Five years ago Donald Trump and Georgia's then President Mikhail Saakashvili stood together to promote the construction of a Trump project in Batumi. For many of us this was just another act of disingenuous Saakashvili showmanship. By then, Trump was a brander, not a builder. The contract would have paid Trump for the use of his name with the then real estate developer turned reality television star putting up no money of his own. The whole thing seemed like a press event aimed at helping Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) in a tough parliamentary campaign.
A long piece in this week’s New Yorker by Adam Davidson suggests there was a lot more to the deal than that. The piece itself is worth reading in its entirety, but the takeaway is that the Batumi project, which remains unbuilt, was part of a murky network of Trump related, self-dealing, money laundering and general sleaze. In 2012, few who watched that media event in Batumi would have thought that Donald Trump would be President of the United States one day. Because he is now President, that deal and other somewhat similar Trump projects in Azerbaijan and elsewhere will receive more scrutiny by the media and probably by special investigator Robert Mueller as he probes Trump’s ties to Russia as part of his investigation of Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 American election. Trump’s project in Batumi is a residue from another era of Georgian politics and a reminder of some of the often overlooked problems of that period. It may end up at the center of an investigation that could either bring down the American President. It also could be quickly forgotten as Robert Mueller III’s investigation either moves in another direction or is prematurely terminated by an increasingly desperate and embattled President.
The New Yorker article will not change anything in American politics, at least right away, but it has introduced Trump’s short-lived Batumi project to a larger audience than was previously aware of it. Davidson's article will also heighten awareness of Trump’s shady dealings in the post-Soviet region more generally. The timing of the piece is also interesting as it was published a few weeks after Saakashvili was stripped of his Ukrainian citizenship. That occurred while Saakashvili was on his way to the US, so in the initial days following that event, Saakashvili was in the US contacting American media and political figures while once again trying to restart his political career. He did all that while continuing to try to thread the needle of being both a staunch foe of Russia's President Vladimir Putin and an obsequious Trump apologist. It also occurs only a few weeks after Vice President Michael Pence’s trip to Georgia that was by any measure a successful event for Georgia, but also was not a major story in a very cluttered American media environment.
Given all this, it sometimes feels like Georgia is stuck in some sort of geopolitical Groundhog Day where it is always, at least in part, 2012. The political debate that dominated that election cycle is no longer relevant in Georgia. Its persistence in campaigns and politics more generally hinders Georgia’s advancement and political development. Moving beyond that dynamic is essential for Georgia’s future, but recent events have conspired to drag 2012 back into, if not the center, than an important periphery of Georgia’s political life.
This amounts to something more than a distraction, but well less than a crisis for Georgia and the Georgian government. Saakashvili may continue to peripatetically move between Eastern Europe and the US, but at this moment he is little more than a gadfly in a harried and stressed American media and political environment. He will appear on the occasional news broadcast and around right wing media and politics, but is unlikely to get much traction in Washington. Similarly, the moribund Trump project in Batumi will continue to be investigated and perhaps even written about, but it will not be at the center of American or Georgian political life.
Nonetheless, neither of these stories are good for Georgia. The Batumi project, if it draws continued attention in the west, could influence how many think about Georgia. For well over a decade, Georgia has worked hard to reduce corruption and present itself to the west as distinctly not another corrupt post-Soviet state where murky business dealings occur with a nod from the highest level of government. The New Yorker story, sadly, describes just that. There is much more to Georgia than one development project, but that project may help define Georgia to many in the west. Similarly, Georgia is a much different country than the one Saakashvili describes to western media, but now that he is without a job or country, he may devote more time to promoting his own version of Georgia. None of this, even in slight doses, is good for Georgia.
There is perhaps some good news in the confluence of these two stories. A relatively high profile article highlighting corruption in Saakachvili’s Georgia may reduce the ability of Georgia’s erstwhile president to get attention from the media and political elites in the west. It is apparent that Saakashvili does not benefit from Trump’s project in Batumi being in the news. For longtime obersvers of Georgia’s former president one of the most striking sentences in Davidson’s piece was “Saakashvili did not respond to requests for comment.” Over the years, Saakashvili has been accused of being many things, but not media shy. If Saakashvili didn’t want to discuss this project, it is very likely he knows it is not a good story for him. On the other hand, Saakashvili is clever enough to note that the New Yorker article is a reminder that he and Donald Trump were once close and to recognize how he might be able to parlay that in the US.
Embarrassing the already discredited former President may assuage the most virulent anti-Saakashvili forces, but it does not solve the problem these developments pose for Georgia. It will still be necessary to explain to investors and others who are interested in Georgia, that the Trump project in Georgia occurred while a different government was in power and that the project was never built. However, it is still one more unnecessary red flag to potential investors. It also may not entirely put their minds at ease, as several of the interests described in the New Yorker story are still active in Georgia.
These stories occur after several years of Georgia rebranding itself in western media. During this period, Georgia has sought, successfully, to appear more in the blogs, websites and newspaper sections covering food, design, wine, tourism, fashion and film rather than the hard news sections where countries like Georgia tend to only get covered during times of international conflict or domestic instability. This strategy, essentially employing Georgia’s frequently underrated soft power, has paid off in the form of increased tourism, some foreign investment and an expanding reservoir of good will. The Batumi story is a blow to this, but one whose overall impact is not yet clear.
These developments also demonstrate the ongoing challenge for Georgia raised by Donald Trump’s presidency. Tbilisi needs to remain close to the US and to strengthen the ties that have long existed between Georgia and the American foreign policy establishment. However, they must do this while keeping a healthy distance from Donald Trump personally, not least because of how extraordinarily unpopular he is in the US. That unpopularity is now at the point where countries seen to be courting Trump risk damaging their standing with the rest of the American public. This is why the Batumi story is so potentially damaging. A cursory read, that does not recognize the extent to which these events are in the past, could link Tbilisi to Trump in the eyes of readers.
There is nothing the Georgian government can do about a strange deal involving Saakashvili and Trump five years ago. They can, however, make sure the deal does not get revived, because if it does it will be interpreted as a clumsy effort to curry favor with the American president. Doing that is unnecessary and would undermine the strong ties Georgia enjoys with many other US foreign policy actors. Similarly, there is nothing the Georgian government can do about its former President turned stateless gadfly as he seeks to spin out self-serving analyses of Georgia, Ukraine, Russia and Donald Trump. However, the Georgian government must recognize where this might lead and be prepared to actively demonstrate that the era described in Davidson’s piece, and the leaders associated with that era are indeed unambiguously part of Georgia’s past.
The Georgia Analysis is an occasional analysis of political and other major developments in Georgia. Lincoln Mitchell is a political development, research and strategic consultant who has worked extensively in the post-Soviet region. You can follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell. If you would like to be on the Georgia Analysis mailing list or are interested in more research, analysis or consulting for your business, government, campaign or other organization, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.