Dispatch – November 15/16: Frenemies

Saakashvili Crisis: Blood That Wasn’t, and Forgotten Risks – Defending the Defender: Ombudsperson’s Wars – Dear Foreign Friends: We Feel You – President Slammed for Getting Away – Girchi’s Art of War – Rumors About Old New Players

Treating foreign partners as enemies whenever the party interests dictate – that is the new normal in Georgian politics. But the brusque attempt at alienating them may provide a glimpse to the distant friends into what average Georgians have to go through for merely speaking their minds. Here is Nini with usual updates from Georgia.

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BLOOD THAT WASN’T Jailed ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili remains in a prison hospital where he was taken against his will. While his doctor continues sounding an alarm about his health (read about earlier developments in our previous issue), the government keeps refusing to grant his wish (and doctors’ request) of being transferred to a civilian clinic. The opposition and the Public Defender say the same, and the ex-President pledged to end his hunger strike should this demand be met. The United National Movement, Saakashvili’s party, continues street protests, and over a dozen party members, including MPs, went on hunger strike urging the inmate’s prompt transfer to a civilian facility. In the meantime, the health condition of Droa! party leader Helen Khoshtaria, who was the first to go on a hunger strike (despite her political opposition to Saakashvili) has worsened.

On November 14, when the UNM announced its intention to block next day both of Tbilisi’s riverside highways for two straight hours, as part of their permanent protests to “rock the regime” (and, incidentally, transfer Saakashvili to a civilian hospital), the police issued a stern warning that it won’t hesitate to use “proportionate” force if the highways are blocked. No wonder, many Tbilisites woke up on Monday with the nagging anticipation of “there will be blood.” But – gracefully – there wasn’t any: opposition supporters marched peacefully through the highways, while the police – in considerable numbers – marched with (or, rather, alongside) them. But those wishing to breathe the sigh of relief – couldn’t. The news broke that the head doctor of Gldani prison hospital – currently accomodating Saakashvili – tested positive for Covid-19. Suddenly, it looked like the two major crises in the country – the pandemic, and Saakashvili ordeal – suddenly converged. One more lucky escape for the day – Saakashvili’s PCR test came in negative. But still, to those who care, it served as a reminder of the fragility of life.

DEFENDING THE DEFENDER It is not the first time that Public Defender Nino Lomjaria crossed the powerful actors for doing her job (remember the Ninotsminda orphanage controversy?) Neither is it the first time when foreigners rush to her defense: in a joint statement dated November 15, MEP Marina Kaljurand, the chair of the Delegation for relations with the South Caucasus, and MEP Sven Mikser, the European Standing Rapporteur on Georgia – who can’t really be “called the UNM allies,” expressed support for Lomjaria and her office, reminding Tbilisi of its commitments to protect human rights and good governance. They also brought up all the support that the EU bestowed on the public defender’s office. In short, GD was told affiliation with it is quickly becoming a liability in Brussels.

MIND YOUR WORDS And speaking of the Ombudsperson, neither did she spare the opposition in the past days: she promptly slammed opposition and its friendly media’s attempts at naming and mobbing a prison guard who allegedly insulted Saakashvili upon his transfer to the Gldani prison hospital. She further warned – repeatedly – against actions that may lead to bullying of a teen living in the family of the guard, singling out Gigi Ugulava, former Tbilisi mayor who spent time in prison, for his saying that the friends and classmates of that guard’s child “should know that [the child] has a butcher father.” Ugulava promptly apologized.

GETTING DISTANT Hardly ever have the foreign friends felt their own limits in engaging with Georgia as they did in the past year or two, with both the ruling party and the opposition accumulating records of disregarding the calls from partners (at times doing so in a grossly insulting fashion). The trend goes on and intensifies. After MEP Anna Fotyga was denied access to Mikheil Saakashvili in prison, Georgian Dream Chair Irakli Kobakhidze composed a stark letter blaming, among others, “foreign lobbyists” for “constant attempts at the politicization of justice,” and pledging not to cooperate with people who “due to their political bias towards criminals, don’t recognize our state as [a full-fledged] state” (Read More).

But staying away does not look like an option for the friends from overseas either: enter Nika Gvaramia, Saakashvili’s lawyer and Mtavari TV boss, who said that those silent about the “absolutely clear case of Saakashvili’s torture” should be “fairly considered as an accomplice” to Saakashvili’s “assassination” and all of its potentially grim consequences. And “all means all,” Gvaramia added, pointing the accusatory finger at “individuals, institutions, partners”.

Well, dearly cherished partners of Georgia, congratulations on sharing the daily moral struggles of Georgian citizens – being stuck between the oppressive rock and the shrill hard place – and good luck with mentally surviving this ordeal.

As for the analysis, while some fear Kobakhidze’s letter marks the decisive turn towards Moscow, others warn against downplaying the impact of domestic dynamics in international politics. You pick your pill.

RETREAT We could all use – for our mental health, for sure – the masterful escape techniques as practiced by the Georgian President, Salome Zurabishvili. Whenever she smells the trouble brewing in the country, there is always a convenient and important escapade, critics have observed. Sometimes, she promotes the wonders of the Georgian countryside or extolls the marvels of Georgia as the future destination for pilgrimage tourism (can’t you see it?! “St. Jacques de Compostelle is out, Katskhi Pillar is in”). But in the latest episode, Mme President drew fire for attending a France-Georgia rugby meet in Bordeaux, France. She was flanked by the cabinet’s francophone-on-duty, Culture Minister Tea Tsulukiani. Guarantor of the Constitution having fun when her predecessor’s life hangs in balance?! Questionable optics, admittedly. But on the other hand, life-and-death scenarios have become such a daily routine in Georgia… Mais, quelle ennui, non?!

TRASH ART It is hard to beat the theatrics in Georgia’s politics, but nobody does it with such gusto as Zurab Japaridze of “Girchi – More Freedom”, which by now balancing between being the political outlet and a performance art collective. Channeling their creative zeal against the repressive apparatus in general and the State Security Service of Georgia (SSG) in particular, Girchi offered a variety of happenings and installations. This included the more banal blocking off the entrances of SSG buildings, to more creative blockages with a vehicle – Mr. Japaridze’s car, with owner locked inside, was evacuated by the police to a faraway parking lot, Mr. Japaridze offering live commentary of his voyage on social media. The fountain of creativity really got squirting from there: Girchi hired the reportedly Turkish witch named Stella, to cast a spell over the Interior Ministry. And as a final feat, the party activists dumped garbage in front of the SSG headquarters. On November 14, the party got its copycat comeuppance – the party posted pictures of the entrance of their office being painted over with offensive graffiti and the trash piled in. Whoever did it was no artist, obviously. Girchi promptly tagged the Security Service in their post.

NEW OLD BEGINNINGS A final word about unfolding developments: what with all going dandy in the country otherwise, reports emerged about a squad (or a gang?) behind the ultra-right TV channel Alt-Info, which egged on the July 5 anti-Pride violence, are pondering their own political party. This is yet another attempt at consolidating the ultra-right, but all have been unsuccessful – save the constant and determined drift of the ruling party in that direction, which can – with considerable understatement – be called “conservative.”

Oh, and remember ENKA Renewables quitting the hotly contested Namakhvani Hydropower Plant project a few months back, on the eve of local elections? The Economy Minister Natia Turnava now says “there are equal chances of them quitting and coming back” to the table. The local activists, who never stopped protesting and guarding the construction site, smell a campaign trick. We’ll keep you posted about how these play out.

That’s the full lid for today. Join us every Tuesday and Friday for the tongue-in-cheek coverage of Georgia’s political life.