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.
There is a cat story that Mikheil Saakashvili, now controversially appointed as Ukraine government’s top foreign advisor, likes to tell. Back in 2003, when the soon-to-be-Georgian-President Saakashvili first walked into the presidential office, he was greeted there by a cat, a purring testimony to the dysfunctional administration of his overthrown predecessor, the late Eduard Shevardnadze. Now, as Saakashvili is tasked to help modernize Ukraine and reach out to Washington for support, the ex-president says he is again having the Shevardnadze-cat moment.
“There was no functioning pest-control service back then, so the cat stepped in” to control the Georgian government’s rampant mice population, Saakashvili reminisced in a February 17 interview in Kyiv with Rustavi2 television. There was also a bucket to collect intermittently flowing tap water and a makeshift water-heater, he continued, in a lengthy prelude to his point about fixing Ukraine.
The previous cat-in-residence could not take the pressure and “committed suicide,” jumping to her death from the 11th floor, Saakashvili claimed. Screens were put up on the windows to make sure future presidential felines did not flip.
“It is more or less the same situation here [in Ukraine]. I have seen no cat so far, but … Ukraine is just in that shape” with its obsolete, Soviet-style state institutions, said Saakashvili, who now chairs Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s international advisory council.
The Turkish and Brazilian soap operas and scandal-sheet talk shows that deluge Georgian TV might need to move aside. To help guide Georgia’s national narrative in the “correct” direction, the all-powerful Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili is making a new, “real-life” political drama series and also will host a political talk show.
The TV saga’s proposed title, 9 + 1 Years, has already drawn jocular comparisons to "9 & 1/2 Weeks," the erotic 1980s Hollywood drama that was a smash hit in the ex-USSR. But in fact, it refers mostly to the 2004-2013 rule of ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, still ex-Prime Minister Ivanishvili’s arch-nemesis . (The film may also focus on the Georgian Dream's first year in power, from 2012-2013; hence, the +1.)
The Ivanishvili-Saakashvili battle is certainly worth a dramatic interpretation, but 9 + 1 Years is expected to be a one-sided take on just how hellish Saakashvili’s nine years in power supposedly were. “Nine Years” has become a mantra that the ruling, Ivanishvili-created Georgian Dream Coalition repeats to outshout just about any kind of attack on its governance record, be it failure to fix the roads or the lethargic economy. To many observers, it also reflects the government’s failure to develop and articulate any other vision for Georgia’s future; a problem that is noted both inside and outside Georgia.
Georgia has just had a telenovela moment when a vengeful ex comes out of the woodwork. A certain Inga Pavlova, a Russian citizen who claims to be the former wife of Georgia’s perceived shadow-ruler, billionaire ex-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, has emerged from the shadows to accuse Ivanishvili of bigamy and financial funny business.
In a video posted this weekend on YouTube, the little known Pavlova announced that she intends to sue Ivanishvili, who continues to tower over Georgian politics, for supposedly using her name without her knowledge to set up companies and for divorcing her without compensation.
But Pavlova did not just air her personal grievances. She also questioned Ivanishvili's political record and praised his arch-foe, ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, who is wanted in Georgia on several criminal charges and continues to shake his fist at Ivanishvili from self-imposed exile.
Being a parent is no easy task. Obedience is key. But when it comes to criticism from his political papa, 58-year-old billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, founder of Georgia's ruling Georgian Dream coalition, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili appears willing to try and be the dutiful political son.
Following nationally televised criticism from Ivanishvili of his recent description of ex-Defense Minister Irakli Alasania as “an adventurist, foolish and ambitious,” Gharibashvili conceded in comments on November 10, that his remark, coming amidst a dramatic government shake-up last week, was perhaps a little out of line. “I, too, did not like what I said about Alasania,” he said.
He tried to amend his words after Ivanishvili, his career mentor and former boss, commented that “[e]motions must be reined in… “
Ivanishvili, though supposedly no longer interested in politics, has not restrained himself from weighing in heavily on last week’s dismissal of Alasania and the resignations of ex-Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze and State Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration Aleksi Petriashvil over Alasania's claims that NATO-membership plans are at risk.
Georgia's richest man may have no formal government status, but the main characters in the country’s ongoing political drama are now busy paying visits to billionaire ex-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Fired ex-Defense Minister Irakli Alasania had his tête-à-tête with Ivanishvili, founder of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, last night; now, Ivanishvili, generally seen as the real power behind the government, at latest report is currently meeting with Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili.
"One thing that we agreed on is to handle all political processes in a fashion that does not damage the state,” Alasania told TV reporters on November 7. “This was the gist of our conversation. We spoke of many things, but it obviously is going to stay between the two of us."
The November 6 evening meeting was at the agreement of both, he added. After being fired as defense minister earlier this week, Alasania had categorically refused to talk with Ivanishvili, who, for all his assurances that he has retired from politics, decided to drop in on a Georgian Dream meeting to discuss the coalition’s future. The meeting resulted in Alasania’s Free Democrats pulling out of the coalition and potentially leaving the group without a parliamentary majority.
Ivanishvili has not yet commented about his Alasania chat. No word has yet emerged about his talks with Gharibashvili, a former business associate.
Taxpayer-expensed Botox and hair-removal procedures are among the Georgian government’s latest charges of alleged misappropriation against ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, whose property in Georgia was seized by police late last week.
And not only his. His wife and mother’s Tbilisi apartments and his grandmother’s 17-year-old Honda Accord were among the items seized on September 19 as apparent compensation for some $5-million worth of state funds prosecutors claim the ex-president misused for things like facials, spas and fancy clothes.
The case has not yet gone to trial, but prosecutors claim that the refusal of Saakashvili, now based in Brooklyn, to face a court in Georgia justified the seizure of his wider family’s property. “[T]here was a reasonable suspicion… that he would transfer or otherwise conceal his and his associates’ property to obstruct compensating for the damage to the state,” the General Prosecutor’s Office said in a September-19 statement.
But some are raising eyebrows at that reasoning. Saakashvili’s Dutch-born wife, Sandra Roelofs, said on Friday that she had purchased her Tbilisi apartment long before her husband became president in 2004, from funds derived from the sale of another flat which her father had given her as a wedding gift.
Already facing charges of abuse of power, Saakashvili now stands accused of allegedly ordering the beating of a businessman-lawmaker nine years ago. Valeri Gelashvili, at the time an opposition member of parliament, was severely thrashed in July 2005. The prosecutors allege that the masked men involved were special police officers acting on orders from Saakashvili and then Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili in retaliation for a newspaper interview in which Gelashvili accused Saakashvili of unlawfully seizing his property and made disparaging comments about the president’s private life.
In 2005, however, the story was somewhat different. In an interview with EurasiaNet.org at the time, Gelashvili stated that the attack was related to some $2.19 million (4 million lari) that the government supposedly had owed for work his construction company, Evra, had done on Georgia’s new presidential palace.
In comments to the press on August 5, Gelashvili described himself as “thankful” for these latest charges against Saakashvili, who has been sentenced to pre-trial detention in absentia. Merabishvili, who also has been indicted, already is doing time on other charges.
The prosecutors’ statement contains no details about the corroborating evidence against either man.
Georgia is now chasing its former president, Mikheil Saakashvili, with criminal charges of abuse of authority. But the leader of the 2003 Rose Revolution has no intention of turning himself in to prosecutors whom some see as fixated on crushing the ex-president and his allies.