The view from billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili's über-modernist palatial home and business center is unparalleled, giving him a clear line of sight to the giant statue of Mother Georgia, the Mtkvari River, and another large steel and-glass structure at the top of a different hill: President Mikheil Saakashvili's palace. These dueling monuments to gargantuan egos, while betraying the two men's similar taste in architecture, also embody the current melodrama that has enveloped the country. These men despise each other. On October 1, they will also lead their respective party coalitions to the first parliamentary election since the August 2008 war with Russia. Ivanishvili is the first major threat to Saakashvili's power since he took over in the 2003 Rose Revolution.
The conventional wisdom has it that less corruption is always better. Recent history shows, however, that corruption concentrated in the hands of a country's ruler can be an invitation to authoritarianism. Saakashvili, while rebuilding the Georgian state and reducing low-level corruption, has also constructed a vast pyramid of power with himself at the top. Independent analysts have noted his increasingly authoritarian tendencies, and many have speculated about his plans to "pull a Putin" and anoint a loyal successor to the presidency after his constitutionally mandated exit in 2013.
Enter Ivanishvili, a multi-billionaire of Georgian birth who earned his fortune in Russia. Last year, Ivanishvili created a new coalition, Georgian Dream, which has benefited from the participation of former officials alienated by Saakashvili. It also enjoys healthy financial backing, from Ivanishvili alone. The new challenger is vague about his plans for the country and, like many of the super-rich in Russia, undoubtedly has plenty of skeletons in his closet (not to mention a pet zebra). He has already brought Georgia a valuable and unexpected gift: the possibility of a competitive election. But it's not pretty to watch.
It's important to note that elections don't have to be free and fair in order to be competitive. Whereas "competitive" simply means the opposition has a legitimate chance at winning an election, freedom and fairness refer to the quality of the electoral process (i.e., that there's a level playing field). Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM) Party has worked to ensure that the field in this election will be tilted against Georgian Dream, employing schemes straight out of the post-Soviet autocrat's playbook. Its tactics have included detaining activists, fabricating criminal charges, restricting attendance at rallies, intimidating voters, levying fines for contrived offenses, and using the state-controlled media to boost the UNM's popularity.