRUKTURA A XUIA STRUKTURA BARANI. MI VAS NENAVIDIM NENAVIDIM. NASRAT GRUZIE NA ROSSIU NASRAT CHTO VI TAM O NAS DUMAYETE NASRAT. AX OKAZIVAYETSYA MI ROSSIKSIE VLASTI RAZOZLILI? YA BI XOTEL VASHI VLASTI NE TOLKO RAZOZLIT NOP V DUSHU VIIBAT IXNUIU MSIU SEMIU! CHTOB VI ZDOXLI!!! SUKI TERZLIAVIE. MI VXODIM V NATO I EVROSAIUS, ZAPOMNI ETO GANDON. NASRAT NAM NA ROSSIU NASRAT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. Что за матершина? при чём Русская, своей нет? Когда, не хватает аргументов – переходят на нецензурные слова и личные оскорбления. Видимо господам грузинским националистам сказать нечего, вот и скандалят. Хорошо хоть не весь народ нацистов поддерживает! Куда только модераторы смотрят?

  6. Lee Sanders says:

    It is no coincidence that Georgia’s richest man made his money is Russia. Gerogia is a poor small country that relies on western aid. As this aid dries up due to economic problems in US and western world, Gerogians naturally turn to Russia. We have seen this through out history. US should channel the aid that Russia refused to Gerogia to improve its civil society and human rights.
    It seems that countries that ban Russian language tend to be poorer and more backward then coumtries that embrace it.

    • Georgian Lion says:

      Countries that ban Russian prosper. Look at Baltic coutries, only after banning Russian did they start to regain their true National identity. Besides, Russians who have brains todays all learn English in order to be competitive in the world so why this strong desire to teach Georgians Russian that is not needed in the world any longer. Everyone Georgia speaks English nowadays and they seam to enjoy benefits of it. As far as Georgia turning towards Russia, another wishful thinking of yours. Look at where Ivanishvili is going first USA, look at what he plans to do, to join NATO and EU and explain to Russia that Georgia in NATO and EU is not a threat. When will the Russians understand this stop being so jalouse of Georgian move towards its original place of origine, a western civilization. Most Russians 75% have Eastern mentallity and look at the west as an Enemy and know very little about it so What you are saying is a typical thinking of a Russian with an eastern mentallity if only your name which I believe is fake.

  7. bob says:

    yes there is no doubt that Bidzina Ivanishvili, is “a Kremlin project.” if he was not a Kremlin project and a true patriot of Georgia he will not sell out hes country be letting Russia continue occupation of Abkhazia and south Ossetia to Russia just to make more money of tourism from Russians taking vacation in Georgia what a sell out !!!

    It is a real shame the the average Georgian is buying this stuff about good relations and working together for a grater good of relations between the 2 country’s when Russia still is occupying parts of there country

    Another thing is when it comes to the hole abkasia and south Ossetia ethnic Russia Georgia war thing let be honest her the Russia and Putin dose care about some left overs from the soviet union living in Abkhazia and South Ossetia that is now living within legally what is now and has always bean Georgian borders.

    Putin and the Kremlin care about there Navel base in Abkhazia that gives them access to the black sea and a future control over the south-stream gas and oil pipeline that will be coming under the black sea from the east to Europe

    and I for one thing think Mr Bidzina Ivanishvili and Mr Putin knows all about the oil and gas pipeline that is coming to the black sea.But of course their chooses of new friendship and understanding has nothing to do with that. YA RIGHT !!

    my question is how meany silver penny’s has the Judas Mr Bidzina Ivanishvili received for this new found love for the Kremlin.

    http://blog.heritage.org/2012/05/31/georgia-and-russia-the-occupation-too-many-have-forgotten/

    http://en.wikipedia.or/wiki/International_recognition_of_Abkhazia_and_South_Ossetia

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Stream

    http://thepravda.org/russia-trying-to-remake-the-soviet-union-in-sheepsclothing

    http://thepravda.org/russian-aggression-towards-ukraine

  8. If tourists want to speak in Russian, they have to seek out a Georgian over 35 years of age. A EDUCATIONAL CRIME !!!

    DEAR ALL , I’M A SWISS ARTIST SINCE 7 YEARS IN TBILISI, BUILDING MY OWN HOUSE WAS A TASK BUT ABSOLUTELY POSSIBLE.
    SWISS DESIGN,IN COLLABORATION WITH GEORGIAN ARCHITECT, GEORGIAN CONSTRUCTION FIRM, ALL ON THE BOOKS.
    WE LOVE & RESPECT THE GEORGIANS!!!
    THEY SHOW US PLENTY LOVE BACK.
    I SPEAK MANY LANGUAGES BUT GEORGIAN IS NOT SO EASY.
    I HAD, HAVE, THE FREEDOM TO TRAVEL & LEARN.
    MAKE IT POSSIBLE FOR THE YOUNG GENERATION OF GEORGIANS !!
    POLITICIANS WAKE UP THIS IS WHAT YOUTH WANT !!!
    TBILISI WILL BE THE NEXT HIP PLACE ON THE WORLD MAP
    WATCH OUT!!

About

About

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.

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