(Bloomberg Opinion) -- For the last seven years, the free world has been largely quiet as the Republic of Georgia has fallen under the sway of its wealthiest citizen, Bidzina Ivanishvili.
There have been some warnings. Transparency International and other nongovernment organizations have warned of “state capture,” the systematic corruption of institutions at the behest of powerful individuals and interests. The country’s fractured opposition accuses the Georgian Dream party, which Ivanishvili founded and currently leads, of doing far too little to counter Russian pressure.
Nonetheless, Georgia’s press remains free. Ivanishvili faces a real political opposition. And the country holds competitive and regular elections. So the U.S. and Europe have continued to treat Georgia as an independent country and an ally.
Now this fragile republic is beginning to slide. This week Georgian Dream members of Parliament approved a new prime minister, Giorgi Gakharia, who has promised to crush the opposition. There is reason to take his threat seriously. Over the summer, when he was interior minister, Gakharia presided over prosecutions and at times violent dispersals of anti-government demonstrations.
The protests themselves illustrate the other danger for Tbilisi: the prospect of falling under Russia’s sphere of influence. The story began in June, when the Georgian Dream party invited three members of the Russian Duma to address Parliament. The invitation was an opening for the opposition, according to Giorgi Kandelaki, a member of the European Georgia party: One of the speakers, he learned, appeared to have participated in Russia’s proxy war in Abkhazia in 1992 and 1993. That conflict remains an open sore for most Georgians; Russian forces invaded in 2008 and remain there to this day.
“A Communist was sitting in the speaker’s chair,” Kandelaki told me. “Georgian Facebook was boiling. People went nuts. It was clear we had to do something about this.”
What began as a protest about a symbolic affront to Georgian sovereignty turned into something bigger. The opposition demanded more proportional representation in the Parliament. It wanted Gakharia to resign after his riot police injured protesters; in return, he accused the opposition of plotting a coup.
At first, Ivanishvili’s party negotiated. It agreed to new reforms that would force the winners of parliamentary elections into broader ruling coalitions. In the last week, though, the party and its leader doubled down on Gakharia.
That should alarm the U.S. and Europe. Gakharia was a relative unknown when he first joined the Georgian Dream party five years ago. While most Georgian politicians spent their careers building the new republic after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Gakharia spent time in Moscow as a businessman and only gave up his Russian citizenship in 2013. And while he has said that the U.S. remains Georgia’s most important ally and criticized Russia’s occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, he has also launched investigations into the most anti-Russian political parties.
In this respect he has much in common with his political patron. Ivanishvili, too, has often said the right things when it comes to Russia. But the fact that he made his estimated $5 billion-plus fortune in Russia in the 1990s raises suspicions about how much leverage the Kremlin wields over him.
Fortunately, the U.S. also has leverage over Ivanishvili. Batu Kutelia, a former Georgian ambassador to Washington and currently the vice president of the Atlantic Council of Georgia, told me that Ivanishvili keeps some of his fortune in the West, opening it up to oversight from U.S. authorities.
Georgia is not today a Russian puppet. Nor has it slid into authoritarianism yet. But whether Georgia can remain a reliable ally of the West largely depends on how well its pro-Western opposition does in future elections. The U.S. should send a message to the leader of Georgia’s ruling party, who also happens to be Georgia’s wealthiest citizen, that those future elections must be free, fair and meaningful. If Bidzina Ivanishvili wishes to act like a despot, America should treat him as such.
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Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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