Election season in Georgia can only mean one thing: a slugfest. Four years ago the nation did witness its first peaceful, post-Soviet handover of power by elections, but it has yet to experience an electoral process that does not involve broken noses. A recent brawlduring municipal council by-elections came as a troubling theatrical trailer for this fall’s main attraction, a parliamentary vote.
On May 19, outside a polling station in the western village of Kortskheli, able-bodied supporters of the Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia, the flagship party in the country’s ruling coalition, brutally beat key figures from the party’s main political antagonist, the United National Movement (UNM). UNM leaders such as Giga Bokeria, an ex-national security chief and key political strategist for former President Mikheil Saakashvili, suffered beatings. The police have launched an investigation.
The UNM still managed to prevail in that particular district, for a total of two wins overall, according to preliminary results.
The party released a list of alleged attackers, among whom were recognized martial arts professionals, including Olympic athlete Vladimer Gegeshidze, a member of the national Greco-Roman wrestling team and a European wrestling championship medalist. How these individuals happened to be in the village at the time has not been clarified.
This week’s breakup of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition has turned Georgia’s political scene into a Star Wars bar, with a slew of political forces of every description set to compete in the parliamentary election this fall.
It’s been a surprise that this unlikely alliance of ideologically strange bedfellows made it this far. Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s successful plan to build an opposition army to bring down ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili’s team in 2012 united groups and individuals with wildly incongruous philosophies and IQs. Western integration activists joined hands with Russia-nostalgic traditionalists, liberal erudites like philologist Levan Berdzenishvili sat next to actor Soso Jachvliani, who can’t tell the difference between a development bank's acronym and a Russian vulgarity for sex.
Occasional public bickering, grumblings over distribution of executive government seats and a persistent failure to speak in one voice on national issues long betrayed deep-seeded divisions in this coalition.
The Free Democrats were the first to split away in 2014 after Ivanishvili felt he could not keep in line their ambitious leader, ex-Defense Minister Irakli Alasania. Now, the biggest news is the Republican Party, pro-Western moderates, announcing on March 31 that it will run in the fall election independently from the Georgian Dream coalition.
As the country heads toward a highly contested parliamentary election, Georgia has become caught up in yet another sex-video scandal. Amidst a public outcry against the trend of using such footage to attack political opponents, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili came out on March 14 to express solidarity with those threatened by the “dark force” behind the videos and to underline that “sex and a sex life are not shameful.”
“I had, have and will have a rich sex life,” the 46-year-old president underlined in televised comments at an official meeting.
The two recordings, which appeared online on March 11 and March 14, purportedly come from a massive cache of compromising videos, allegedly maintained by the police under a succession of governments. Apparently to prevent the further dissemination of videos, access to YouTube from within Georgia was blocked for a short time on Monday.
Although Georgia is generally regarded a conservative country, public anger is directed not at the two female politicians depicted in the two recordings, but rather at the authorities, politicians and media outlets that failed to protect the identities of the individuals shown.
Civil-rights advocacy groups have called on the authorities to bring to justice those who filmed, stored and leaked these recordings.
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.
When a secret-recordings scandal hits Georgia, it can only mean one thing – an election. Georgia’s top national TV broadcaster, Rustavi2, dropped a bomb on Friday by airing leaked conversations involving big wigs from politics and business. With municipal elections around the corner next month, this could be just a teaser.
But those Georgian viewers used to more salacious or shocking revelations from past campaign seasons were disappointed this time. Nobody asked for two corpses, or used less-than-flattering epithets to describe their bosses, or revealed a Manchurian-Candidate-style collusion with Russia, the favorite plot line of secret recordings broadcast during ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili's rule.
This time around, the larger sensation is the perception that, despite a change in government, phone-tapping continues, including on top officials and perhaps just about everyone of interest.
Rights groups long have been struggling to end that alleged practice. When allegations surfaced late last year about a government-stash of black boxes, the interior ministry claimed it only listened into phone conversations during criminal investigations.
Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili on November 2 named 31-year-old Interior Minister Irakli Gharibashvili as the ruling Georgian-Dream coalition's choice for prime minister once Ivanishvili resigns later this month.
Speaking to journalists at the Georgian Dream's central office in Tbilisi, Ivanishvili described Gharibashvili as "very worthy," "very practical" and "a good manager."
"He knows the price of work," the prime minister, a self-made billionaire, said with a smile.
Gharibashvili, who, under Georgia's amended constitution, will take on broad powers formerly reserved for the president, is a newcomer to government. His post as interior minister, held for barely a year, is his first public office. A replacement has not yet been named.
