Ministry of Culture of Georgia/ Gela Bedianashvili
This past weekend’s reopening of Tbilisi’s neo-Moorish opera house after a six-year intermission ranks as Georgia’s cultural event of the year, but it also has provided a stage for a dispute over whether the country is reviving the elitism of the Soviet past.
Grand opera events may be a preserve for the rich and powerful elsewhere in the world, but in Georgia, where fascination with the opera long has cut across class lines, many were expecting a national celebration open to anyone who bought a ticket. It was not to be.
Though a state-run facility, the theater’s January 30 red-carpet opening was invitation-only.
Decked out in their finest threads — most notably, fur coats — the carefully selected invitees featured “le tout Tbilisi" -- senior government officials, Georgian Orthodox Church dignitaries and business leaders.
How the invitation list was compiled was not clear, but the identity of the main sponsor of the estimated $40-million restoration certainly was — Kartu Group, a business and charitable concern founded by Bidzina Ivanishvili, onetime prime minister and longtime billionaire, seen as the country’s shadow leader.
Critics charge that that connection turned the season-opener performance of Georgian composer Zakaria Paliashvili’s “Abesalom and Eteri” into a partisan event that put the claustrophobically close-knit world of Georgian politics and far-reaching influence of Ivanishvili on display.
The Kartu Group even purchased made-to-order crystals from Austria’s Swarovski to restore the 120-year-old theater building’s prized, 600-bulb chandelier.
The billionaire in question, however, did not attend the opening. Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili, though, earlier had thanked Ivanishvili on national TV for underwriting the return of Georgian opera. As well he might.
Some people start off the new year with a new plan for diet or exercise, but the South Caucasus country of Georgia took a different tact. With a parliamentary election ahead, it kicked off 2016 with a new prime minister — the 48-year-old, US-educated Giorgi Kvirikashvili, a former foreign and economic development minister.
So far, however, no sign has emerged that Prime Minister Kvirikashvili intends to make sizable policy shifts. Apart from a new foreign minister (former Deputy Foreign Minister Mikheil Janelidze), the cabinet remains unchanged.
Other details also remain constant.
A longtime banking professional with a master’s degree in finance from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Kvirikashvili may want to promote start-ups, “economic development,” and political cooperation, but, like his 33-year-old predecessor, Irakli Gharibashvili, he is a company man. A Bidzina-company man, that is.
From 2006 until 2011, Kvirikashvili worked as general director of Cartu Bank, an investment bank set up by the billionaire former prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who founded Georgia's ruling Georgian Dream coalition.
Though Kvirikashvili, a former MP, is no stranger to Georgian politics, it was Ivanishvili who brought him into the cabinet — in 2012 as economic development minister; a position he held until last September, when he became foreign minister.
For many Georgians, his pick as PM is another sign of a blessing from Bidzina, the man still seen, more than two years after his resignation as prime minister, as the country's real leader.
An interview broadcast shortly after Gharibashvili’s surprise December 23 resignation doubtless did little to dispel that popular notion.
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.
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.
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.
Georgia’s top opposition-minded channel, the influential Rustavi2, claims that an October 1 court ruling that freezes a majority shareholder’s stake in the company will lead to the television station’s closure.
“Today we are as close to ceasing broadcasts as ever,” Rustavi2 Director Nika Gvaramia said at a news conference. “All sources of financing have been shut down,” he said.
A fierce critic of the ruling Georgian Dream Coalition and supportive of the opposition United National Movement, Rustavi2, the country's largest private TV station, has been bogged down in a property dispute with a former shareholder, Kibar Khalvashi, for some time. The dispute led the Tbilisi City Court first to freeze Rustavi2’s assets and, now, the 51-percent stake held in Rustavi2 by the channel’s majority shareholder company, Sakartvelo.
The freeze interrupted the sale of the company to a new owner, who, Gvaramia claimed, was planning to invest $6 million in the national broadcaster.
That new owner, Dimitri Chikovani, is the brother-in-law of ex-Defense Minister Davit Kezerashvili, a Saakashvili-era cabinet minister who was granted political asylum in France after being prosecuted by the Georgian government on various criminal charges.
He may have lost his Georgian citizenship, but even as a regional governor in Ukraine, ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili appears to be planning a comeback in Georgia.
In an hour-long interview with the ever-Misha-friendly Georgian TV channel, Rustavi2, broadcast on June 2, the former Georgian leader shared grand plans for Georgia’s future and shook his fist at back-home foes.
Yes, he said, I shall return, and “we will” bring jobs, education and dignity to Georgia, which, he claims, has "become uncool" (gabandzda) under a government of amateurs and sycophants to billionaire ex-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Yes, the seaside metropolis of Lazika, which so far exists only in Misha’s head, will be built for all the separatists to see and to be dazzled by its skyscrapers.
And, yes, he said, drawing on “very good experience in Ukraine with how to make oligarchs return their money,” he will wreak vengeance upon Ivanishvili, whom, he alleged, without offering detailed proof, supposedly has run off with billions at taxpayers' expense.
But when directly asked if he plans to lead his homeland again, Saakashvili, wearing a Georgian-flag lapel-pin, demurred. “People will vote for the man or the group who best fits their vision of what kind of country they want to live in,” he said.
Voters may have gone for Ivanishvili and the Georgian Dream back in 2012 “because they were given a hope for a better life,” he conceded, but not because, “as [Ivanishvili] thinks . . . he is so handsome and magnificent, so eloquent and educated . . . .”
The pull of sakartvelo (Georgia), though, does not come as a surprise to some regional observers.
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.