Georgia’s feuding Mr. President and Mr. Billionaire went to Washington on January 30 -- one in person and the other in writing -- to compete for the good graces of Barack Obama's administration.
Obama essentially heard two songs from the Georgians -- “Got What You Need” from President Mikheil Saakashvili and “Take a Chance on Me” from opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Saakashvili may have gotten the face time with Obama, but Ivanishvili tried to mitigate whatever political scores the Oval Office meeting may give Saakashvili. In op-eds published in The New York Times and The Washington Post, the Forbes List billionaire asked Obama to pressure Saakashvili to make Georgia's upcoming parliamentary elections air and competitive.
“We urge the leaders of the USA… to apply all available assets to secure free and fair ballot for our citizens at the October 2012 election,” reads the op-ed.
Saakashvili, in the meantime, emerged from his White House meeting satisfied, telling the BBC it had "elevated" the two countries' ties "to [a] new level," and thanking Obama for Washington's continued commitment to Georgia’s territorial integrity, eventual NATO membership, and for the prospect of signing a free trade agreement.
There are growing signs, though, that the battle for Georgia’s political future will play out inside the beltway as much as back in Tbilisi. Much of the Saakashvili administration’s success is attributed to their lobbying dexterity and ties in Washington. Ivanishvili seems bent on going mano-a-mano with Misha in this field.
Foreign Policy's The Cable reported on January 30 that Ivanishvili is paying a monthly fee of $25,000 to BGR Group for lobbying in the US and Europe. He reportedly also sought a contract with the influential Patton Boggs and to entice the Podesta Group, which lobbies on behalf of the Saakashvili government.
Another question is just how much Washington cares about what happens in Georgia.
In his remarks to reporters, Obama gave a protocol-perfect round-up of the meeting with Saakashvili, praising Georgia for its reforms, its military contribution to Afghanistan and expressing the hope that this year’s election is going to be a good one.
There was just one tiny slip-up. But an embarrassing one.
With Saakashvili seated at his side, Obama noted that he appreciates "the institution building that's been taking place in Russia . . . " Pause. "Uh, uh, in Georgia," he added, correcting himself.
Somebody bring a teleprompter next time.