As Georgia prepares to dive into another stormy parliamentary vote, two men stand on the opposite shores of the bordering Black Sea, shaking their fists at one another and calling each other names. Yes, they’re at it again. Mikheil Saakashvili and Bidzina Ivanishvili, the perpetual Tom and Jerry of Georgian politics, are getting ready for another of their grand showdowns.
Three days ahead of the October-8 vote, Saakashvili’s smiling, plump face presented itself on a giant screen in downtown Tbilisi. “We may be separated by this sea,” said the 48-year-old ex-president, speaking from Ukraine and pointing at the Black Sea swishing behind him, “but my heart beats in unison with yours, counting . . . the days and seconds to our final victory.” he told a rally for the United National Movement (UNM), the party he founded and Georgia’s largest opposition group.
Vowing to end the dominance of the “Russian oligarch” Ivanishvili, Saakashvili, now governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region, signed off saying that “three days are left before I cross this sea . . .see you in a victorious Georgia!”
The oligarch in question said that a well-fitted prison cell will be ready for Georgia’s former leader should he come ashore in Georgia. “That wretch can go nowhere…He is even afraid to get stuck in an elevator because he has a fear of confined spaces,” alleged Ivanishvili, the 60-year-old former prime minister and billionaire founder and benefactor of the ruling Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia.
A Georgian opera singer did not invite a Georgian billionaire to his birthday party and now they hate each other, fighting for their country in an election campaign that is as much a battle of egos as it is a contest in lavish promises.
Declining the billionaire’s advances to team up for Georgia’s October 8 parliamentary election, renowned operatic bass Paata Burchuladze, 61, will be challenging the incumbent party, Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia, which Ivanishvili founded and brought to power four years ago.
Back then, when Ivanishvili was corralling supporters to dislodge Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, he asked the singer to join the party. “He asked for oodles of money for it and I was offended. I have obviously refused,” Ivanishvili claimed in the latest of his sit-downs with the media, meant to sway public opinion in favor of the government, widely believed to still be under his thumb.
“Could I have possibly asked for a sum that he could not afford? I must have charged a good rate for myself,” Burchuladze quipped in his dulcet bass.
With a potentially game-changing cabinet reshuffle underway in Ukraine, ex-Georgian President-Turned-Odessa-Governor Mikheil Saakashvili is having a déjà- vu moment. Today’s Ukraine, with its government in limbo and much in want for change, reminds him of pre-Rose Revolution Georgia, when, as a young and cheeky justice minister, he took on the late President Eduard Shevardnadze.
Back in 2001, Saakashvili, then justice minister, upbraided Shevardnadze for not doing anything to fix Georgia’s helter-skelter, corruption-infused governance system, and quit. Now, the former Georgian leader is back in controversial stride, calling out Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on political cronyism and stasis in Ukraine, and failure to meet popular expectations for change. Saakashvili has threatened to cross over into the opposition against Poroshenko, a former university classmate, and take his team along.
At an April 11 press-conference, Saakashvili, flanked by his staff and supporters, accused Poroshenko and Ukraine’s central authorities of undermining his efforts to stomp out graft, red tape and the reign of oligarchs in the Odessa region, a promised petri-dish for nationwide reform. “Reforms delayed are reforms denied,” he said. “Not a single promise given after Maidan [the 2014 revolution also known as Euromaidan] . . . has been fulfilled.”
“If you cannot help, at least don’t hinder,” Saakashvili said, addressing Poroshenko, who, he claimed, is obstructing regional reforms by opting to maintain a balance among rivalling forces.
As of December 4, there is one less Georgian and one more full-on Ukrainian out there. The indefatigable former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has been stripped of his Georgian citizenship, but effectively keeps his job as Georgia’s long-distance opposition leader.
“They may take away my passport, but they can’t take away my being a Georgian,” Saakashvili said in a video posted on his Facebook page. Apparently speaking from Ukraine, where he serves as Odessa's regional governor, he claimed it was “Russian oligarch” Bidzina Ivanishvili, the former prime minister and founder of Georgia's ruling Georgian Dream coalition, who ordered his “incompetent, straw-grasping government” to cancel his passport, to prevent him from seeking elected office in Georgia.
Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili has indicated that he signed the decree scrapping his predecessor's Georgian citizenship in response to Saakashvili's May decision to become a Ukrainian citizen. Dual citizenship is not allowed under Georgian law, but the rule is not uniformly applied.
The temporary managers controversially appointed to run Georgia’s largest private broadcaster, the pro-opposition Rustavi2, may prove to be just that — temporary. Citing a leadership “vacuum” at the station, a collegium of judges from the Tbilisi City Court on November 12 reinstated Rustavi2’s former manager, Nika Gvaramia, and removed one of the two temporary managers.
On November 3, Rustavi2's majority owners, sympathetic to the government's main political foe, ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, lost control of the broadcaster after Tbilisi City Court Judge Tamaz Urtmelidze awarded it to a former owner, Kibar Khalvashi.
Georgia's highest judicial body, the Constitutional Court earlier had ruled that no changes should occur until the case had gone through appeal. Judge Urtmelidze's November-5 decision to install, nonetheless, two managers to oversee the ownership-change appeared to defy that ruling, critics alleged.
