Four years after the war with Russia, the young Georgian democracy is once again attracting the attention of diplomats and media in Europe and beyond. As the October 1 parliamentary elections near, tensions in the country are rising. Last week they were heightened by the broadcast of videos showing prison guards engaged in atrocious acts of torture of inmates.
At the center of the world's attention is one man: Bidzina Ivanishvili, a philanthropist billionaire who recently became the head of the opposition in Georgia. He has been leading an intensive campaign against the government for months. This man, who made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s, heads the "Georgian Dream" coalition, which includes individuals who regularly make xenophobic and homophobic comments. Ivanishvili is one of the 200 richest men in the world. His personal fortune exceeds the annual Georgian State budget. And he is intent on using it to further his political ambitions.
In power centers such as Brussels and Washington, he employs an army of lobbyists and public relations firms whose purpose is to discredit the party in power in Tbilisi. Meanwhile, in his campaign for the parliamentary elections in a country of just 4.5 million people, on a per capita basis he has spent the equivalent of $7 billion were this a US presidential campaign. The surreal means at Ivanishvili's disposal should incite us to ask about the place of so much money in politics. This billionaire's strategy, which involves calls to civil servants to resign en masse in exchange for a payment of over 100 times their salary, is beyond worrisome.
That Mikhail Saakashvili's party must face a strong, solid opposition is not only normal, it is necessary for Georgia's young democracy. If Georgia wants to one day join the European Union and NATO, as it vocally claims to, the relentless reformism of the majority party and its current president will not be enough. The emergence of a credible political alternative and a more competitive political scene than exists today is crucial.
Yet the fact that one man's enormous financial power is being used to shake up the political process and the young democratic institutions created since the revolution of the roses is unacceptable. Along with Moldova, Georgia is the main political success of the European Union's Eastern Partnership (which was launched when I was France's Minister for Foreign Affairs). As a young democracy in the former Soviet space, Georgia offers rare promise. It is also a counter-example to many an authoritarian regime in this part of the world, especially for Vladimir Putin's Russia, which is why the latter never digested the survival of the Georgian government since the 2008 war.
Without going into the details of the relationship between the Kremlin and Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is known for having been the largest individual stakeholder in Gazprom, European democracies have a duty to call on Russia not to intervene in Georgia's democratic process. On this front as well, there are worrying signals. The European Union Monitoring Mission that is on the ground, and that we created after the war, is expressing concern over a massive augmentation of Russia's military presence in the Georgian region of South Ossetia. The Federation's army has rescheduled its military exercises in the North Caucasus and in Armenia, which are timed to coincide with the end of the Georgian electoral campaign. Moreover Vladimir Putin himself has started multiplying strongly worded statements, notably about his personal role in the 2008 war.
Four years ago Europeans demonstrated political courage and a rapid diplomatic reaction to the conflict in Georgia, which helped to preserve the country's independence. We must not accept today what we forbade yesterday. This is an issue that has importance that reaches well beyond Georgia's borders, and it goes to Europe's credibility at its periphery.
In spite of its mistakes, the current Georgian government has managed to build up an alternative to the corruption and the authoritarianism that poison the eastern edge of Europe. The World Bank recently published a report on reforms that have radically transformed the country since 2004. There is, of course, still progress to be made, and democracy must be consolidated. And the government is responsible for its failures, as well as for the fact that Soviet-era torture continues in its prisons.
But Georgian authorities' decision to name Giorgi Tugushi, the country's Ombudsman and one of the fiercest critics of Georgia's prison system, as the new Minister of prisons is a clear signal of their intent to right the wrongs. And that is part of why democrats in Europe cannot ignore the reality Georgia's young democracy.
This column was also published by Libération.