As the South Caucasus state of Georgia gears up for parliamentary elections on October 1, Washington, DC, is proving to be a key theater of the political campaign.
The Georgian government, dominated by the United National Movement (UNM), and its main opponent, the Georgian Dream coalition led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, are spending liberally in Washington. A small, impoverished country with muscular neighbors, Georgia has long lobbied for support from larger countries. But, in many ways, these rival PR campaigns have more to do with domestic politics than with diplomatic ties.
In essence, Washington has become the new Moscow, according to Marina Muskhelishvili, director of the Center for Social Studies in Tbilisi. “When there is a conflict internally, the sides . . . always look for somebody outside who will solve the conflict,” Muskhelishvili said. “Before . . . it was . . . Moscow that had this power, and now they [Georgian politicians] are looking to the West.”
Tina Gogheliani, a political scientist with the International Center on Conflict and Resolution in Tbilisi, agreed. “International opinion plays a major role in Georgian politics where foreign observers can serve as a ‘referee’ to resolve conflict,” she noted.
As both sides scramble to gain the support of the American “referee,” questions are being raised about financial practices. Over the past year, the Georgian National Security Council has signed lobbying contracts in Washington, DC, worth an estimated $1.83 million – a sum more than twice the amount of the 950,000-lari budget ($582,822) of the newly created State Ministry of Employment.
According to a US government database, the lobbyists are “assisting” various governmental entities, including the NSC and Georgia’s Embassy, in areas including trade talks, “democracy issues,” and “pre-election issues.” But critics say that such “assistance” also benefits the UNM.
UNM representatives insist that the party does not use foreign lobbyists, and also denied trying to piggyback on the National Security Council’s lobbying campaign. "There is a divide between state entities and the UNM," said UNM spokesperson Chiora Taktakishvili. Georgian taxpayers, she added, understand that NSC lobbyists are only promoting Georgia’s North-Atlantic-Treaty-Organization membership ambitions.
The NSC did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.
For some US analysts, the interests of the NSC and UNM seem blurry. “An interesting question for me is why does nobody mind that the Georgian government is spending taxpayer dollars … to lobby for a partisan political goal,” commented Caucasus specialist Lincoln Mitchell, an associate research scholar at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute.
International monitors in the past have criticized Georgia for using government resources to advance the UNM’s political goals. Council of Europe advisor Eka Siradze Delaunay, a Georgian elections expert, however, noted that international monitors are not following the government’s use of foreign lobbyists since “it will be difficult to prove” that the lobbyists promote UNM, rather than state, interests.
In specific connection to the upcoming election, the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International Georgia flagged in July two emails sent from the Georgian Embassy in Washington to American researchers and analysts that allegedly tried to “discredit both Bidzina Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream political coalition.”
The Foreign Ministry denied any wrongdoing. Nonetheless, Georgian diplomats do not always refrain from presenting Ivanishvili’s PR campaign as a threat to state interests. “Remember, it’s about how much money the guy has in proportion to Georgia’s GDP,” stressed Georgia’s ambassador to the United States, Temur Iakobashvili. “The effect is as if Russia was behind it. I’m not saying it is. It just undermines Georgia’s credibility. That’s the result.”
While Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition laments what it claims is the use of taxpayer funds to promote the UNM, it has been no less assiduous in its own courtship of Washington power brokers.
Based on documents filed with the Foreign Agents Registration Unit, Ivanishvili is paying $3.21 million to five different PR firms [Downey McGrath Group, K-global, National Strategies Parry, Romani and Associates, Patton Boggs] to buttonhole “influential political and policy leaders,” rally for “free and fair elections” in Georgia and raise Ivanishvili’s own political profile.
A TI Georgia representative told EurasiaNet.org that the organization is looking into whether the expenditures violate Georgian campaign finance law.
Maia Panjikidze, a spokesperson for Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream political coalition, said that the lobbyists are meant as an “instrument” against the Georgian government’s aggressive campaigning in Washington against the billionaire. “When [President Mikheil] Saakashvili is hiring lobbyists everywhere just to deliver bad messages about Ivanishvili, I think Ivanishvili could do only one right thing -- to hire lobbyists to deliver his own messages,” Panjikidze said.
And those messages have found targets. In April, Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Washington) introduced a bill that would cut off US assistance to Georgia if the October vote is not free and fair. The bill remains in the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. At the same time, the PR effort still seem to have some work to do, in terms of defining who Ivanishvili is as a politician.
“So, who is this guy? Wasn’t he bankrolling Misha before?” asked one State Department official in reference to Ivanishvili’s past friendship with President Saakashvili. “Now he’s against him?”
The PR maneuvering in Washington, whether by the government or Ivanishvili, prompts some Georgians to worry that their country is acting like “a banana republic.”
Even more than 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, for many Georgians, "political legitimization comes from [the] outside, rather than [the] inside,” lamented Muskhelishvili.
Molly Corso is a freelance journalist who also works as editor of Investor.ge, a monthly publication by the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia. Paul Rimple is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.