It’s election time in Georgia and, once again, just like summer swallows, accusations about political pressure have returned. This time, though, they come from the head of state himself, with the chairperson of Georgia’s highest court further broadening their scope.
Such allegations come at a sensitive time for the ruling Georgian Dream, which faces an October 8 parliamentary election. The coalition came to power in 2012 after itself facing down various forms of pressure from then President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration. The group has long maintained that it doesn’t get up to the same sort of tricks.
But some seem to think that depends on the alleged violation. A senior Georgian Dream lawmaker this week suggested that President Giorgi Margvelashvili had been drunk when he claimed that a police run-in with a family member was meant to intimidate him. “He must’ve had a little too much on that day,” said Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Manana Kobakhidze.
The South Caucasus country of Georgia marked May 9, the day former Soviet republics celebrate the 1945 victory over Nazi Germany, with a debate about its Stalinist past and its NATO future.
As per tradition, elderly communists dusted off photos of their favorite Soviet dictator, wartime leader Joseph Stalin, as well as Soviet flags and World War II medals. Demanding the return of a monument to the Great Leader, they paraded Stalin’s bust through his hometown of Gori.
But this year they faced a rival rally, in which several rock bands performed to prove that Stalin is not the only rock star in town.
Just as the Communists marched with slogans proclaiming “Glory to Stalin!,” young activists gathered nearby with slogans declaring “Totalitarianism Kills!” and “Gori Is Not Red.” The red stars were pitted against the stars of the European Union, the place where Georgia, at least most of it, hopes to be in the future.
“The victory over fascism was undoubtedly a momentous event. Nobody denies that,” activist Nino Dalakishvili told Netgazeti.ge. “However, today when we see that [World War II] veterans are being used by political forces and these forces are being sponsored by Russia, we believe this is detrimental to our country. This is what we rally against. We want to defend our nation’s progressive, pro-Western policy.”
There are widespread concerns that Moscow, seeking a political foothold in Georgia, is enabling the growing, but still relatively marginal anti-Western rhetoric in the country.
The Georgian government’s investigation into the shooting of a prominent opposition figure could prove this election year to be a test-case of both its ability to fight crime and its willingness to divorce politics from justice.
So far, little is known about the investigation into the February 26 shooting of Alexi Petriashvili, who served as state minister for ties with NATO and the European Union from 2012 until 2014. Petriashvili’s colleagues, citing the investigation, have declined to elaborate to media, but have expressed thanks to Interior Minister Giorgi Mghebrishvili for meeting with them and promising to commit “very serious resources” to the investigation.
The attack happened in broad daylight while Petriashvili, 45, one of the leaders of the tiny, pro-Western Free Democrats Party, was visiting the grave of a friend in an outlying section of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. One of the two unidentified male assailants held three friends of Petriashvili at gunpoint, while the second beat the former cabinet minister with a baseball bat and shot him three times with a pistol. The attackers retreated when a woman from a nearby apartment building screamed that she had called the police, Petriashvili’s friends said.
Two bullets hit Petriashvili in his legs. Fearing complications, doctors opted against removing the third bullet stuck near his kidney, but said that Petriashvili was on his way to recovery.
Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili visited Petriashvili in the hospital, while Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili met the leader of the Free Democrats Party, ex-Defense Minister Irakli Alasania, to promise a swift investigation.
Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili has warned of a possible civilian conflict in Georgia after Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili termed the country's largest opposition party, the United National Movement, "a criminal organization" with “no right to remain in politics.”
"Developments in recent days have strained the political climate and created precursors to the breach of constitutional order and civil confrontation," the president said in an October 22 statement.
The prime minister's words, he underlined, have added to the tensions.
Addressing the cabinet on Thursday about the video-scandal, Gharibashvili made his views plain.
"They [UNM] should be grateful that over the last three years, people have not done to them the same thing that is depicted in these videos,” he said. “I may be a little crass, but they deserve it. They did not appreciate our [government's] democratic conduct.”
Without citing proof, he claimed that this latest police-brutality video, released on October 17 by a Ukrainian website, was distributed by the UNM itself.
Shocking footage that depicts the alleged police abuse of prisoners under Georgia’s ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili suggests that, one year ahead of its parliamentary vote, Georgia could again be in store for a no-holds-barred election season of scandalous videos. The footage went public on the same day as poll results that ranked Saakashvili’s opposition United National Movement ahead of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition.
“This is probably just a trailer; the full movie will come later,” drily remarked Tbilisi State University political scientist Kornely Kakachaia to EurasiaNet.org.
The video, which surfaced on a website in Ukraine, where Saakashvili now works as a regional governor, depicts supposed policemen allegedly torturing and sexually assaulting a man to force a confession. The case reportedly dates from 2011, when the UNM was in office.
Similar footage preceded, and, to a certain extent, caused the party’s fall from power in 2012, and helped the Georgian Dream sweep to victory.
Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili, who said that the video was found during his own 2012-2013 tenure as interior minister, claims that the scenes “demonstrated once again” that Saakashvili’s administration “was a sadistic regime.” Prosecutors are investigating the alleged abuse, while the interior ministry says it’s looking into how the footage made it online.
In a Caucasus-first, Georgia has selected a woman, 41-year-old parliamentarian Tina Khidasheli, as its prospective defense minister. The appointment, relatively unexpected until this week, comes amidst a mini-cabinet-shakeup that once again lays bare divisions within the country’s political leadership.
Khidasheli, the chairperson of parliament’s European Integration Committee, and her husband, Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili, are a power couple leading the moderate Republican Party, a gathering of pro-Western intellectuals that are members of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition.
Trained in international law, she is a fluent English-speaker, who has had brief fellowships at Yale and Georgetown Universities and worked for over a decade at the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, a reform-minded legal-watchdog. *
While Khidasheli has a prominent public presence, the exact reasons for her nomination are open to some speculation. Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili announced on May 1 that the current defense minister, Mindia Janelidze, will return to his role as head of the prime minister’s security council.
The defense ministry of Georgia will supply weapons, live ammunition and explosives to a TV channel run by the rap-artist—son, Bera Ivanishvili, of former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, the Georgian government’s alleged éminence grise.
The list of supplies includes TNT, detonators, gunpowder, machine-guns and ammunition-belts. Out of these, the defense ministry would like the machine-guns and ammunition-belts back at some point.
The TV station, GDS, does not plan to start a war. It says it needs the weaponry for two historic drama series (“Tiflis” and “Lost Heroes”). But the news raises potentially explosive questions about the conditions for the deal.
Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili, who authorized the handover, formerly served as the director of Bera Ivanishvili’s production company, Georgian Dream, Ltd,. His April-24 order for the transaction no longer appears to be accessible online.
In an interview with Liberali Magazine, "Lost Heroes" producer Davit Kelekhsashvili claimed that GDS paid the defense ministry for the supplies, but would not specify the amount.
In the latest installment in his televised current-affairs lectures, Ivanishvili on April 26 said such NGOs are biased and can’t do the right analysis. He has long deplored the supposed lack of proper analysis in Georgian media, and launched his own think-tank, 2030, and an eponymous TV show, to rectify this. (2030 stands for the year Ivanishvili expects Georgia to blossom into true, European-style democracy.)
Ivanishvili specifically targeted such major civil-society groups as the Georgian chapter of Transparency International (TI) and the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA). The former recently published a report about how employees of companies associated with Ivanishvili are taking up government posts.
The heads of these groups are now “suspected of bias and of being in synch with the [Saakashvili-led] United National Movement’s agitprop, the machine of lies,” he informed viewers.
It is a story of two presidential palaces, three nettlesome leaders and millions of wasted taxpayer money. And it has left many Georgians rolling their eyes at the government’s apparent preoccupation with petty politics rather than on such challenges as creating badly needed jobs and kickstarting the languishing economy.
But, beyond that, the palace-fight once again has focused a spotlight on the ever shadowy role of the billionaire believed to be the real power behind the Georgian government — ex-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.
A president with newly limited powers (under 2010 constitutional reforms) must be matched by a limited workspace, the thinking goes. Under Ivanishvili, Georgia purchased a 19th century downtown mansion in Tbilisi to serve as a new presidential headquarters.
But the Saakashvili palace seems to have grown on Margvelashvili and he has refused to swap offices
The government thus ended up allegedly spending 28 million lari (about $12 million) on preparing a presidential office that now has no president in it.
Billionaire ex-Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, long annoyed by the alleged lack of “correct” current-affairs analysis in Georgia, has launched a daily TV talk-show as part of his ongoing campaign to shape public opinion about the government he brought to power.
Not surprisingly, he was the first guest.
Charging that his enemies’ propaganda dominates much of Georgian television, the 59-year-old Ivanishvili, who left power in 2013, observed that “it is difficult for people to understand what is happening in reality.”
Called 2030, in honor of the year when Ivanishvili expects European-style democracy and wealth to hit Georgia, the 90-minute talkathon is intended as a counterweight to the country’s most popular TV channel, Rustavi2, a station Ivanishvili terms a “machine of lies” run by ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili and his cohort.
“It is about doing the right analysis,” said Ivanishvili, getting on his favorite soap box. He promised to use the 2030 show and an eponymous NGO to produce a new cadre of wonks to tell Georgians what’s really going on in the country.
Of course, one can’t be too careful when choosing the means for delivering such information. The ex-PM has selected GDS, an MTV-style station owned by his rapper son, Bera — an individual he presumably believes also capable of making the “right” analyses.
Ivanishvili opted against the original idea to co-host the show, but he will make frequent appearances to deliver — if the premiere is any indication — lengthy, didactic lectures as host and co-panelists nod approvingly.