Just three weeks ago, few Georgians would have recognized Bidzina Ivanishvili if they had encountered the reclusive billionaire philanthropist on the streets of Tbilisi.
Since then, his statement of intent to come to power in fair elections
next year has triggered hope and euphoria across the country, while the Georgian authorities have responded by throwing the book at him in a bid to discredit and sideline him.
In his interviews and written statements, the man who describes himself as "a pragmatic dreamer" defined the optimum domestic political configuration as a three-party parliament in which no party controls more than 50 percent of the seats. Georgia's foreign policy, he said, should focus on establishing cordial relations with Russia, the United States, and Europe.
At the same time, Ivanishvili admits that he does not consider it feasible, within the two-three years he intends to engage in politics, to restore Georgia's territorial integrity by bringing the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia back under the control of the central government. He also expressed regret
that the incautious policies of incumbent President Mikheil Saakashvili may have demolished, or at least set back for many years, Georgia's chances of NATO membership, which he described as "the best option for our security."
Much of what Ivanishvili has said has clearly struck a chord with Georgians increasingly disenchanted with the Saakashvili regime. Tina Khidasheli, a leading member of the opposition Republican Party, compared his appearance on the political landscape to "a political tsunami." Former Labor Party activist Nestan Kirtadze said Ivanishvili had created "a new reality" and the possibility for "real change" that would benefit the 2 million Georgians currently living in poverty. Some 50 residents of the town of Akhmeta in Kakheti formed a group to support Ivanishvili; one of them has already been dismissed from his job, according to Caucasus Press on October 26.
Not All Rosy
At the same time, Ivanishvili has been criticized both for some of his comments, and for his hectoring tone. In his initial statements, for example, he listed several political parties that he said he would not on any account cooperate with, and made condescending and/or disparaging remarks about individual politicians.
Ivanishvili similarly committed a major error of judgment by announcing in advance, but not immediately implementing, his decision to relinquish his French and Russian citizenship. That oversight played into the hands of the Georgian authorities and provided Saakashvili with a pretext for stripping Ivanishvili of his Georgian citizenship, thus technically rendering him ineligible to run for parliament or fund any political party. On October 2, a Tbilisi court rejected Ivanishvili's appeal
for that decision to be suspended.
Those clumsy moves on Ivanishvili's part suggest a lack of political foresight that could prove a liability if he does not swiftly acquire a team of experienced advisers. But there is no shortage of volunteers to serve in that capacity.
Opposition Lining Up Behind Him
On the plus side, Ivanishvili has already secured the support of political heavyweight Irakli Alasania, leader of the opposition Our Georgia-Free Democrats party. He is in talks with the Republican Party, the leaders of which say Ivanishvili's views largely coincide with theirs. Alasania was quoted by the daily "Alia" on October 20 as saying some government officials had already resigned to align with Ivanishvili. Former President Eduard Shevardnadze was quoted on October 25 as hailing Ivanishvili as "Georgia's savior."
Even opposition parties Ivanishvili dismissed as not worthy partners have spoken out against the authorities' reprisals against him
, including the interception by Georgian security personnel, under the guise of an anti-money-laundering operation, of a large consignment of cash belonging to Ivanishvili's Cartu Bank. Christian Democratic Movement leader Giorgi Targamadze last week slammed
as "absolutely unacceptable" what he termed the authorities" "aggressive actions" against Ivanishvili.
Targamadze expressed concern that the Georgian authorities are trying to goad Ivanishvili into appealing for his supporters to take to the streets and stage mass rallies. But Ivanishvili has said
he is aware of that risk, and does not want even to hear the term "street protest," let alone "revolution."
But with months still to go before next year's elections, he may find it increasingly difficult to capitalize on the hopes he has engendered and simultaneously prevent an escalation of tensions -- especially if the Georgian authorities deliberately seek to provoke the confrontation he says he wants at all cost to avoid.