An astonishing article dated June 20 in the Wall Street Journal should cause deep dismay in capitals across the Western alliance. Its headline ran: 'As Sanctions Bite, Iran Invests in Georgia'. This is the same Georgia that applied in vain for membership of NATO and the EU, that sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan and strained like a salmon through the post-Soviet years to change its destiny from perpetual domination by Moscow. In return, the West repaid Georgia's devotion by watching the 2008 Putin invasion from the sidelines and by allowing Russia to sponsor separatist regions until it swallowed them whole into the Russian Federation. We can scarcely feign surprise when a suitor so neglected finally turns away in despair. 'Iranian businessmen,' said the WSJ article 'are flocking to Georgia, a longtime US ally in the Caucasus region, to pursue profits evaporating in much of the world'. In other words, Tbilisi now permits the wholesale breaching of US sanctions, an unthinkable policy under the once powerful outgoing President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Certainly not unthinkable anymore, not since the October 2012 electoral defeat of Saakashvili's administration by the Georgian Dream party, led by former oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili. The WSJ article seems, like much of the Western world, to have missed the entire significance of that election - Ivanishvili never intended to continue the pro-Western orientation he inherited, despite his protestations. I covered that election for Newsweek. I was astounded then, as now, at how much the bien pensant media took Ivanishvili at his word. Time and again, my Western colleagues would lean over backwards to ignore the glaringly obvious flaws in his position (while battering away at Saakashvili's party.)
Ivanishvili refused throughout the electioneering to say anything negative about Putin - who had so recently invaded his country. He did nothing to rein in his henchmen who repeatedly sent intimidating texts to rival politicians, threatening to prosecute them post-election unless they switched sides early. He kept unleashing mobs onto the streets promising to do so maximally if he lost the election. None of these moves were considered unfair practices. Instead, the media allowed him to dictate their headlines, not least with the release by his side of prison abuse videos. Any sensible observer could smell the flimsy, mafiotic, artifice of those videos. French intelligence even publicly released audio of Georgian mafia meetings abroad planning the incident. The Georgian and Russian mafia are closely allied, and the latter operates as an arm of the Russian state. But no, you couldn't get Western media to draw the logical conclusions.
Most exasperatingly, Ivanishvili loudly claimed he had ditched his holdings in Russia but it was plain for all to see that he could not have sold his shares in companies like Lukhoil and Rosneft, not at all and not so swiftly, without a green-light from the Kremlin. As anybody with the merest knowledge of Russia's financial dealings knows, the Kremlin considers these companies - and large shareholders - to be strategic assets. I found, with great ease, highly reputable and independent figures who confirmed these conclusions. Yet, no one else seemed able to. Time and again, one read that, 'there's no evidence linking Ivanishvili to the Kremlin'.
Well, here's the evidence - complicity to support the Iranian economy. No surprise to me - everything I warned against at that time in print and in radio interviews has happened and worse. Repeated prosecution of Saakashvili political allies. The sacking of regional city halls and bullying of local councillors. Thuggish attempts at bribery and intimidation of the judiciary - as recently as this month Georgia's Chief Justice complained publicly about repeated attempts by Ivanishvili's party to influence judges. According to MEP Kryszystof Lysek, he was told by Ivanishvili's justice minister 'we are not rushing forward with proceedings against the opposition representatives because current judges would not punish them. We need to reform the judiciary first.' The sheer transparent gall of such talk needs no commentary. The EU has recurrently sent Ivanishvili warnings that his party is jeopardizing the country's potential membership by such anti-democratic howlers. In March of this year, top European officials published a roadmap for Georgian accession. The document openly cites 'backward steps in the country, touching on the rule of law and the independence of judiciary and the media, as well as democratic standards have damaged the positive image of Georgia. Therefore, under these current circumstances and once the negotiations of the Association Agreement between the European Union and Georgia are completed, its signature and its ratification by the European Union and its Member States are endangered.'
Ivanishvili can declare at the top of his voice that he fully intends to join this or that Western club, but he spends much of his time in reality derailing his country's prospects of acceptance. Anyone who finds this contradiction surprising needs an old fashioned lesson in Kremlinology. From that perspective, everything falls into place. The incremental takeover of the country's independent institutions (including a recent overture to control the Universities) follows a nasty Putinesque blueprint for governance. The gradual alignment toward Moscow's strategic interests by breaching Iran sanctions allows the Kremlin to keep the Shiite crescent alive (Iran can keep helping Syria and Hezbollah economically while the Kremlin's reach extends through the Caucasus into the Middle East and Mediterranean). On Georgian Armed Forces Day this year (April 30), Ivanishvili declared his pro-Nato inclinations to loud applause, talking about drafting a road map for integration and the like: 'Georgia will be ready to undertake a powerful step and get closer to NATO'.
The irony is that Saakashvili had already made all the necessary gestures. Ivanishvili has undone them. The greater irony is that anyone believes him.