A letter from Tbilisi
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.
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?
From his gleaming villa, Mr. Ivanishvili donates some $100 million of his personal fortune each year for the restoration of historical buildings and to pay the salaries of Georgian university professors, theater directors, and artists. "The only thing Saakashvili's men did not do to stop us was to shoot at us," Ivanishvili told me as he recalled the campaign. Every morning, he said, he wakes at 5 AM, then does a session of yoga to stay fit and psychologically balanced. I asked if he thought Saakashvili had been stealing money. "There was no corruption at the lower and middle level of bureaucrats, but the top elite's corruption counted hundreds of millions of dollars," he said.
I can still remember dark winter nights on Georgia's main street, Rustaveli Prospect, a decade ago. Rows of poorly dressed protesters blocked traffic that consisted mainly of unwashed Soviet Ladas. They stood for hours under the rain, demanding jobs and a regular supply of heat and electricity at home. Tourism? Forget about it! Criminal gangs controlled the capital so effectively that even the locals didn't dare to walk outside of their own neighborhoods at night. Policemen carried Kalashnikovs. The only place to have a proper bath with hot water was at Tbilisi's sulfur bathhouses, ancient public spas under dome-shaped roofs. I remember the shy and apologetic smiles of my hospitable hosts in homes with no hot water during those miserable years. All they had to offer, besides the traditional home-made wine, were loaves of dry bread and a few tired-looking apples.
These days Rustaveli swims in light and comfort. Elegant decorative candelabras and graceful statues of angels playing flutes adorn the spotless avenue. Foreign tourists listen to live music in cozy restaurants. Last year some 4.4 million of them crossed Georgian borders, eager to get a look at this suddenly hip and rapidly developing nation. (The population of the entire country is 4.5 million.)
But not every part of Georgia benefits from tourism. To get a sense of how ordinary people in the country experience the shifts in power at the top, I stopped in a village with in Imereti region, on the way to Ivanishvili's home town of Chorvila. A big group of men stood around without much to do in the middle of a working afternoon. They informed me -- with a kind of perverse pride in the roundness of the number -- that unemployment in their village amounted to 100 percent. "Ivanishvili made more money than the budget of our country; and he beat Misha, so he should figure out how to create jobs," said Guram, a middle-aged man with a potbelly. Ivanishvili's new rural development fund, worth about $606 million, has promised to give low-interest loans to farmers and revive Georgia's culture of growing organic vegetables and fruit.
Saakshvili seemed distinctly reluctant to embrace Ivanishvili's efforts to revive Georgian agriculture when I met with him at his residence for an interview. At one point as we spoke, the president paused to turn up the television news, which was broadcasting a segment about his opening of a new ski resort. Tourism has always been one of Saakashvili's biggest passions. He is eager to cite his own reforms as the reason for the increase in visitors, which stood at only 120,000 a year when he took office. Now Ivanishvili is shifting priorities. "They're suspending hold five new hotel projects in [the province of] Ajaria, and they've cut the region's budget threefold," Saakashvili told me. He claims that economic growth has fallen from six percent to zero since the new government took office: "Ivanishvili said that the first year is going to be difficult, but I don't understand why economic growth has to stop altogether."
It should be said that Saakashvili has also done his part to inflame the tensions. Last month, just as thousands of Georgians were gathering on Tbilisi's main square to demand his resignation, the president gave a speech at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in which he assailed Ivanishvili's government for arresting his party colleagues. Lawrence Sheets of the International Crisis Group offers another image that neatly describes the current situation. The "cohabitation" of the mutually hostile leaders of Georgia, he says, "resembles a forced marriage of two increasingly hostile adversaries locked in a cell."
Sadly, shortly after I left Tbilisi, the tensions boiled into open conflict, when a crowd of Ivanishvili supporters attacked a group of Misha partisans, resulting in a melee that left several wounded. The Ivanishvili activists are now threatening to surround both the president's residence, turning him into a virtual prisoner in his palace. As things stand now, this is one fairy tale that doesn't seem likely to have a happy ending.
Photo by VANO SHLAMOV/AFP/Getty Images