Thousands of Georgians on November 15 took a stand against “Russia’s creeping annexation" of breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia in a Tbilisi rally that was as much patriotic as it was partisan. The demonstration, led by the opposition United National Movement, provided a venue for many to vent their anger with Moscow’s latest plans for integration with the two separatist regions, but also offered a chance for ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili force to make a push for a comeback.
“You don’t sell your homeland for parsley,” bristled one middle-aged woman who attended the protest, speaking in reference to the Georgian government’s efforts to restore trade relations with Russia. “Nobody is doing anything to help me and my children go back to my home in Abkhazia. They are just letting it slowly slip away to Russia. All the government is worried about is how much greens and wine we can sell to Russia.”
The perceived failure by the Georgian government to come up with a meaningful response to Russia’s proposed pacts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia has stoked such resentment. That, in turn, has opened a window of opportunity for the United National Movement (UNM), Georgia’s largest opposition movement, to take ownership of the territorial integrity issue, which now rates as the country’s second-largest national concern after unemployment.
Never one to miss a rally, Saakashvili, now wanted in Georgia on several criminal charges, addressed the crowd from Ukraine via large screens. Staying true to his flamboyant speaking style, he described his arch-foe Bidzina Ivanishvili, the ex-prime minister and founder of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, as a “provincial dictator,” and described “Ivanishvili’s Georgia” as debased and degrading, to use polite terms for the actual words used.
Georgia’s beloved and hated economic guru Kakha Bendukidze has died at the age of 58 in a London hotel, leaving behind a legacy of both accomplishments and controversy.
A man of many epithets, Bendukidze was an oligarch, a scientist, a chef, an educator and a capitalist to his bones; an individual credited with helping bring the Georgian economy out of the post-Soviet pell-mell. Once one of the largest — in every sense of the word — figures in Georgian politics, Bendukidze was nabbed in 2004 by then President Mikheil Saakashvili to return from Russia, where he had run mega-heavy-machinery producer OMZ, to help overhaul the Georgian economy.
Bendukidze’s privatize-it-all philosophy, sometimes described as Bendunomics, earned him as many fans as it did ardent critics, but neither group doubted his intellect.
“Georgia should sell everything that can be sold, but its conscience,” Bendukidze was wont to say. The privatization campaign and dramatic slashing of bureaucracy did result in official double-digit economic growth rates and praise from global economic-watchdogs, but also criticism from social equality advocates.
Though a flaming libertarian, Bendukidze was bigger than just a skilled multi-millionaire, however. He was a media personality who even acted as Georgia’s Donald Trump in the Georgian version of the Apprentice show. A food enthusiast, he ran an agriculture school with cooking classes.
The government crisis that erupted in Georgia earlier in November was originally cast as a struggle over the country’s geopolitical orientation. But as time passes, it seems the real fulcrum of contention is connected with checks and balances on authority, and the potential influence of unaccountable public figures.
The United States embassy in Baku has categorically denied a report in The Times which claimed that Washington and Tehran will conduct “secret talks” in Baku this week about restoring some form of ties between the United States and Iran after an almost 35-year break.
Citing an anonymous Iranian government advisor, The Times’ Hugh Tomlinson reported on November 10 that the supposed talks would cover setting up in Tehran “an umbrella office for US trade” or, possibly, “a cultural office, purely for academic exchanges.”
The Times wrote that Mohammad Reza Sabzalipour, head of Iran’s World Trade Center, would lead the alleged talks with the US side in Baku. Azerbaijani officials so far have not made any comments.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is set to visit the Azerbaijani capital on November 12 for a state visit, but no public indication has been made that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev intends to play intermediary for the US.
In a statement to the pro-government Azerbaijani news agency Trend, however, the US embassy to Baku rejected The Times story as “completely untrue.”
“[W]e have had no conversations, and have no plans to engage in conversations, in trade talks or any talks similar to those described in this misleading news story,” read the statement, published on November 11.
Sabzalipour, however, had his own take. On November 11, he remarked that “reciprocal visits by the Iranian and the US economic delegations” are "on the agenda" of Tehran's World Trade Center. Details will be forthcoming "when the grounds are prepared," 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.
Georgia's richest man may have no formal government status, but the main characters in the country’s ongoing political drama are now busy paying visits to billionaire ex-Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Fired ex-Defense Minister Irakli Alasania had his tête-à-tête with Ivanishvili, founder of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, last night; now, Ivanishvili, generally seen as the real power behind the government, at latest report is currently meeting with Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili.
"One thing that we agreed on is to handle all political processes in a fashion that does not damage the state,” Alasania told TV reporters on November 7. “This was the gist of our conversation. We spoke of many things, but it obviously is going to stay between the two of us."
The November 6 evening meeting was at the agreement of both, he added. After being fired as defense minister earlier this week, Alasania had categorically refused to talk with Ivanishvili, who, for all his assurances that he has retired from politics, decided to drop in on a Georgian Dream meeting to discuss the coalition’s future. The meeting resulted in Alasania’s Free Democrats pulling out of the coalition and potentially leaving the group without a parliamentary majority.
Ivanishvili has not yet commented about his Alasania chat. No word has yet emerged about his talks with Gharibashvili, a former business associate.
The crisis that kicked off when former Defense Minister Irakli Alasania charged the government with trying to derail Georgia’s NATO-membership plans is all about one “adventurist, foolish, ambitious” minister, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili insisted to an early-morning cabinet-meeting on November 6.
He also accused former Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze, who stepped down following the dismissal of Alasania (her brother-in-law), of sabotage.
Many Georgians, though, suspect that the crisis has more to do with political rivalry. Gharibashvili reinforced that impression when he fumed to the cabinet that Alasania’s accusations amounted to a “betrayal” of the 2012 parliamentary victory that brought his Georgian Dream coalition to power.
Alasania’s party, the Free Democrats, yesterday left the Georgian Dream, forcing it to lose its parliamentary majority.
A full-blown political crisis is erupting in Georgia. The tumult is raising questions about foreign and defense policies in a nation that, up until now, has ardently aspired to joint NATO and the European Union.
Georgia’s NATO-membership plans have come under attack from within the the country's government itself, embattled Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania claimed on November 4, as a crisis over investigations into his ministry deepens within the ruling coalition.
Alasania, rated as Georgia’s favorite political figure, declared in a televised briefing that prosecutors’ sudden spate of inquiries into the defense ministry’s work is politically motivated. After the arrest of five former and current ministry officials last week as part of a probe into a tender, prosecutors today filed criminal charges against three army medical officers in a food-poisoning case.
“This is an attack on Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic choice. This is an attack on the agency with an outstanding record in achieving our foreign policy goals,” Alasania asserted. “I will not be intimidated by the prosecutors or by mud-slinging by certain media groups,” he added.
He challenged the ruling Georgian Dream coalition to convene to discuss in which direction the country is headed. Next to him stood State Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration Aleksi Petriashvili.
A scandal over alleged contract-rigging by Georgia’s defense ministry has become the country’s main political intrigue, with some observers increasingly worried that prosecutors could begin circling around popular Defense Minister Irakli Alasania. Some question how bona-fide the reasons for this investigation may actually be, however.
Prosecutors allege that the former head of the defense ministry’s procurement department and four current officials fixed the ministry’s call for bids to award a lucrative contract to major communications company Silknet. They maintain that the ministry agreed to an above-market offer for the bid, thereby defrauding the state of 4.1 million lari or $2.34 million.
Deputy Defense Minister Aleksi Batiashvili, named as a “close relative” of Silknet’s financial director, has been called in for questioning as a witness in the case. He has claimed that he had nothing to do with the tender, which Silknet says occurred before his appointment.
The arrests occurred on October 28, while Alasania was in Germany on an official trip. Fresh back, he immediately spoke up for the detainees. “I am confident of the complete innocence of my employees, as, obviously, I was following the procurements and I know that everything was done in full compliance with the law,” Alasania said on November 1.
That knowledge, though, has prompted a few to wonder whether the prosecutors’ interest will next turn to Alasania himself.