Georgia’s ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili is still in business doing two things he likes most – making speeches at protests and fighting his nemesis, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. This time, he got to do them both in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, where street protests continue to boil.
“Hello, Ukraine!” he said in Ukrainian on December 7, addressing thousands of demonstrators gathered in the city's Maidan Nezalezhnosty or Freedom Square to push the Ukrainian government into a rethink about giving Russia precedence over the European Union. “I’ve come here… to the beating, living and singing heart of Europe,” he went on.
Consulting a written text (Ukrainian is not known to be one of the multi-lingual Saakashvili's strongest languages), the leader of Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution told demonstrators that "you are defending not just your future, the future of Ukraine, but also the future of all of us, all the freedom-loving nations of the region and the world."
If the European Union can prevail in Ukraine over Moscow, he argued, it can prevail also in Georgia, Moldova and elsewhere in the ex-Soviet world.
With Ukrainian opposition leaders Vitali Klychko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk by his side, he called for a united front against Putin's Russia, which, he claimed, is trying to gobble up one country at a time.
“The Ukrainian triumph will end the era of Vladimir Putin, and the end will start here, on this very square,” he said to ovations from the crowd. (Next stop for Misha: Moldova.)
Georgia’s chain of public-service halls – a fast-food-style dispenser of everything from ID cards to property registrations – broke a mold in the post-Soviet world, where taking care of such tasks usually means taking a long journey though the labyrinths of government bureaucracy. The bold undertaking had been an achievement of ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili that has weathered the country's ongoing storm of revisionism. But it couldn't handle an actual storm.
The company that constructed the Tbilisi House of Justice was not chosen through an open tender, but via direct contracting; a practice that "is likely to result in wasteful spending, as there is no opportunity for another qualified bid for the same contract to bring down the price,”, the Georgia chapter of anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International argued at a December 6 presentation.
In 2012, under former President Saakashvili, the government dished out 1.17 billion lari (about $700 million) to companies under such contracts; an amount equivalent to "4.7 percent of the Georgian economy," according to TI. The deals "accounted for 18 percent of all government spending . . ."
Georgians long have claimed that their calls were monitored for political-control assurance, but turns out they have Swedish telecommunications-technology giant Ericsson partly to thank.
Following an October 30 report by Swedish public radio, Ericsson told Agence France Presse (AFP) that it had sold phone-surveillance technology to Georgia’s Geocell, a privately owned cellular operator, back in 2005. The company maintained, however, that the equipment was meant as an anti-crime tool, though acknowledged that the Georgian government "allegedly use it" for illegal wiretapping.
Publicizing tapped private conversations has been a tried political weapon in Georgia. In the heyday of outgoing President Mikheil Saakashvili's era, everytime the political temperature went up, secretly recorded conversation were dumped online or aired on TV. In 2007, when police clashed with protesters in Tbilisi, tapped phone calls became a soundtrack to the authorities’ claims about a Kremlin-orchestrated conspiracy to bring down Georgia's pro-Western government.
While still a government opposition leader, Mikheil Saakashvili addresses supporters after storming the Georgian parliament building on Nov. 22, 2003, to demand the resignation of then President Eduard Shevardnadze.
Nearly ten years ago, Mikheil Saakashvili, with crowds of supporters in tow, forced his way into the Georgian parliament in Tbilisi, brandishing a red rose and screaming “Resign!” at his former benefactor, President Eduard Shevardnadze, who, ignoring the revolution happening outside, was busy welcoming in a questionably elected parliament. Since then, Saakashvili, known to friends and foes alike as Misha, has kept storming into places.
An indefatigable modernizer, Misha ran around the country, busting corrupt and loafing officials, driving race cars and tractors, opening and closing enterprises, and bulldozing over everything that stood in his way, be it enemies or buildings. And he went about it with his trademark goofy giggles and out-of-control forelock. His outsized personality dominated Georgian politics for a decade, making for what might be called the Age of Misha.
To remember this era, we have, with contributions from readers, compiled a list of what might be termed the top-five styles of Misha. Even with a new president to be elected in Georgia's October 27 elections, he will not easily be forgotten.
In what is being touted as proof positive of the independence of Georgia's judicial system, a court in Tbilisi on August 1 cleared Georgia’s most controversial man, former Defense Minister Bacho Akhalaia, of charges of physical abuse and torture. The verdict comes as a blow to Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream Coalition and government prosecutors, who have campaigned rigorously against the 32-year-old onetime minister.
Akhalaia had been rumored among many Georgians to be an allegedly abusive prison warden when he served as chief of the penitentiary system under President Mikheil Saakashvili. Such accusations followed him to the posts of defense and interior ministers; he resigned the latter post when revelations of the heinous abuse of prisoners sparked mass demonstrations last fall. The scandal is believed to have significantly contributed to the loss of President Saakashvili’s United National Movement to Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream Coalition in last October’s parliamentary vote.
In a widely expected move upon coming to power, the Ivanishvili government arrested Akhalaia in the first of what UNM members denounced as high-profile, politically motivated arrests. After five months of hearing evidence, the court today dropped several charges involving the abuse and illegal incarceration of military officers, but Akhalaia remains in prison pending trial on other charges of abuse and torture stemming from his time as prison-system chief and interior minister.
