The Dispatch – October 21/22: Business as Usual

Melia’s Shadow Cabinet and Those Pushed into Shadows – PM Levels Accusations against Khazaradze – UNM’s New Promise Turns Campaign Upside Down – Minister Talks Transferring Saakashvili to Prison Hospital, Lawyers Protest

Georgia’s largest opposition delivered a campaign upset by banding with other leaders, forcing GD to respond and catch up. In the meantime, PM has been channeling pure and blind anger. Here is Nini with usual updates from Georgia.

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IN THE SHADOWS In a glitz ceremony late on October 20, Nika Melia, chairman and Tbilisi mayoral candidate of the United National Movement, presented what they call a “shadow coalition cabinet to lead the capital city. It was the leaders’ galore: Mamuka Khazaradze of Lelo, Zurab Japaridze of Girchi More Freedom, Elene Khoshtaria of Droa, and Irakli Abesadze were promoted as prospective Deputy Mayors. Yes, their parties did badly, but UNM pitches to the undecided “middle-of-the-road” voters that their pledge to never rule alone again is true. And yes, as the current Mayor, the ruling party frontrunner Kakha Kaladze was quick to point out, even if Melia wins, the opposition can’t confirm this “dream team,” since GD already holds 28 mandates in a 50-person council (Sakrebulo), and will fight for one more in a runoff. But it is the symbol that mattered: UNM will share power. (Also, the lawyers pointed out, Melia may appoint his chosen candidates without approval, for a 3-month term, and then rotate them again).

GD leaders tried to play the event down, saying this was the UNM wayward splinters’ reunion. But even if that is technically true, MP Khazaradze is the odd man out. Enter Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, who has been blowing hot and cold lately: he claimed that Khazaradze, a former banker, “has always been a loyal servant” to “criminal” ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili. The PM further accused the MP of having committed “grave financial crimes” in the past, including in participating in forceful business takeovers or helping the state to rob businessmen by registering “fictitious” loans during UNM rule. In response, Khazaradze’s Facebook page posted an archive video of PM Garibashvili praising his bank’s contribution to Georgia’s economy back in 2014.

WHO ELSE IS COMING? The UNM-centered show of unity put the party leaders into the spotlight but pushed those parties’ original hopefuls into the shadows. Lelo’s mayoral candidate Ana Bibilashvili was expected to take the position – she now had to settle for the architecture department. Tsotne Koberidze – a young libertarian from Girchi – More Freedom who, owing to party democracy, was picked as the single vice-mayoral candidate was now replaced by party leader Japaridze. Khazaradze came out later saying he himself offered his candidacy under the condition that Japaridze and Khoshtaria would also be in the game – so in a way, it is only fair that libertarian Koberidze was sold out by the big capital after all… And when the stakes are high and the chips are down, the new faces must leave it to those who know better, right?!

THE KIDS AREN’T ALL RIGHT Girchi’s Japaridze looked the most awkward throughout the presentation. Besides pushing Koberidze aside – he may now have to back Melia’s main campaign promise – free lunches for schoolchildren. The UNM banners that popped up on October 18 in Tbilisi bearing this promise, sparked heated political, ideological, and technical discussions. Free lunch to every school student in the capital would do good to many pupils which, studies say, are hungry at school. The issue had been raised by progressive activist groups days ago and may have served as an inspiration for UNM’s pre-runoff campaign. Girchi, a libertarian through and through, stands against any free lunches, both literally and figuratively. Melia admitted there were substantive disagreements with Girchi over this matter. But these would have to wait.

SOCIAL TRAIN Ahead of the polls, GD and Mayor Kaladze in particular have mocked the opposition for not having any specific proposals. Now that they have articulated them, GD mocked them as unrealistic, for legal and economic reasons. But with all the mockery, the party did jump on a social largesse bandwagon by unveiling expensive social initiatives, such as medication vouchers for retirees. Suddenly, it is like an auction of promises: GD hopeful in Rustavi, an industrial town near Tbilisi, promised to make elevator rides free, triggering much tongue-wagging on social media (“Tbilisi-Rustavi express elevator” was alluded to, as a mockery to a mothballed GD promise from the elections past, Tbilisi-Rustavi highway). The way this campaign is going, Tbilisites might wake up to banknotes raining down from the sky: knowing the extent of Mr. Ivanishvili’s resources and given the national currency’s exchange rate nosedive, that should be entirely feasible.

SENDING LOVE In the meantime, some 20 days have passed since jailed ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili went on a hunger strike. On October 21, he managed to wave to his supporters (and TV cameras) from behind the bars. The penitentiary service later issued an official statement, saying inmate Saakashvili would be penalized for violating the prison rules and making the ruckus while going to shower. But former president’s good humor may not hold, the medics warn, suggesting that must be under constant preventive medical surveillance. Saakashvili agreed to transfer to a hospital if needed. But concerns were raised once Justice Minister Rati Bregadze said (and Prime Minister Garibashvili insisted) that this inmate could only be taken to the penitentiary prison. The lawyers say, that particular establishment belongs to Gldani prison, which houses hundreds of convicts serving sentences for grave crimes. They fear Saakashvili may be subjected to “provocations” or “psychological terror” there and call for treatment in a normal, civilian hospital which, they claim, is a common practice when it comes to other inmates. This story is not over.

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