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Will This Billionaire Be Good For Georgian Democracy?

Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili speaks with Reuters journalists at his residence in Tbilisi on October 15.
Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili speaks with Reuters journalists at his residence in Tbilisi on October 15.
Finally, we have a real sensation in Georgia.

Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, the richest man in Georgia (ranked No. 185 in the world on the "Forbes" billionaires list), announced that he is entering politics and firmly promised that he will come to power as a result of the legislative elections that are expected in October 2012.

For one thing, Ivanishvili brings to the opposition a huge bag of money, which is something it was desperately short of. But the opposition also suffers from a shortage of moral resources. Because of erratic and sometimes irrational actions, some once-popular leaders (such as Levan Gachechiladze or Nino Burdzhandze) have fallen in the ratings and have been discredited -- permanently, it would seem.

Ivanishvili's reputation rests entirely on his philanthropic projects. He has the image of a hermit who over a period of many years has been selflessly doing good deeds and who has never attempted to use them to boost his own popularity. This starting position -- in a country that looks on politicians with extreme skepticism -- is remarkable.

Now the question is: What will Ivanishvili's appearance bring Georgia? And will it be good for Georgian democracy?

Manna From Heaven

It depends on your starting point.

If you think that President Mikheil Saakashvili is a tyrant who is monopolizing administrative, economic, and mass-media resources, who must be removed from power as soon as possible by any means necessary, then the appearance of Ivanishvili on the political scene is practically manna from heaven.

Considering the chaos among the opposition, it had been common wisdom that Saakashvili's United National Movement had victory in the palm of its hand. According to the results of a poll by the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute that was all over the media recently, the party's rating in September was 44 percent, while the four most popular opposition parties together polled just 22 percent.

He is, to put it mildly, a peculiar man, and he has an extremely foggy notion of what democracy is.
In fact, the political arena is so noncompetitive that Georgia's pretensions to be a democracy could be questioned.

Ivanishvili's appearance (and his resources) could stir the opposition out of its lethargy and create some new intrigue in Georgia's political life. Thanks to him, the government's opponents now have hope that Saakashvili can be defeated and that it makes sense to try.

The creation of a realistic alternative to the current authorities is a good thing and so Ivanishvili's entrance should be welcomed. But the important thing is not only the presence of competition but also its quality. From this point of view, the oligarch's first steps from the mountain village of Chorvila do not inspire optimism.

Eccentricity Or Inadequacy?

As long as Ivanishvili was just an ordinary billionaire, his reclusiveness -- the fact that he practically never communicated with anyone -- could be taken as mere eccentricity. That's just the way he is. But after he proclaimed himself a future prime minister and then only showed himself to the public 10 days later -- and then only through an interview with Reuters, a foreign media company -- his eccentricity began to border on inadequacy.

He prefers to lay out his positions via written statements, which he dictates personally and which are spiced with some very eccentric statements. For example, he has said that Maestro and Kavkasia, television channels well-known for their strong opposition bias, are actually secret weapons of the Saakashvili regime. The way to fix this, he said, would be to sell out to him and he offered to pay three times the market value. Refusing this offer was seen as the ultimate proof that these channels are acting at the behest of Saakashvili.

Ivanishvili's first steps permit us to make two conclusions.

He is, to put it mildly, a peculiar man, and he has an extremely foggy notion of what democracy is. It turns out that his many years as a hermit were not the product of modesty but of extreme ambition, possibly bordering on megalomania. He acts not so much like a democratic (albeit, populist) leader, but rather as a newly appeared messiah.

Murky Statements

Naturally, doubts arise about how to explain the sudden appearance of the prophet Bidzina. Is this a gift from the almighty or another Russian political project?

On one hand, with a royal gesture he selected as his partners two political parties that are difficult to accuse of pro-Russian sympathies -- the Republican Party and Irakli Alasania's Our Georgia-Free Democrats (later the extreme right National Forum was added to the mix).

On the other hand, the Russian origins of his wealth and the tendencies of some of his murky statements -- for example, the fact that he has not yet pronounced the word "NATO" and his reassurances that the Russian government could still embark on new democratic reforms and anticorruption measures -- can't help but make us wonder about the second possibility.

If the elevation of political competition in Georgia is completely dependent on the personal caprice of an eccentric billionaire who wants to buy power for money and whose real motives are obscured by fog, then it is far from clear that this development will elevate the quality of Georgia's democracy.

Yes, political life has become more lively and more amusing -- but that is a completely different thing.

Ghia Nodia is professor of politics at Ilia State University. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL