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.
Anyone out there interested in buying a troubled television station for a third of its market value? Well, the family of Georgia’s Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili has one to sell. The channel comes with state-of-the-art equipment and has a successful record as a political campaign tool. The prime minister may be willing to throw in a news agency, too, as a lagniappe.
The signal for Tbilisi-based TV9 went static on August 19 after barely a year and a half on the air. Ivanishvili went through fire and water last year to create the national channel, owned by his wife, Ekaterine Kvedelidze, and Kakha Kobiashvili, a relative of Ivanishvili.
The station was intended to insert a dose of criticism into the airwaves then dominated by broadcasts friendly toward President Mikheil Saakashvili. The news channel may have helped bring Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream coalition to power, but has since become a money pit and source of awkwardness for the prime minister.
“I have always believed and I still believe today that national leaders should not own television stations,” Ivanishvili said, Netgazeti.ge reported. “As I said many times before, it puts me personally and my family in an awkward situation."
After the 2012 parliamentary elections brought the Georgian Dream to power, the prime minister's family "wanted to sell TV9 and Info9 news agency, but out of responsibility and respect for journalists and other employees we extended its operations for 10 more months.”
But enough is enough. Ivanishvili, who has pledged to leave his post by the end of the year, said he can’t continue spending a million dollars a month to keep the station alive.
Yep, says Georgia’s Bidzina Ivanishvili, who apparently views the prime minister’s position as a temp job. Before and since coming to power late last year, Ivanishvili has kept saying that his time will be short. Now, in a recent interview with the EUobserver, he has put a specific timeframe to it -- he is going to fix everything he promised to fix and quit before New Year's.
The early exit strategy appears to be Ivanishvili’s way of showing that power does not mean much for him and that he does not intend to hold on to it like certain someones before him. This might set a welcome example for Georgian politicians, but the bigger question is if he can get the job done.
Items on his daunting to-do list include eliminating elite corruption, fixing the economy, patching up things with Russia, and joining NATO, among others.
During last year's parliamentary election campaign, Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream Coalition invited citizens to write down and submit their dreams for the billionaire to review. Perhaps an effective campaign tactic then, now it could be part of the reason the Georgian Dream is losing some of its luster among voters.
Polling data suggests that jobs were and remain the biggest concern for Georgians. And the economy is one area where, according to government data, the Ivanishvili cabinet has not yet delivered on any dreams.
The economy shrank by 0.8 percent in the first six months of 2013, compared with the same period last year, according to GeoStat, while the number of registered businesses declined by 17 percent. Unemployment, meanwhile, remains at 15 percent, officially, but upwards of half of the working-age population, unofficially. Those employed earn the lari-equivalent of just $433.76 per month, on average.
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.