Georgia’s euphoria over its new prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, appears to be losing steam a bit, but Ivanishvili's team remains heads and shoulders above all other political alternatives ahead of October's presidential election, an opinion poll commissioned by the National Democratic Institute suggests.
Georgia’s fervor for Ivanishvili has been slowly scaling back from over 80 percent of respondents in November, just after he entered office, to 75 percent in March, and, finally, to 69 percent in June, according to National Democratic Institute (NDI) surveys.
Approval of the job he is doing, separate from evaluations of the billionaire prime-minister as a personality, is slightly lower, at 55 percent of the 2,388 respondents surveyed.
Juxtaposing Ivanishvili’s approval ratings with Georgians’ current concerns could provide hints about the dynamic.
Providing jobs and overcoming poverty are the biggest concerns, the areas where respondents think the government did the least impressive job of living up to its promise, whether perceived or real. Earlier, many Georgians (sometimes it seemed like almost every Tbilisi cab driver) had an expectation that Ivanishvili’s vast fortune would somehow trickle into their pockets or that the prime minister's past entrepreneurial flair would translate into more jobs. But with the economic miracle still waiting to happen, Georgians with the shortest tempers and highest expectations could be losing their patience.
Growing prices and criminality levels come next on the list of Georgian concerns and perceived government inability to tackle these issues could also have corroded Ivanishvili’s political standing. His performance was rated as the poorest on these four counts, while it got the highest numbers for dealing with the Russian problem and healthcare.
With Georgia's politicians long accustomed to describing each other as devils, demons and all things beside, it is, perhaps, only fitting that the election for the country's next president will take place on Halloween.
Georgians are not likely to hit the polls in costumes, however. The Halloween tradition is still only just beginning to emerge here -- primarily in Tbilisi -- over the objections of the Georgian Orthodox Church. But the timing will add to the suspense.
By law, President Mikhail Saakashvili was required to set the day for the vote sometime in October. And, obliged to step down after two terms in office, he has chosen to hold on to power until the last constitutionally allowed day, October 31.
But, the Halloween backdrop aside, some local commentators believe that the election is going to be the least eventful presidential vote since Georgia regained its independence in 1991.
Thanks to constitutional reforms, whoever becomes the new inhabitant of Tbilisi's glass-domed, cliff-top presidential palace will be much weaker than his or her predecessors. The key powers will be concentrated in no less glassy a palace on the opposite hill, the dwelling place of Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Alleged terror plots, thwarted by Georgian police, have became a fresh stick with which to bash political rivals in divided Georgia. But any link between the supposed plots and a recent YouTube video threatening retribution against Georgia for its participation in NATO's Afghanistan campaign remains unclear.
Police on June 13 recovered a significant stash of explosives and firearms from a Tbilisi apartment and arrested two men for allegedly plotting an act of terror, the interior ministry said. The two men, Mikail Kadiev and Rizvan Omarov, have Russian passports, and are presumed to hail from Russia's North Caucasus.
It's not often that a prime minister of one country announces his citizenship in another country to justify addressing an international body in a language other than his own.
But when the prime minister is Georgia's Bidzina Ivanishvili and the venue is in Europe, what matters is showing you can fit in.
And so, at his April 23 début before the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Ivanishvili, "as a citizen of France . . . ," spoke to the European parliamentarians in French before switching into his native Georgian.
If the PACE deputies, who politely applauded his French intro, found his citizenship odd, it did not register.
After a long and bitter fight to regain his Georgian citizenship, Ivanishvili announced in February that he still is not a Georgian citizen. For that reason, he says, he has not, as previously expected, renounced his French citizenship, which, he claims, under Georgian law, allows him to remain prime minister.
Now it could, conceivably, also provide him with a useful PR tool.
Throwing in a little French, heavily accented as it was, may well have been meant to help make a good first impression at the gathering, and add, along with his profession of French citizenship, a slight punch to the pledges that he will keep Georgia on the track to European and trans-Atlantic integration.
In the Caucasus, Georgia is often seen as spoiled for choices. But, for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and his United National Movement, the big choice boils down to just one: with the West or against it.
Or, in other words, with the United National Movement (UNM) or against it. At an April 19 rally in downtown Tbilisi meant to prove to Georgia that the former ruling party is still a political force with which to be reckoned, President Saakashvili whipped up hundreds of supporters with memories of the Russian army's invasion of the country in 2008, and the world’s support for Georgia.
Leveraging lingering fears that Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili is driving Georgia away from the West, Saakashvili called on Georgians to “make a choice” against occupation.
“I want to say that the Georgian people will choose, not between traitors and half-traitors, but between patriots and even bigger patriots,” he said, speaking to a crowd that stretched down Rustaveli Avenue for more than a block.
“If we choose dishonorably, we will receive complete occupation,” he asserted. (Tbilisi argues that the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, housing thousands of Russian troops since the 2008 war, are under occupation.) “If we stand with honor, we will free the entire country.”
Anticipating the punch, a session of leaders from Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition had taken to the airwaves before the rally to remind voters that they firmly support membership in the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.