Georgian opposition tries to draw Obama administration into bitter election dispute

The leader of the main opposition party in Georgia is pulling out all the stops to get the Obama administration to denounce alleged campaign violations ahead of legislative elections on Oct. 1.

Bidzina Ivanishvili, the leader of the Georgian Dream coalition and Georgia's richest man, says the United States must call out President Mikheil Saakashvili and ensure free and fair elections. Otherwise, he warns, America could lose one of its closest allies in the vital Caucasus region.

“Our greatest achievement for the past 20 years has been that the United States — this big, powerful country — has received Georgia as its young friend. This is what I hope to enhance in the future, but this is what we will lose,” Ivanishvili told The Hill by phone via a translator. “People have seen that Saakashvili was helped by the United States, and if we receive an authoritarian regime, then people will turn against the United States.”

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The interview was facilitated by U.S. lobbyists to put pressure on the State Department to weigh in on allegations that Saakashvili's government is hounding Ivanishvili's supporters and preventing them from donating to the Georgian Dream campaign.

The Georgian government says the Dream coalition is trailing badly in the polls and argues Ivanishvili is preparing the groundwork to protest the vote when his team loses.

“In that light, this statement to me looks like part of his international campaign to undermine the institutions,” Giga Bokeria, the secretary of Georgia's National Security Council and head of the Inter-Agency Task Force for Free and Fair Elections, told The Hill from Georgia.

“One can speculate that [Ivanishvili] is gearing up to a situation where if and when he will lose in free and fair elections he will claim that votes were stolen and prepare for the street, and claim that there was a lot of criticism and … also to create an impression in the international media that this won't be a big surprise that the elections were stolen,” Bokeria said.

Ivanishvili, for his part, says things have gotten much worse since U.S. ambassador John Bass left his post earlier this summer. His replacement, Richard Norland, is expected to arrive in Georgia on Sept. 1.

“Two months ago, they were at least respecting something,” Ivanishvili told The Hill. “The moment the [U.S.] ambassador left, the attacks and the intimidation have crossed every border.”

The government has accused Ivanishvili of rerouting his considerable fortune to the Georgian Dream campaign through other individuals, in violation of campaign finance laws. Georgian authorities have fined Ivanishvili and his supporters more than $100 million and seized the homes of 68 alleged violators who couldn't pay their fines, Ivanishvili said.

“My capital is not money. My capital is trust, which has been built for 21 years, and my biography, which is helping Georgia and all the charity which I have done,” Ivanishvili said when asked about his $6 billion fortune, which is about half the value of the national economy.

Georgia's Chamber of Audit, the equivalent of the U.S. Federal Elections Commission, says the Georgian Dream coalition spent almost 10 times more than Saakashvili's United National Movement between Jan. 1 and July 25 — with three-fourths of it coming in the form of allegedly illegal expenses.

Ivanishvili retorts that his campaign has spent only 20 percent of the allowed campaign financing limits. He says the government has no proof that Georgian Dream supporters aren't using their own money to support the opposition coalition.

To get his message across, Ivanishvili is spending more than $300,000 a month on at least four U.S. lobbying firms, according to lobbying disclosure forms filed earlier this month. The firms — Patton Boggs, National Strategies, Downey McGrath and Parry and Romani — are tasked with supporting “free and fair elections” in Georgia.

The lobbying effort, which started soon after Ivanishvili threw his hat in the ring last fall, has achieved some measure of success. In March, Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) introduced legislation to prohibit U.S. aid until Secretary of State Hillary Clinton certifies that the October elections were free and fair.

The bill went nowhere, however, and Saakashvili retains powerful friends in Washington. The leader of the 2003 Rose Revolution that toppled the authoritarian president Eduard Shevardnadze is seen as a modernizer and reformer who stood up to Russia in a brief border war in 2008.

Ivanishvili said he's well aware of the political ramifications for the United States of turning on Saakashvili, especially in an election season.

“The U.S. has made such investments in Georgia for so long, Saakashvili has been baptized as a beacon of democracy, and now they've seen the true face of Saakashvili,” he said. “It's not so pleasant to acknowledge this.”

But he said the United States was the only voice that mattered.

“Saakashvili's biggest weapon is showing that he's a democrat,” Ivanishvili said.

If the United States were to say that “it's not democracy what you're doing, the only thing that Saakashvili stands on is being taken away — he has no oil, he has no money, he has nothing.

“It's going to be impossible for him not to respect that statement.”