The Dispatch – October 14/15: Peace, Love, and None of Them

UNM, Bishops Preach Reconciliation – PM Hints (Again) Saakashvili Plotted Killings – Ugulava Fights Off Critics after Khinkali Speech – Symbols of Abuse Turn into Farce – Covid Sees New Surge in Georgia

The three most influential forces in the country – the church, the ruling party, and the major opposition party – have all been preaching peace, love, or reconciliation these days. None of them can really claim a track record in these domains… So can and will the public trust them?! Here is Nini with usual updates from Georgia.

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GIVE PEACE A CHANCE The United National Movement, the nation’s biggest opposition party, hit the streets on October 14 calling for their leader, Mikheil Saakashvili’s release from prison. The rally in downtown Tbilisi was large, with estimated tens of thousands hitting the streets. But this was primarily a pre-election affair. UNM senses it is on the ascendant, buoyed by the positive showing in the first round of local elections. So the leaders, flanked by Georgian celebrities and public figures, talked more peace than one would probably expect from the UNM. The idea of “national reconciliation” is apparently making rounds – some of the influential Bishops from the Georgian Orthodox Church broached first it upon meeting Mr. Saakashvili. Whatever one might think about the motives for any of this, the rally – gracefully – did end in peace and people went home unperturbed – a rarity in Georgian protest culture. Read the key highlights here.

PREACH LOVE The government leaders, in the meantime, did what probably is best for them at the moment: they prayed. PM Garibashvili, along with other top Georgian Dream officials, attended a church service in Mtskheta, a historic capital city near Tbilisi, to mark the Christian holiday of Svetitskhoveli cathedral. Addressing the parish from the ambo, the Prime Minister congratulated the public, and said, among others, that “more unity, more love, more peacefulness” is what the country needs today. “Thank God that everything went well so far,” he added, leaving it a puzzle what that “everything” included and for whom exactly it went so well… 

He also refrained from piling hate on Saakashvili – “I just do not want to discuss the inmate this much,” he told the journalists after leaving the cathedral. But the restraint did not hold: asked about reconciliation prospects, PM said Saakashvili arrived in Georgia pining for destabilization and contemplating “a very grave provocation”, including “carrying out killings”. That is the second time already the Prime Minister makes an accusation of Saakashvili scheming bloodshed.

LET ‘EM EAT KUCHI Not that long ago, ex-Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava made “Punch Bidzina, Elbow Misha” his (catchy) campaign slogan running for European Georgia. Those days are gone, and the prodigal son returns into the UNM fold. As a practitioner of poetic and sometimes gospel-inspired language, he already moved some fans by his touching letter to the jailed ex-President, so today it was the time of a major speech in front of tens of thousands. So what, if he tested for Covid-19 only 7 days ago (he explained later that he stopped having symptoms and consulted his doctor before coming). Standing sans mask at the podium Ugulava touched about a subject sacred for Georgians – food.

Telling the story of his martyrdom, Saakashvili said he ordered takeaway food at home before, but could only eat one Khinkali (a meat-filled, savory dumpling) before he was taken away in chains. Ugulava picked up on this story and coined an uplifting slogan “[Misha] will definitely have his Khinkali!” while menacingly adding the ruling party would have to settle for leftovers. The thing is that quite a number of Georgians love those “kuchi” – the all-dough top of the dumpling one usually leaves behind. So we would have the opportunity to find out during the Tbilisi runoff, just how influential the kuchi-eater demographic in Tbilisi is.

TRAUMATIZING FARCE The brooms came to symbolize the dark side of the UNM rule after video evidence in 2012 showed systemic torture and sexualized abuse in jails. The video, which featured brooms as torture instruments, dealt the fatal blow to the already wobbly UNM rule. Nine years have passed and the brooms are back – this time as a tasteless farce. As UNM supporters flocked to the capital on October 14, they were assailed by groups of people brandishing (apparently brand new) brooms in their hands. In Rustavi, some even got violent. The effort, which looked suspiciously orchestrated got mocked on social media. Some said the broom-wielding groups were activists and local government members corralled by the ruling party. Whatever that cringe-worthy act was, it was a mockery of the very people in whose name the Georgian Dream took power nine years and pledged to clean up the system. Now the protests seem to have come full circle.

BAD STATS As the country continues to swing between the political poles, the pandemic shows no signs of abating. The number of Covid-19 cases is spiking again, after the relative lull by the end of September. For three days in a row, Georgia recorded over 4,000 infections per day. With slightly above 30% of the grown-ups fully vaccinated, ongoing political turmoil, and upcoming runoffs, the surge is likely to continue. While the wider public saw separate tragedies over the past weeks as a big deal, dozens of daily deaths, at least some of which could have been preventable, have long become mere statistics, the acts of God, rather than the domain which people – and politics – can help address.

That’s the full lid for today. Celebrate the bizarre and the curious in Georgia’s politics with us every Tuesday and Friday!