Forget influencing Presidents and Prime Ministers, European billionaires are funding local elections in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. When the wealth of oligarchs so dwarves that of the people, it is relatively easy to seize control of the entire political establishment, aggressively pursuing financial interests while keeping the population distracted by identity politics. Tbilisi is a perfect microcosm demonstrating the dangers of what unlimited, uncontrolled capital can do to democracy.
You don’t hear about Georgia in the news. Whenever you mention Georgia most people assume that you mean the State famous for Peaches in the South of the US – yet of course there is a far older Georgia nestled between Turkey and Russia to the East of the Black Sea – which also grows peaches. The last time Georgia was major news it was because of a brief war with Russia over the separatist region of South Ossetia – which remains disputed territory. Seemingly completely off the radar, Georgia is an interesting place to examine a worrying phenomenon that can be seen the world over – Capitalism eating Democracy.
In developed countries it would be difficult to imagine one individual gaining so much power that they could essentially found a new political movement and take over the reigns of power in terms of President, Prime Minister and Parliament within two years. Whilst we may have Rupert Murdoch wielding huge influence in the UK, US and Australia, his is not a vertically integrated enterprise. Go East to the developing world and you can observe what happens when the wealth of oligarchs so dwarves that of the people that it is possible to essentially take over the political establishment and then do as one wishes with a country.
That’s not to say that the intervention of the billionaire backer of the Georgian Dream coalition was a bad thing for Georgia at the time, (in 2012). The career of former President, Mikhail Saakashvili, went badly off the rails after initiating a stunning modernisation programme establishing the rule of law, streamlining public services, developing infrastructure and making Georgia into the shining light of Post-Soviet economies. He displayed autocratic tendencies, expropriated property and businesses for the gain of his associates whilst engaging in pie-in-the-sky development projects including a planned Trump Tower on the Black Sea. An arrest warrant remains issued for Saakashvili, who fled to Ukraine and has since had his citizenship there rescinded.
Fast forward to 2017, and we are facing local elections in Tbilisi for the Mayor and City Assembly. In a country as small as Georgia, elections in a city that is home to up to 40% of the population, are a national event. Tbilisi is a grandiose city of faded glories, the splendid but crumbling art-deco buildings in the Old City pointing back to cultural significance and wealth; the city counted Pushkin and Tchaikovsky amongst its residents and was a byword for living the good-life. It is threatened by rampant and seemingly uncontrolled construction of high-rise buildings and crippling congestion, which results in Tbilisi topping the list of per-capita pollution related deaths worldwide.
Since 2012, Georgia has been ruled by the Georgian Dream Coalition which is funded by the billionaire, Bidzina Ivanishvili. Whilst the party has continued, and profits from the policies of Saakashvili before them, many Georgians feel that not enough action has been taken to control construction and reduce congestion and pollution. There is still no vehicle inspectorate – over 50% of cars would fail road-worthiness tests in Europe, and there are no road taxes to fund public transport investment. Georgian Dream dwarfs all opposition in terms of spending power, which can be witnessed by the size of billboards they can afford to hire for campaign posters and the sheer amount of these; this is made possible by donations of $3 million for Georgian Dream when compared to $130,000 for the European Georgia which is the second-biggest political party in the region. In Georgia, corporate donations are permitted. Fourteen people were summoned by The State Audit Office over “questions about their income.”
Against this backdrop of mushrooming high-rises and chocking pollution, former AC Milan footballer Kakha Kaladze has been rolled out like some kind of Georgian David Beckham as a symbol of a successful modern Georgia, representing hard work and family values, with a little light nationalism added in to spice things up. Kaladze is not new to the political establishment – he served as Energy Minister and Deputy Prime Minister in the current Government and raised eyebrows regarding a potential conflict of interests through his company owning a major stake in a Hydroelectric project whilst he was in office. This brazen self-interest continues – according to an investigative report by Nino Bakradze, Kakha Kaladze’s property company applied for a 10-storey construction permit in an an area where zoning laws permitted only three. The application was originally declined but after a second meeting and payment of approximately $50,000, permission was granted. His company then sold this plot to the developer Archi Group for less than 10% of what they paid for it – the lawyers claim that there was a mistake in the contracts notarised – no copies of the contracts can be found. Kaladze is a candidate claiming to control construction.
An unlikely opponent to Kaladze and Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition arrives by bicycle in the form of the Englishman, Joseph Alexander Smith. Smith holds Georgian citizenship, has lived in Tbilisi for five years and speaks fluent Georgian. With virtually no budget, he is contesting a seat in the City Assembly as an independent candidate. His main policies include the right to free movement, (fixing congestion), and the right to clean air – in terms of pollution and also preventing high-rise buildings.
He is not standing for Mayor but would form a coalition with fellow grass-roots activist, Aleko Elisashvili, with whom he protested against the massive new Panorama Tbilisi construction project of Bidzina Ivanishvili which threatens to irreparably alter the skyline of Tbilisi. Already there are visible gouges out of the landscape visible from the city and huge environmental damage will be caused during construction. In a city surrounded by mountains where sudden intense storms can happen, the chances of an environmental catastrophe – as seen in June 2013 when huge floods swept through the city – are hugely increased by pouring concrete high above the city so that the water falling forms into a wave. There is no organised opposition by a political party against the ongoing construction projects of Georgian Dream – only grass-roots activists such as Smith, Elisashvili and the Guerrilla Gardening movement who successfully opposed the building of a Luxury Hotel in one of the City’s few remaining parks.
Tbilisi is a perfect microcosm in which to demonstrate that if you have enough money you can get power, once you’ve attained power you just have to keep things steady and engage in distraction politics: Kaladze is talking about the importance of Georgian language adverts and signage in an area where lots of Iranian and Arab tourists visit and miraculously the day before his campaign launch, a demonstration of alt-right style fascists chanting “Georgia for Georgians” arrived to protest outside his campaign headquarters in the yet-to-be-opened Intercontinental Hotel where he has set up a “transparent office”, open to the public. Once they have a majority, political leaders can carry out their backer’s financial interests, no building permit is out of reach.
It is quite remarkable what unlimited, uncontrolled Capital can do to Democracy, for it ceases to represent the interests of the people; instead it presents the interests of big money as the interests of the people and repeats the message until it becomes accepted.
There is a warning here for other democracies – when a power vacuum occurs, as it did when Saakashvili was removed from office, there are opportunities for big money to muscle its way in to Politics, cloaked as the interests of the common man and woman – we would all do well to insist that party finances are tightly controlled so that the interests of the people are valued more than the interests of capital – namely that democracy rules capitalism and not capitalism rules democracy.
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