While hailed by Ivanishvili for running "the most complicated structure" in the Georgian government, he has faced public criticism for an alleged uptick in crime since the amnesty of hundreds of people imprisoned under outgoing President Mikheil Saakashvili. The government denies the accusations; Ivanishvili claimed that Gharibashvili has restored public trust in the police.
Most of Gharibashvili's past career, however, has been tied to Ivanishvili himself. Before becoming a founder of the Georgian-Dream coalition in 2012, he managed the recording label for the prime minister's teenaged rapster son, Bera, and served on the supervisory board of Cartu Bank, a venture formerly owned by Ivanishvili. He also acted as general director of the Ivanishvili-financed International Cartu Charity Foundation.
Ending a political career is apparently the latest thing in Georgia. Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanshvili wants to quit; President Mikheil Saakashvili has to quit; lead presidential candidate Giorgi Margvelashvili says he may quit.
Under election law, a runoff occurs if the top candidate does not secure more than 50 percent of the vote. But to Ivanishvili,not known for his love of criticism, less-than-60-percent of the vote for his presidential protegé would be a sign that Georgian society did not appreciate the so-called tireless work he and his Georgian Dream team have been doing for the last year in office.
If the public doubts him, which Ivanishvili does not think is possible after everything he has done, then he will pack up and leave, and Margvelashvili should do the same, he concluded.
What he perceives as the price for such a move is one which might raise questions about the extent to which Ivanishvili understands Georgia’s current system of government.
With Margvelashvili and Ivanishvili gone, he reasoned, the opposition United National Movement candidate Davit Bakradze will become president, and Saakashvili will reinvent himself as prime minister.
Meant as a warning to voters, that scenario, though, is completely impossible. Georgia’s prime minister is chosen based on which party holds the majority in parliament. For the next three years, that’s Ivanishvili’s own Georgian Dream coalition.
Just in time for the elections, and after months of speculation, Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili on September 30 unveiled a multi-billion-dollar private equity fund.
The Georgian Co-Investment Fund, a $6-billion vehicle that pools funds from over ten investment groups to finance projects in agriculture, energy, infrastructure, manufacturing, tourism, and “other” business opportunities, has been lauded as the key to bolster Georgia’s rates of foreign direct investment (FDI) and economic growth.
Over the next five years, the fund plans to spend $6 billion -- potentially more money per year than the Georgian economy has received in FDI since before the 2008 war with Russia. Aside from attracting large-scale international investment, its stated intentions include increasing Georgia’s exports and local businesses’ access to financing; all among the government’s economic priorities.
There’s just one catch – Ivanishvili himself, estimated by Forbes to be worth a cool $5.3 billion, is one of the investors.
Critics worry that, with one hand managing the government and the other hand on the fund’s till, the prime minister could end up sinking into a deep conflict of interests.
You know there’s got to be a national election in the wind when a prime minister opts to take four hours out of a day to lambast political analysts on television for “improperly analyzing” his government’s alleged successes.
Eleven of Georgia’s most prominent political scientists, considered among the royalty of media and political culture, were taken to task on September 25 by a visibly upset Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili for their “incorrect” opinions on everything from the economy to his freshman Georgian-Dream coalition’s expertise in parliament.
“Experts’ words have a large importance…your words…your positions very often have influence on society…but very often I cannot agree with you,” he said in an opening remark that foreshadowed the dressing-down, staged in his personal, spaceship-style business center.
To demonstrate how carefully he apparently is watching the analysts, Ivanishvili constantly referred back to a stack of papers, quoting their words in published interviews and calling on them to account for them.
They should, he said like a participant in a Soviet-era “criticism and self-criticism” session, apply more “filters” to their comments.
One of the biggest points of contention was how the group is analyzing Ivanishvili’s plans to leave politics after the October 27 presidential elections. Statements that it could make for problems – a view also shared by the overwhelming majority of respondents in one recent poll for the National Democratic Institute – were dismissed as fiddle-faddle.
Georgia's election to pick a new president to replace Mikheil Saakashvili is still more than a month away, but, already, the ruling Georgian Dream coalition bills their candidate in promo materials as "President Giorgi Margvelashvili."
That confidence -- or arrogance, depending on your point of view -- appears, however, to stem less from any new policy proposals than from the fact that Margvelashvili has the blessing of the politician who currently rules Georgia's political roost, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.
The question is how strongly that trust will run on October 27, election day. And what will be its substitute afterwards, when, as Ivanishvili tells us, he'll be leaving office.
While Ivanishvili still ranks as the country's most popular politician (according to a July survey for the National Democratic Institute), his polling numbers -- something the prime minister views skeptically -- have been dropping steadily. Meanwhile, in casual conversations, grumbling about the lack of jobs and uncertainty over a cocksure Russia appears to have picked up pace.