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 new, dramatic twist in the standoff over Georgia’s leading national TV broadcaster Rustavi2, the Tbilisi City Court has dismissed the current management of the channel. Critics term the decision a contravention of the Constitutional Court’s earlier order that no ownership-changeover could take place until the case had gone through the appeals process.
Under the November-5 order, the station, the most prominent source of media-criticism of the government, will be transferred to the temporary care of managers and executives appointed by businessman Kibar Khalvashi, who, three days ago, regained full ownership of the channel. Since that ruling is under appeal, he himself cannot yet take control of the station.
The managers designated by the Tbilisi City Court to act in his stead are another former Rustavi2 owner, Davit Dvali, and Remaz Sakevarishvili, a former director of the privately owned national broadcaster Imedi.
At a late-night rally on November 5, Rustavi2 General Director Nika Gvaramia, flanked by his news crew, said he will not obey the court order to step down. The station accuses the government, led by the Georgian Dream coalition, and the coalition’s founder, ex-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, of trying to seize the channel and squash its critical coverage of government policies.
The order has been vocally challenged by Rustavi2’s lawyers and supporters, and prompted strong statements of concern from the US embassy and EU Ambassador Janos Herman.
With almost every day bringing a new recording about ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and friends’ alleged plans to thwart any takeover of government-bashing broadcaster Rustavi2, online parodies of the conversations have become the thing in Georgia, even as public concerns about violations of privacy are growing.
Borrowing the graphics used in the original online leaks, the send-ups replace the ex-president and his allies with various entertaining exchanges between real and fictional characters.
“Keto, I am going to come over tomorrow at dusk. Let’s try, perhaps it can work out between us,” a man called Khirkhal tells his small-town paramour in a clip ripped from the 1980 Georgian musical comedy, “Everyone Wants Love.” “Come, come through the breach in the fence, but don’t let anyone see you,” Keto whispers passionately.
While the online satires and opinion polls indicate public fatigue with Georgia’s main political forces and their ways, the original leaks paint a far less entertaining picture. “Blood will be spilt there… a hundred percent,” Saakashvili supposedly predicted in reference to the standoff around Rustavi2, a channel long sympathetic to the former president’s political base in Georgia, the United National Movement Party.
Saakashvili, now governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region, added that he is as certain of such a turn of events as the fact that he is not coriander. This herbal metaphor makes only slightly more sense in colloquial Georgian, in which it can also carry crude connotations depending on usage.
But, in any case, the turn of phrase does not appear to be helping either Misha, as he is known, or the current Georgian leader, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili, cut a particularly dignified figure.
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.
Georgia's political crisis moved into high gear on October 30 after ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was caught advising the embattled Georgian television station, Rustavi2, to barricade itself against the government’s alleged seizure plans and adopt a “revolutionary scenario.” Based on the wiretapped conversation, posted online, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili accused Saakashvili of fomenting an upheaval and vowed to “neutralize everything and everyone” threatening the country’s constitutional order.
The State Security Service early this afternoon began questioning Saakashvili’s two interlocutors, Rustavi2 General Director Nika Gvaramia and former National Security Council head Giga Bokeria, a senior member of Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM). Neither of the two men is being held. The Service already is investigating another supposed conversation between Saakashvili and Bokeria.
Driving the drama is the shortly expected verdict in a lawsuit for ownership of the Saakashvili-sympathetic television station Rustavi2, the country’s most frequently viewed national broadcaster. Station staff and supporters claim the suit fronts as a takeover attempt by the government, and that they will not recognize a court-decision that changes Rustavi2’s ownership.
With tensions escalating, the hearing on Friday was postponed until November 2.
Georgian television is now awash with the taped conversations, the authenticity of which both Gvaramia and Bokeria have confirmed. Dates mentioned in the conversation indicate it occurred some 10 days ago.
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.
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.
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.