Yet the 28-member collegium’s decision is not a complete reversal of his ruling, however. Though it ditched former Rustavi2 owner Davit Dvali as a temporary manager, it left in place Revaz Sakevarishvili, a former TV executive at the pro-government national broadcaster Imedi.
Reasons for that exception were not given. No mention was made of Rustavi2’s former financial director, Kakha Damenia, who also lost his job under Judge Urtmelidze's November-5 ruling.
In the commission’s telling, the question mark over the identity of Rustavi2’s legally authorized managers “creates a real threat” for the " suspension of its broadcasting functions,” if no duly empowered representative exists to meet regulatory and contractual commitments. The statement makes no explicit mention of revoking Rustavi2’s license.
A November-3 court ruling specified that the station, strongly sympathetic to the government's best known critic, ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, be turned over to a former owner, Kibar Khalvashi. Two days later, despite a higher-court ruling that no ownership changes could occur while appeals were pending, the Tbilisi City Court removed Rustavi2’s general director, Nika Gvaramia, and appointed two “temporary managers” -- former owner Davit Dvali and TV executive Remaz Sakevarishvili -- to oversee the station's handover.
This last decision sparked sharp statements of concern about media-rights from Georgia's closest Western allies, the European Union and the US. On November 11, the Constitutional Court, Georgia’s highest judiciary body, will begin reviewing the grounds for the Tbilisi City Court’s appointment of the two interim managers.
With almost every day bringing a new recording about ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and friends’ alleged plans to thwart any takeover of government-bashing broadcaster Rustavi2, online parodies of the conversations have become the thing in Georgia, even as public concerns about violations of privacy are growing.
Borrowing the graphics used in the original online leaks, the send-ups replace the ex-president and his allies with various entertaining exchanges between real and fictional characters.
“Keto, I am going to come over tomorrow at dusk. Let’s try, perhaps it can work out between us,” a man called Khirkhal tells his small-town paramour in a clip ripped from the 1980 Georgian musical comedy, “Everyone Wants Love.” “Come, come through the breach in the fence, but don’t let anyone see you,” Keto whispers passionately.
While the online satires and opinion polls indicate public fatigue with Georgia’s main political forces and their ways, the original leaks paint a far less entertaining picture. “Blood will be spilt there… a hundred percent,” Saakashvili supposedly predicted in reference to the standoff around Rustavi2, a channel long sympathetic to the former president’s political base in Georgia, the United National Movement Party.
Saakashvili, now governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region, added that he is as certain of such a turn of events as the fact that he is not coriander. This herbal metaphor makes only slightly more sense in colloquial Georgian, in which it can also carry crude connotations depending on usage.
But, in any case, the turn of phrase does not appear to be helping either Misha, as he is known, or the current Georgian leader, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili, cut a particularly dignified figure.
In a controversial ruling,Tbilisi City Court Judge Tamaz Urtmelidze ruled on November 3 to restore the ownership rights of former co-owner Kibar Khalvashi to Rustavi2, Georgia's main broadcasting outlet.
Rustavi2's counsel, Zaza Bibilashvili, told the TV station he plans to appeal the decision.
The lawsuit has been at the center of a months-long struggle that has accerbated a bitter political crisis between the ruling Georgian Dream and former President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement, which claims that the lawsuit serves as a government-takeover. Khalvashi maintains that he only wantes to restore the rights he supposedly illegally lost during Saakashvili's first, 2004-2008 term in office.
Georgia's political crisis moved into high gear on October 30 after ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was caught advising the embattled Georgian television station, Rustavi2, to barricade itself against the government’s alleged seizure plans and adopt a “revolutionary scenario.” Based on the wiretapped conversation, posted online, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili accused Saakashvili of fomenting an upheaval and vowed to “neutralize everything and everyone” threatening the country’s constitutional order.
The State Security Service early this afternoon began questioning Saakashvili’s two interlocutors, Rustavi2 General Director Nika Gvaramia and former National Security Council head Giga Bokeria, a senior member of Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM). Neither of the two men is being held. The Service already is investigating another supposed conversation between Saakashvili and Bokeria.
Driving the drama is the shortly expected verdict in a lawsuit for ownership of the Saakashvili-sympathetic television station Rustavi2, the country’s most frequently viewed national broadcaster. Station staff and supporters claim the suit fronts as a takeover attempt by the government, and that they will not recognize a court-decision that changes Rustavi2’s ownership.
With tensions escalating, the hearing on Friday was postponed until November 2.
Georgian television is now awash with the taped conversations, the authenticity of which both Gvaramia and Bokeria have confirmed. Dates mentioned in the conversation indicate it occurred some 10 days ago.
Georgian officials on October 26 launched an investigation into an obscure website’s claims of a supposed coup attempt by former President Mikhail Saakashvili and former National Security Council Secretary Giga Bokeria. The investigation comes amidst stepped-up surveillance of a leading opposition TV channel sympathetic to the former president.
Georgia’s political fights generally escalate overnight, with plot accusations, allegedly leaked conversations and gruesome, incriminating videos everywhere. The country is now having one of those moments — the government speaks of a coup conspiracy and the opposition of a deliberate campaign to be pushed out of the political arena ahead of a national election. Some see the developments an early start of Georgian-style campaigning for next year’s parliamentary vote.