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The Complicated Life of Georgia’s Philosopher President
A conversation with Giorgi Margvelashvili.
The president of Georgia has the soft but persuasive voice of an academic. After almost a year in office, Giorgi Margvelashvili, a former university rector with a background in philosophy, is still capable of responding to tricky questions with a sincere smile. Normally that could be a drawback for a politician, but Georgians tend to find it appealing, given that most of them have been emotionally exhausted by a decade of painful political struggles. When I met him on Sept. 28, Margvelashvili (pictured above) was remarkably candid about the most sensitive topic in Georgia today: his feud with the country’s most powerful man, the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili.
The conflict is dramatized by the geographical positions of the two men in Tbilisi, the capital. Margevalishvili’s presidential palace sits on a peak that looks across the city at the ultramodern hilltop home of Ivanishvili, the founder of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition. Margvelashvili admitted to me that he hadn’t seen his former patron for months, "not since the beginning of this year." Have they spoken on the phone? "No."
His stint as president clearly hasn’t been a happy phase in Margvelashvili’s life. Ivanishvili, then Georgia’s prime minister, originally endorsed Margvelashvili in last year’s presidential elections. But not long after that the billionaire let slip that he felt "disappointed" with the president’s "changing character." The two failed to agree on several aspects of judicial reform as well as other issues concerning the prosecution of former associates of ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili. The billionaire was especially irked by Margvelashvili’s open disagreements with the government, while the president considered their differences in opinion "the norm for a democratic state."
In a newspaper interview last month, Ivanishvili chided the president for behaving like "a competitor of the government." He urged Margvelashvili to "comprehend" that the "country will be damaged as a result." Ivanishvili has often expressed his "deep dislike" of politics in the past — he admitted as much during my interview with him last year at his elaborate home in Tbilisi, a modernist glass place that looks like a UFO decorated with a choice selection of the world’s best modern art.
Bored by political meetings, and tired of the packed schedules and international trips that go along with being an international leader, Ivanishvili decided to use the presidential election as a democratic way to pass his power to someone he trusted. Ivanishvili, prime minister at the time, spoke of the intense pressure of the campaign against Saakashvili’s incumbent government, how hard it had been to win the parliament election of 2012, and what a challenge it was "to untangle the complicated political knots left by the previous administration."
Needless to say, Ivanishvili isn’t happy that somebody chosen by him for a top position doesn’t share his opinions. At the same time, though, untangling the knots of the past in the former Soviet space is a process that requires transparency, healthy debate, and openness. The president sighed as we spoke about the harsh criticism leveled at him by the most powerful man in his country. "Yes, he criticizes me," Margvelashvili said. "But it’s just a natural period of working things out that we’ve been going through."
Talk to any Georgian today about who of the three leaders they like most — Ivanishvili, the president, and 32-year-old Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili – and what you’ll hear is that many people like the president but believe that he has little in the way of real power. According to a recent poll published by the National Democratic Institute, a democracy assistance group based in Washington, Ivanishvili has the highest approval rating, at 69 percent, while Georgians gave the president 56 percent.
The president’s problems reach beyond Georgia’s borders, though. When I asked about the war in Ukraine, the Georgian president said that he couldn’t understand why Russia wants to see wars along its borders, since logically, "Russia should be interested in having stable and predictable neighbors." I asked why there’s still no Russian embassy in Tbilisi. He responded that Georgia cannot have normal diplomatic relations with Russia "as long as Russia does not recognize that Abkhazia and South Ossetia are a part of Georgia…. We’re still thinking of our citizens in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali, with whom we plan to create a united Georgia."
Nor is Georgia unaffected by the current chaos in Syria and Iraq: As the crow flies, northern Iraq is even closer to Georgia than Crimea. The day before I met with Margvelashvili, I had visited the Pankisi Gorge, a region in the mountains of Georgia mostly populated by ethnic Chechens. I told him of my conversations with Pankisi residents who spoke to me admiringly of young Muslims from the area who had gone off to join the Islamic State. One of them referred to the jihadists as "heroes who go to Syria to die." The philosopher president explained why the state should be very cautious in dealing with the problem. Ultimately, he said, the answer will have to come by strengthening Georgian civil society; relying solely on law reinforcement can only be a short-term solution.
I asked the president about what he’s up to next. He said he’s preparing for a trip to Turkey, where he plans to discuss Georgia’s "Iron Silk Road" rail project, which aims to link Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey. A group of NATO experts was visiting earlier this month, continuing talks to focus on what the president referred to as "more Georgia in NATO, more NATO in Georgia." The president was also preparing for a public lecture on Georgian identity.
I asked the president about his ambitions as a political leader: "I don’t ever want to lead a political party. Instead I’d like to create a healthy atmosphere that will enable two or three parties to emerge and allow for healthy competition." And what about the controversial prosecutions of Georgia’s reformist ex-President Saakashvili and his associates, including former Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava and ex-Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili? Recently, the government expanded the list by opening an investigation into business tycoon Kakha Bendukidze, the author of Saakashvili’s economic reform program and currently the rector of Georgia’s best university.
Isn’t all this damaging for Georgia? The president admitted that it’s a painful process. "But I know that Georgia will emerge from this difficult time with dignity, as a proud victor." Maybe that statement, too, will turn out to be the subject for a phone conversation with Ivanishvili.