Dispatch – September 30/October 1: Campaign Hijackers

Hair-spinning Blast from the Past – Let LELO Keep Your Baby – Let them eat Khachapuri? Minstrel in Defense

Past has a way of catching up with you, especially if you are a politician. It’s 2021 and Georgia is going through its own Groundhog Day nightmare. Some fear, past dramas will be played out as a tragedy. Others hope, as a comedy. What we see – is, sadly, a farce. Here is Nini with usual updates from Georgia.

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SPLITTING HAIRS Is former PM-cum-opposition figure, Mr. Gakharia “a cokehead” or is he not? A grotesque controversy that – some claim – was cooked up by the Georgian Dream spin-doctors has hijacked an unjustifiably significant portion of the airtime and column inches. Mr. Gakharia has tried to put this claim to bed, so to say, by subjecting himself – and the Georgian public – with much-too-detailed data about his urine, and now his hair composition. Ze Vienneze doctor cannot lie, ja? FTC-Forensisch-Toxikologisches Labor says he is clean.

SPIN OR BUST The diligently government-bashing Mtavari Arkhi TV has aired what it says are the slides from a powerpoint presentation by Moshe Klughaft, a controversial spin doctor, who worked on the campaign of Salome Zurabishvili, a GD-backed presidential candidate in 2018. The slides recognize GD is in a tight spot and suggest a negative campaign to “undermine and discredit” the opposition. Fabricating and spinning Gakharia’s “drug problem” is explicitly mentioned. GD denies Klughaft works for them.

KIYVESE FALCON Who needs spin doctors when Mikheil Saakashvili is lurking in the wings? Georgia’s third President never lacked panache and has all the nuanced refinement of a wrecking ball in the house of cards. Being apparently on top form, he posted the Kyiv-Tbilisi one-way ticket for October 2, 2020 (that IS the election night). His hardcore fans are ecstatic; His own party, the United National Movement that spent much time trying to distance itself from Saakashvili (albeit in a crablike fashion) is grumpy; Small opposition parties are fulminating since his announcement helps the Georgian Dream to make it a Manichean showdown. Brussels is not amused either: MEP Viola von Kramon said the EU has run out of resources to mediate yet another crisis if Saakashvili arrives. Saakashvili retorted that forbidding him to return to his own homeland is “immoral”. However the October 2 flight ends, the political upheaval is already there.

BREAD & CHEESE Saakashvili faces jail once in the homeland, so the question is what brings him here. The answer may be Khachapuri, a popular Georgian specialty made of bread and cheese, at least when you believe in its magic the way Labor leader Shalva Natelashvili does: “OSCE/ODIHR has been recognizing the elections that were rigged by all [Georgian] governments for the past 30 years,” he said, adding that Georgia is in “a crisis of democracy” (well, he has a point there…). So, Natelashvili says Georgia’s ills are partly due to the “irresponsible attitude” of OSCE/ODIHR [observers] who arrive here “to eat Khachapuri and taste Khinkali” – referring to famous fixtures of the Georgian cuisine.

#MENCARE Another Khachapuri story: Mamuka Khazaradze, a banker-turned-politician leading Lelo for Georgia party, came under fire in 2019 after saying about Maia Tskitishvili, Minister of Infrastructure at the time, that she “may be good at backing Khachapuri,” but has little idea about infrastructure. Although he denied the intent, the remark came out sexist – one wouldn’t have told a male politician to go to the kitchen. But this man learns from his own mistakes. Lelo’s campaign ahead of the municipal vote is winning hearts (although, perhaps, not votes) by breaking stereotypes: first, a party led by two rich businessmen earned some applause for naming a female mayoral candidate, who – strangely enough – seems both competent and has a consistent program.

Now, the campaign videos appear featuring Khazaradze, volunteering to watch children (and to sing to them) while the parents go to vote. Men doing the parenting is their natural responsibility, some would argue, but in Georgia, the stereotypical attitudes are still responsible for leaving women alone with unpaid care work at home, sometimes along with the heavy labor they have to perform in their workplaces. In this context, the Lelo clips, whatever their pragmatic purpose, only reminded that women-specific issues have been underrepresented in the Georgian campaign.

OUT COMES THE LEDGER The decision of the Defense Ministry to sue former its former Minister Davit Kezerashvili claiming compensation for alleged misappropriate has alarmed the media. The decision came after the recent controversial ruling of the Supreme Court finding Kezerashvili guilty in embezzlement of over EUR 5 mln from the ministry. But it is the timing that matters: Kezerashvili owns a controlling stake at Formula TV, critical to the government. Heads of other two major TV channels that sympathize with the opposition also have problems with Georgian justice: lawsuits against Nika Gvaramia, director-general of Mtavari Arkhi, and Avtandil Tsereteli, and father of TV Pirveli founder, are pending in courts.

Formula TV managers worry that the court may pull the plug on them by freezing their assets on the eve or immediately after the elections. They speculate that them soliciting and publishing the Edison Research polling data (which is troubling for GD) has filled the cup of the ruling party’s patience. The Defense Ministery insisted, in a prompt statement, that it has no intention to go after Formula TV, since “David Kezerashvili has not received dividends from the said television network over the years.” As the Georgian proverb advises, we’d trust the pledge and wait for actions.

That’s the full lid for today. Enjoy the weekend and see you again post-elections!