TBILISI, Georgia — These days Georgia feels like a dark fairy tale. The castles of the rival protagonists loom portentously over the capital of Tbilisi. On one hill stands the presidential palace, inhabited by Mikheil Saakashvili, who remains there, for the time being, despite the drubbing his party received at the hands of the opposition in last fall's parliamentary election. At night the palace is almost invisible, shrouded in darkness, because the newly elected government of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili has decided that it's not worth spending taxpayer money on lighting. On the other hill, Ivanishvili's glass home luxuriates in light, as if still celebrating his triumph in the October vote.
The tension between the two sides' supporters hangs over the capital like a cloud One of Ivanshivili's first actions upon assuming office was to unleash the police on several key officials of Saakashvili's administration, and the two sides have been at loggerheads ever since. Outside the presidential palace, protestors picket in little knots, demanding the resignation of Saakashvili (known to most Georgians simply as "Misha"). His opponents have collected thousands of signatures on a petition urging him to resign now rather than wait until the end of his term next fall. Members of the powerful parliament, now dominated by Ivanishvili's allies, postponed Misha's annual speech and are discussing constitutional amendments to limit presidential powers. Recently Ivanishvili even succeeded in making up with Misha's long-time enemy, the Kremlin -- thus putting an end to the ban that Russia imposed on the import of Georgian wine and mineral water. But even that good news failed to lighten the atmosphere. The party of victors is thirsty for revenge.
As I walked from ministry to ministry, there seemed to be no end to the bad news. Most of the previous officials have either resigned or been fired. The new ministers blame Saakashvili for erratic reforms -- improving the police but not the prisons, for example, thus filling old penal camps to bursting. "Nearly every family had members in jail," the new defense minister, Irakly Alasania, told me. It turned out that Misha's secret police listened in on the cell phone conversations of important foreign visitors to the country, including journalists. "Was my phone bugged too?" I asked one official, half-joking. He assured me that it was.
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The current Minister of Interior Affairs, Irakli Gharibashvili, is a 30-year-old graduate of Pantheon-Sorbonne University in Paris and a former head of Cartu, Ivanishvili's charity foundation. It was the Georgian people who demanded the arrest of Saakashvili's aides, he says. "Every day we receive thousands of people asking us to restore justice," Gharibashvili explained. "We suspect the top elite stole millions of dollars," he assured me. "Soon we'll have some evidence that will surprise you."
Prime minister Ivanishvili looked calm and self-confident when I visited him recently in his home, a glittering private residence worth over $47 million. Not many Georgians knew what the rich philanthropist even looked like before the day he decided to join the campaign against Saakashvili's party in 2011. They knew only his shimmering palace of glass and steel, an alien space ship plopped down in the middle of Tbilisi's botanical garden. Today the prime minister is not only the richest man in Georgia, but also its most influential. His approval ratings hover around 80 percent.
I asked Ivanishvili, as soon as we sat down in his spacious private office under a Lucian Freud painting, if he really believed that we journalists covering Georgia for all these years had misread Misha's intensions. After all, the World Bank recognized Saakashvili's anti-corruption reforms as some of the best in the world, not just in the ex-USSR.
"Don't blame yourself, for the first two or three years even I did not recognize what they truly were," Ivanishvili responded. He told me how he had invested considerable sums in various Saakashvili reform projects, only to discover that they had been turned into money-making mechanisms for Misha's corrupt elite. We went on to discuss the other problems facing Saakashvili's government. How should Georgia pursue its efforts to join NATO and European Union? How can it stay friends with Moscow while luring the Russian-sponsored separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia back into the Georgian fold? And, above all else, how to create jobs for thousands of unemployed Georgians living in the decrepit villages that were once Soviet collective farms?