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Georgia: Opposition 'Godfather' Rattles Presidential Election

By Salome Asatiani and Daisy Sindelar Badri Patarkatsishvili (file) (InterPressNews) "It's only in Georgia that I'm this lovely old man, this grandfather figure. If they want to really know my background, they should ask in Russia -- they know me differently there."

This could be a line from a gangster movie. Or it could be politics in Georgia.

As the South Caucasus state approached its early presidential election with a heated mix of emotion, suspicion, and anger, this phrase exemplified for many Georgians what was wrong with a democratically minded country where a man with a dubiously earned fortune could rise to the height of political influence.

The "lovely old man" in question is Badri Patarkatsishvili, Georgia's richest citizen and the person who has arguably had the biggest impact on the country's recent political course. Patarkatsishvili has seen his political fortunes fade in recent days with the broadcast of tapes that prosecutors claim capture him engaging not only in braggadocio, but outright malfeasance: offering a government official $100 million to stage the appearance of massive fraud during this weekend's election, in hopes such a claim would bring down the government.

The broadcast of the tapes prompted Patarkatsishvili to consider withdrawing from the presidential race as one of several opposition candidates. (He subsequently restored his name to the ballot, and prosecutors, while cracking down on his campaign manager for his own role in the scandal, have opened an investigation into Patarkatsishvili's role but left him otherwise untouched.) They also saw the rapid retreat from Badri's camp of many in Georgia's fractured opposition -- strange bedfellows united by the need for Badri's power, and even more his money.
For more on the Georgian election, see "Democratic Stakes High In Early Presidential Vote"

"The things that were discussed on that tape are unacceptable and even theoretically inconceivable for us," says Davit Usupashvili, the leader of the Republican Party and a member of the united opposition coalition, which, with Patarkatsishvili's support, was backing candidate Levan Gachechiladze. "We have never held consultations with anyone on such issues -- including Badri."

Chill In The Air

Gachechiladze remained the nearest rival in the presidential race, although exit polls suggested he would not succeed in forcing Saakashvili to a second-round vote. But the release of the alleged Patarkatsishvili tape -- whose content, in part, the billionaire has himself confirmed -- has drastically altered the preelection atmosphere. If Patarkatsishvili can claim credit for the opposition's recent rise, he may also, in the end, prove its ultimate downfall.

"Our campaign was seriously affected by stories related to Badri Patarkatsishvili, with all of their unknown facts and unanswered questions," Usupashvili says. "These issues stirred serious uncertainty in the voters, and we have not been able to plan our campaign in any in-depth way."

"I don't really think anyone was under the illusion that Patarkatsishvili was some kind of democracy-loving angel," says analyst Ghia Nodia of the opposition. "But the idea that he was cold-bloodedly and cynically contemplating this -- that was a real shock for some of them."

Making Friends, Influencing People

In early November, emotions among the Georgian opposition were high. Public protests were called that mimicked in form and spirit the Rose Revolution rallies in 2003 that brought Saakashvili to power early the following year. For nearly a week, demonstrators gathered outside the Georgian parliament building, protesting government policy and calling for the president's ouster. Prominent among the protesters was Patarkatsishvili, who subsequently announced his intention to spend his "last penny" to help the opposition get rid of Saakashvili's "fascist regime."

At the time, only a handful of opposition forces -- the Labor Party among them -- refused to accept the offer, perhaps fearing that Patarkatsishvili's worrisome ties to controversial Russian entrepreneur Boris Berezovsky and a series of murky 1990s deals in Russia were too great a liability to overlook. The united opposition, by contrast, has been seen as having close ties with the tycoon, with its members traveling frequently to London, where Patarkatsishvili has been based since the November events. At one point, it was rumored that Badri, and not Gachechiladze, would be the united candidate.

"By association, the Patarkatsishvili factor has of course caused the opposition forces considerable damage," says Nodia. "This is particularly true of the united opposition, and supporters of Levan Gachechiladze, who are now clearly seeking to distance themselves. They're almost completely denying that they ever had any kind of partnership with Patarkatsishvili."

The crisis has been catnip for the Saakashvili camp, which has used the allegations against Patarkatsishvili to step up its criticism of the opposition, accusing Gachechiladze and others of everything from political naivete to behind-the-scenes skullduggery. "Some of our opponents are either absolutely detached from political reality and elementary common sense, or they're simply turning a blind eye toward very serious problems because of the benefits they were getting from Patarkatsishvili," says Davit Bakradze, a state minister and spokesman for Saakashvili's reelection campaign.

Friend Of The Elite

The opposition has countered that not long ago, Saakashvili himself enjoyed the perks of easy access to Patarkatsishvili, whose potentially ill-gotten gains had, after all, allowed him entry to a world of enormous privilege and influence in Georgia. In the years prior to aligning himself with the opposition, the tycoon had enjoyed impressive investment opportunities and ties to the political elite -- most notably with Saakashvili's predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze.

Patarkatsishvili formed the Imedi media holding (whose opposition Imedi television station, now co-owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, has taken itself off the air to avoid undue pressure in the current political climate), bought up Black Sea coastline, and privatized everything from circuses to funiculars and a massive wedding palace in Tbilisi. And even though his ties with Saakashvili were never as harmonious as those he had enjoyed with Shevardnadze, for a long time Patarkatsishvili's relations with the Rose Revolution group were cordial and productive.

"When I first met Patarkatsishvili, it was one day before Saakashvili's entire government visited his residence for a big party there," says Usupashvili. "He owned one of the leading television companies in Georgia; he was making major investments in various spheres in Georgia."

Some experts say Patarkatsishvili's downfall has had other, auxiliary benefits for the government as well -- among them, an opportunity to justify the severity of the crackdown that followed the autumn demonstrations. Saakashvili was sharply criticized in the wake of the protests, which ended on November 7 with forceful police dispersal and the imposition of a state of emergency and near-complete media blackout. Now, according to Nodia, the mood has softened. "I wouldn't say this will fully legitimize the actions undertaken by the government on November 7, but people may be able to better understand them," he says.

At the same time, Nodia points to the error of holding a single person to account for the November protests -- in which tens of thousands of angry Georgians streamed onto the streets of Tbilisi, each with individual concerns and complaints.

"Patarkatsishvili, of course, attempted to use the situation to his advantage -- it looks like he knew that sooner or later such a political crisis would occur, and his time would come," he says. "But of course there were mistakes by the government, too. When a government pushes through unpopular reforms -- reforms which often were not understood by the public -- people's dissatisfaction will grow, and they'll take it to the street."

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

RFE/RL Caucasus Report

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