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.
A high-court decision in Georgia this week ended more than a year’s worth of pre-trial detention for a major opposition figure, former Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, but a subsequent trial judgement has sent him back to prison for a four-and-a-half-year-long stretch.
The string of events already has revived a longstanding debate about whether the rule of law does indeed outweigh politics in Georgia.
Ugulava, 40, was released late on September 17 to a hero’s welcome from fellow members of the United National Movement (UNM), former President Mikheil Saakashvili’s party and the largest opposition to the ruling Georgian Dream coalition. The day before, the Constitutional Court, the country's highest judicial body, ruled that the constitution does not allow a defendant to be kept in detention for over nine months.
Many lawyers hailed the decision as “historic” for declaring unconstitutional a criminal law provision that allowed pre-trial detention to be extended beyond nine months if new charges are brought.
Ironically, that “unconstitutional” measure was voted into law by Ugulava’s own UNM party back in 2010.
But Ugalava’s time out of jail proved brief. Late on September 18, the Tbilisi City Court sentenced the ex-mayor, once one of the country’s most powerful political figures, to 4.5 years in prison for the alleged misspending of public funds. He was acquitted on money-laundering charges.
Some ex-presidents write their memoirs after leaving office. Others hit the speaking circuit or take up painting.
Leave it to Georgia’s 47-year-old ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili, never one to do things by the book, to become, it appears, the first former head of state to give up his own country’s citizenship so that he can act as a regional governor in another country.
But Saakashvili, showing up for work in jeans on Sunday, May 31 as the new head of the Ukrainian region of Odessa, takes it in stride. Those who consider “silly” his decision to run Odessa and adopt Ukrainian citizenship should stop and think, he told Georgia’s Rustavi2 TV station.
“Under the rules established by [ex-Prime Minister Bidzina] Ivanishvili, you know what Georgian citizenship is for me today? This is six square meters [in Tbilisi’s prison #9] . . .That’s what Georgian citizenship is for me. “
In a Caucasus-first, Georgia has selected a woman, 41-year-old parliamentarian Tina Khidasheli, as its prospective defense minister. The appointment, relatively unexpected until this week, comes amidst a mini-cabinet-shakeup that once again lays bare divisions within the country’s political leadership.
Khidasheli, the chairperson of parliament’s European Integration Committee, and her husband, Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili, are a power couple leading the moderate Republican Party, a gathering of pro-Western intellectuals that are members of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition.
Trained in international law, she is a fluent English-speaker, who has had brief fellowships at Yale and Georgetown Universities and worked for over a decade at the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, a reform-minded legal-watchdog. *
While Khidasheli has a prominent public presence, the exact reasons for her nomination are open to some speculation. Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili announced on May 1 that the current defense minister, Mindia Janelidze, will return to his role as head of the prime minister’s security council.
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.
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.
In a state-of-the-nation address snubbed by Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili and his cabinet, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili on March 31 called for a more participatory democracy, and cautioned against any one group trying to lay exclusive claim to the country’s political processes.
“Improving democracy is a constant process. There never will be a time when we can say ‘Stop working on it,’” Margvelashvili said.
But the cabinet and the prime minister weren’t there to hear it. Gharibashvili, the president’s regular sparring partner, earlier had explained their absence by an alleged desire to avoid “pomp.”
Georgia’s constitution does not require the prime minister and cabinet to attend the speech, but the empty seats once again underscored a sharp, ongoing rivalry between the head of state and the head of government.
Constitutional reform in 2010 largely reduced the Georgian president’s role to a guardian of the constitution, but still left him with some key functions, such as that of commander-in-chief and the power to strike down parliamentary bills and cabinet nominations. The president is a directly elected official, unlike the parliament-appointed prime minister.
Yet critics, including opposition groups, charge that the Georgian Dream coalition and its chairperson, Gharibashvili, construe separating powers between the prime minister and president as trying to prevent the president, who no longer bears the blessing of Georgian-Dream founder Bidzina Ivanishvili, from taking part in government.
Think the Georgian government is hard up for cash? If anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International is correct, you might want to think again.
In a recent statement, the group claimed that officials failed to spend a whopping 150 million lari (roughly $68 million) budgeted for 2014 expenditures. *
It alleged that the finance ministry had attempted to conceal the scale of the underspending by listing 80 million lari (about $36 million) as a sub-item in the government’s Treasury Single Account (defined by the IMF as “a unified structure of government bank accounts”) to make sure it was not reflected in the country’s annual financial statement.
As a result, the group continued, inaccurate budget-deficit calculations were shown to the public, potential investors and international organizations.
Critics claim that the underspending, the second year in a row, shows that government departments did not keep projects on schedule or even get started with them.
“This is a new paradox that the government has money, but cannot spend it,” drily remarked Roman Gotsiridze, a head of the Central Bank under former President Mikheil Saakashvili, local media reported.
Since regaining independence in 1991, Georgia generally has had the opposite problem, he added.
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.