The Dispatch – October 25/26: Ok, Bro!

Spat Over Saakashvili’s Hospitalization Gets Dangerous – GD Chair Frames Ombudsperson as UNM Activist, Lomjaria Sighs – Ruling Party Calls Major Rally – Sakrebulo Mandate-Holder Quits Gakharia’s Party

The final week ahead of the municipal election runoffs has begun, and even though it’s freezing in Tbilisi streets, the political temperatures continue to rise and painfully burn. Here is Nini with usual updates from Georgia.

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DANGEROUS GAME The hunger strike of the jailed ex-President Saakashvili has entered its fourth week, and those outside the prison appear to be facing a prisoner dilemma. As the ex-President’s health reportedly deteriorates, his lawyers say the authorities refuse to hospitalize the inmate anywhere else but the penitentiary prison. Citing a common practice of transferring inmates to civilian hospitals (apparently more than 500 such cases last year only), they fear for Saakashvili’s health (because the facility is insufficiently equipped) and life (because the authorities may “incite provocation” involving other inmates) in a general prison facility. The government officials, on the other hand, retort that the prison hospital is well equipped while adding that the fears of the ex-President facing danger are a figment of Saakashvili supporters’ imagination. All the while, they say ex-President’s supporters are plotting to kidnap and liberate him from a civilian facility.

INSTITUTIONS FOR SALE Maybe none of these counter-accusations are true. But since the mutual animus of the parties involved is hard to underestimate, neither can they be ruled out. Nino Lomjaria, Public Defender of Georgia, decided to weigh in as a neutral institution, and send her experts to the prison hospital facility to verify whether it indeed has the equipment prescribed by the council of doctors (appointed by the authorities) that checked Saakashvili’s health. The experts concluded that it was not, and Ms. Lomjaria made a statement about it, predictably attracting the ruling party’s wrath. Georgian Dream Irakli Kobakhidze promptly accused the Ombudsperson of a “profound political bias.” He regretted to have conceded to the “recommendation” (presumably by foreign friends) “to concede the Public Defender institute to the opposition,” and lamented that the opposition turned the Ombudsperson into a “[United] National Movement activist.” “This is very bad, this shows that no institution can be conceded to the UNM,” he added.

Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze was even cruder. When asked to comment, he responded in a sarcastic streetwise phrase that translates along the lines of “yeah, dude, if the Ombudsperson said that, SURE”. At the end of the day, evidently exasperated Lomjaria posted on Facebook, expressing her surprise at the ruling party’s reaction to her doing her duty, but found it expedient to mirror Kaladze’s turn of phrase and ended her post by “What can I say?! Ok bro, I got it.”

  • Confused what’s all the fuss about? Take a look at our fresh guide into Saakashvili’s jail controversy.

COUNTER STRIKE After the UNM’s massive October 14 rally, occasional opposition gatherings continued across the country, including a large-scale demonstration in the coastal city of Batumi on October 23. The ruling party feels compelled to respond with a proportional show of force on the streets and has announced what they call a “conclusive rally” on Wednesday, October 27, at Tbilisi’s Freedom Square. Indefatigable Irakli Kobakhidze was at it again, saying to bring their supporters, they would “need as many drivers as UNM had overall at their rally.” There are murmurs that GD is also corralling local public employees to swell the ranks and outdo UNM. The old Georgian political tradition where the comparative size (of the crowd) is all that matters thus perpetuates itself.

WE DIDN’T START A FIRE Still, the Georgian Dream is hedging its bets. Even if the show of force fails, and the opposition wins a municipality or two, it is irrelevant, leaders assure their supporters. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili warned repeatedly that the victory of the opposition in municipalities would lead to executive paralysis and tensions since the opposition mayors won’t get any backing from Tbilisi (read more on this from PM here). While Garibashvili got slammed for denigrating local government, it is also true that the opposition made these elections about the legitimacy of the central government, to begin with. But the saddest realization is that the Georgian Democratic Republic (1918-21) featured vibrant – and sometimes opposition-ran – local self-government a hundred years ago. The historians say the current local authorities don’t even have half of the fiscal or administrative independence that their precursors once possessed.

YOU HAD ONE JOB In the meantime, the hopes for truly functioning coalition governments may be fading in municipalities where no party could secure the outright majority. In Tsalenjikha, Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti region, Nana Lemonjava, a mandate-holder of the municipal council has left Giorgi Gakharia’s For Georgia party, which emerged as a key kingmaking force after the first round of the local elections. Tsalenjikha was a rare municipality where runoffs are to decide whether GD will have the majority. The local For Georgia members reportedly raised doubts that Lemonjava, who still retains her mandate, was wooed away by the ruling party. Earlier, Gakharia spoke about “dirty” methods deployed by the GD to recruit mandate-holders from other parties. Gakharia, once GD-backed Prime Minister, who jumped ship, used to complain that For Georgia members were affected by pressure and intimidation prior to the elections as well.

The GD officials made no secret of having “talks” with individual councilors-elect in municipalities where they lacked the mandates for the majority. The self-governing city of Batumi has come into the particular spotlight recently, as some believe – or want to believe – that a candidate from a smaller party, either For Georgia or Lelo, may have a shot at leading the opposition coalition. GD Chair Kobakhidze, however, said the party will “cooperate with individual Sakrebulo [local council] members” to secure the majority for itself in Batumi.

That’s the full lid for today. The coming days will be full of the bizarre and curious – runoffs and Halloween, who could ask for more?! Join us every Tuesday and Friday for the tongue-in-cheek coverage of Georgia’s political life.