As Georgia prepares to dive into another stormy parliamentary vote, two men stand on the opposite shores of the bordering Black Sea, shaking their fists at one another and calling each other names. Yes, they’re at it again. Mikheil Saakashvili and Bidzina Ivanishvili, the perpetual Tom and Jerry of Georgian politics, are getting ready for another of their grand showdowns.
Three days ahead of the October-8 vote, Saakashvili’s smiling, plump face presented itself on a giant screen in downtown Tbilisi. “We may be separated by this sea,” said the 48-year-old ex-president, speaking from Ukraine and pointing at the Black Sea swishing behind him, “but my heart beats in unison with yours, counting . . . the days and seconds to our final victory.” he told a rally for the United National Movement (UNM), the party he founded and Georgia’s largest opposition group.
Vowing to end the dominance of the “Russian oligarch” Ivanishvili, Saakashvili, now governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region, signed off saying that “three days are left before I cross this sea . . .see you in a victorious Georgia!”
The oligarch in question said that a well-fitted prison cell will be ready for Georgia’s former leader should he come ashore in Georgia. “That wretch can go nowhere…He is even afraid to get stuck in an elevator because he has a fear of confined spaces,” alleged Ivanishvili, the 60-year-old former prime minister and billionaire founder and benefactor of the ruling Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia.
A Georgian opera singer did not invite a Georgian billionaire to his birthday party and now they hate each other, fighting for their country in an election campaign that is as much a battle of egos as it is a contest in lavish promises.
Declining the billionaire’s advances to team up for Georgia’s October 8 parliamentary election, renowned operatic bass Paata Burchuladze, 61, will be challenging the incumbent party, Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia, which Ivanishvili founded and brought to power four years ago.
Back then, when Ivanishvili was corralling supporters to dislodge Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, he asked the singer to join the party. “He asked for oodles of money for it and I was offended. I have obviously refused,” Ivanishvili claimed in the latest of his sit-downs with the media, meant to sway public opinion in favor of the government, widely believed to still be under his thumb.
“Could I have possibly asked for a sum that he could not afford? I must have charged a good rate for myself,” Burchuladze quipped in his dulcet bass.
It’s election time in Georgia and, once again, just like summer swallows, accusations about political pressure have returned. This time, though, they come from the head of state himself, with the chairperson of Georgia’s highest court further broadening their scope.
Such allegations come at a sensitive time for the ruling Georgian Dream, which faces an October 8 parliamentary election. The coalition came to power in 2012 after itself facing down various forms of pressure from then President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration. The group has long maintained that it doesn’t get up to the same sort of tricks.
But some seem to think that depends on the alleged violation. A senior Georgian Dream lawmaker this week suggested that President Giorgi Margvelashvili had been drunk when he claimed that a police run-in with a family member was meant to intimidate him. “He must’ve had a little too much on that day,” said Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Manana Kobakhidze.
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.
Dubbed moral terror, the latest installment of Georgia’s “sex Wikileaks,” online sex-videos that target prominent public figures, has created a sense among many Georgians of living in an Orwellian reality, where ubiquitous secret cameras record the most intimate moments of citizens’ private lives.
“Everything you do in your bedroom can be used against you,” some Georgians joked in online debates after the latest recordings appeared on YouTube on March 11 and 14. “You could be next!” warned a headline in the daily Rezonansi.
Who runs the control room in this perceived dystopia is open to debate. It is believed the security police possess a vast collection of sex-tapes, but the two videos posted since March 11 have targeted members of both the government and opposition.
The public consensus, though, clearly is that this latest video campaign was coordinated at a higher level. That puts extra pressure on the government, particularly in a parliamentary election year, to show its investigation is unbiased and thorough. It has asked for the FBI’s assistance in tracing the origin of the videos.
So far, five individuals have been arrested for alleged involvement in the scandal; one, Nikoloz Khachapuridze, is a Saakashvili-era employee of the interior ministry’s secret-police branch, the Constitutional Security Department. Another, Zurab Jamalashvili, is the father of a former employee of that same service, Vitali Jamalashvili, who came to prominence after supposedly hacking into Ivanishvili’s personal computer during the 2012 parliamentary campaign.
The Georgian government’s investigation into the shooting of a prominent opposition figure could prove this election year to be a test-case of both its ability to fight crime and its willingness to divorce politics from justice.
So far, little is known about the investigation into the February 26 shooting of Alexi Petriashvili, who served as state minister for ties with NATO and the European Union from 2012 until 2014. Petriashvili’s colleagues, citing the investigation, have declined to elaborate to media, but have expressed thanks to Interior Minister Giorgi Mghebrishvili for meeting with them and promising to commit “very serious resources” to the investigation.
The attack happened in broad daylight while Petriashvili, 45, one of the leaders of the tiny, pro-Western Free Democrats Party, was visiting the grave of a friend in an outlying section of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. One of the two unidentified male assailants held three friends of Petriashvili at gunpoint, while the second beat the former cabinet minister with a baseball bat and shot him three times with a pistol. The attackers retreated when a woman from a nearby apartment building screamed that she had called the police, Petriashvili’s friends said.
Two bullets hit Petriashvili in his legs. Fearing complications, doctors opted against removing the third bullet stuck near his kidney, but said that Petriashvili was on his way to recovery.
Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili visited Petriashvili in the hospital, while Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili met the leader of the Free Democrats Party, ex-Defense Minister Irakli Alasania, to promise a swift investigation.
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.