Incoming Georgian President-Elect Giorgi Margvelashvili will move into the same office building where outgoing President Mikheil Saakashvili started out before migrating to a perky clifftop palace. But unlike Saakashvili, Margvelashvili will not find a cat there.
In a rhapsodic farewell address on October 28, Saakashvili reminisced about finding a stray cat luxuriating in Georgia’s rundown, mice-infested presidential quarters when he first moved in as president in 2004.
“We looked at each other and for a split second we regretted entering these offices,” Saakashvili said of his colleagues. Nearly ten years later, though, he continued, “the new ministers and the new president are moving into totally different buildings and offices, rule a totally different country and are responsible for totally different institutions.”
President-Elect Margvelashvili, however, does not plan to take up residence in the “totally different” presidential palace that Saakashvili built; a structure with a see-through dome and plenty of room to swing a cat.
Rather, Margvelashvili is moving into the very building where cats and mice once greeted Saakashvili. A Soviet-era concrete box, the seat of Saakashvili’s predecessors, Eduard Shevardnadze and Zviad Gamsakhurdia, it will provide temporary office-space for the president until the makeover of a 19th-century mansion in downtown Tbilisi is complete.
Unlike Saakashvili, the new president is not taking over a bankrupt country. But, nonetheless, the government appears keen to emphasize its allegedly more modest ways.
An outraged Finance Minister Nodar Khaduri claimed on October 30 that Saakashvili supposedly left Margvelashvili a nearly empty presidential fund, a kitty which the Georgian-Dream-controlled parliament itself downsized last year.
“Mikheil Saakashvili left only about 5,000 lari (about $3,100) in the presidential reserve,” fumed Khaduri. Consequently, Margvelashvili will have to get the cash for the inauguration ceremony from different state funds, he asserted.
Amidst these parting jabs, Saakashvili, though, appears to have learned – to some degree – to hold his tongue. In his adieu, he called for national reconciliation and did not make any mordant remarks about his successor or Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.
But also did not exactly wish them the best of luck. Rather, he instructed Georgians not to become toys in the hands of a single leader or certain, ahem, billionaires.
He defended what some would term his breakneck ways with reforms, arguing that there was no time for second thoughts. He had had to move fast, he claimed, to bring the country out of a national identity crisis and post-Soviet hangover.
And he vowed to stand by his allies, many of whom are facing criminal prosecution now and could be indicted in the future for past sins. Two of the former muscles of Saakashvili’s administration, ex-Defense Minister Bacho Akhalaia and ex-Interior Minister Vano Merbashvili (also the head of the president’s United National Movement party) are in prison. The day after Georgia’s October 27 vote, Akhalaia was sentenced to up to four years in prison for the alleged abuse of inmates during a previous stint as prison chief – the timing of the sentence, some feel, was not coincidental. Merabishvili is still awaiting a verdict on charges of misusing public funds.
Meanwhile, National Security Council Secretary Giga Bokeria, who answers to the president, is about to quit and nine pro-Saakashvili governors have already resigned en masse. Media suggested that Bokeria’s replacement may be controversial Georgian-Dream parliamentarian Medea Imerlishvili, better known as a former senior official in parliament's administration than as a security ace.
With all these changes afoot, it looks indeed like the time has come, as the president said, for Georgia “to take a break” from him. Regrets he’s had a few, as Frank Sinatra would sing, but, still, he did it his way.