Bidzina v Misha: but who is Georgia’s hero and who is the villain?
Georgians are gripped by a power struggle between the president who led the Rose Revolution and the billionaire prime minister who says he wants to help the country
Bidzina Ivanishvili. Photograph: Petras Malukas/AFP/Getty Images)
Bound by the Caucasus mountains and the Black Sea and fought over for centuries by Russians, Turks and Persians, Georgia is a land of legends. The old myths include tales of a good ruler usurped by an evil pretender, and a cruel king toppled by a brave adventurer. Some see a similar story unfolding again now, but Georgians disagree about who is the hero and who is the villain in the current battle to control their country.
The adversaries in this saga are known to Georgians simply as Misha and Bidzina.
Mikheil “Misha” Saakashvili (45) was hailed as the champion of democracy in the Caucasus when he ousted Georgia’s Soviet-era old guard in the 2003 Rose Revolution. Misha crushed petty corruption and streamlined the tax system and bureaucracy to make Georgia the easiest place to do business in the volatile and strategic Black Sea area. Misha’s vow to lead Georgia out of Russia’s grip and towards the EU and Nato made him a darling of the West.
But with time, the simple, rosy narrative became murkier. Problems befell politicians and media outlets that criticised Misha, and people noticed that businesses seemed to do better if closely linked to his party, the United National Movement (UNM). In 2007, riot police used extreme violence to break up anti-government protests, and a year later Saakashvili led Georgia into a disastrous five-day war with Russia. For many Georgians, post-Rose Revolution hope became loathing for a regime that seemed increasingly corrupt, violent and paranoid, and justified its excesses by citing the need to neutralise numerous alleged Russian-backed plots to topple Misha.
Enter Bidzina Ivanishvili (57), the factory worker’s son from the village of Chorvila, who studied in Russia before plunging into its wild and often dangerous 1990s business world. Calling himself Boris rather than Bidzina, he invested in everything from computers to banks to pharmacies and became Georgia’s richest man; last year, Forbes put his wealth at $6.4 billion (€4.8bn).
Bidzina was an enigma in his homeland. After leaving Russia, he lived for several years in Paris and back in Chorvila, as well as in a sprawling glass-and-steel complex overlooking Tbilisi that resembles a Bond villain’s lair.
He spent hundreds of millions of euros on artwork by the likes of Picasso, Henry Moore and Damien Hirst, and similarly vast sums building and renovating houses, schools and hospitals, and supporting theatres and churches around Georgia. He even bankrolled some of Misha’s early reforms when hopes were high and funds were low.
But Bidzina always shunned publicity and politics. That’s why Georgians were stunned when he stepped out of the shadows to form a party and run for prime minister last year.
He said Misha had co-opted so much power and so thoroughly crushed the opposition, that only a person of exceptional personal wealth and independence could stand against him. In other words, only he could save Georgia.
Confounding most predictions, Bidzina’s new Georgian Dream coalition beat Misha’s UNM in last October’s elections, and he became prime minister in Georgia’s first peaceful and democratic handover of power.
The campaign was poisonous: Ivanishvili was accused of being a Kremlin puppet and had his Georgian citizenship revoked and assets seized, and his supporters complained of harassment and intimidation; the UNM’s defeat was sealed by the release of graphic videos showing prisoners being tortured in Georgian jails.
Nine months of “cohabitation” between Bidzina and Misha have been just as bruising. Parliament has transferred many of the president’s powers to the prime minister, slashed the money Misha can spend on everything from lighting the presidential palace to paying US lobbyists, and, most controversially, prosecutors have pressed charges against top UNM members, including former ministers.