Dispatch – November 18/19: Distortions

Hunger-Strike Crisis & The Subtle Art of Averting Responsibilities – Ombudsperson Gets “Where Were You?!” Questions – That Confusing Notion of Equal Treatment – Reports: Opposition Batumi Sakrebulo Member Dies

Almost three weeks have passed since the municipal election runoffs, and the promised peace and stability are nowhere to be seen. In the meantime, the discussions around the treatment of the jailed ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili start revolving around the problem of equality – with all the distortions of this notion you can think of. Here is Nini with usual updates from Georgia.

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BLACKOUT Authorities continue to deny hunger-striking Mikheil Saakashvili a transfer to a properly equipped clinic, insisting on treating him at the prison hospital in Gldani, Tbilisi, where he was placed against his will. In the latest development, he collapsed on November 18 and remains in intensive care. According to the anesthesiologist-resuscitator who treated him, the ex-President had high blood pressure but the danger has passed. The United National Movement, Saakashvili’s party, altered the plans of protests, scheduling one big rally in downtown Tbilisi in the afternoon of November 19, instead of three small ones.

RESPONSIBILITY TO PROTECT Finding it hard to shirk its responsibilities for protecting inmate Saakashvili’s well-being the ruling Georgian Dream started to point fingers, pretty much at random. Georgian Dream’s Chair, Irakli “Flamethrower” Kobakhidze was at it again, blaming the group of (highly-respected and much distinguished) doctors appointed by the Ombudsperson to examine Saakashvili, for making the “Fake” report. He used the word several times, trying to make it stick. Assuming the airs of a wary statesman, he also warned Ombudsperson’s (and the doctors’) that they would bear the brunt of responsibility, should Saakashvili’s potential transfer end in a debacle (as the Georgian Dream feverishly suspects).

Public Defender Nino Lomjaria did not mince words, saying the party chair attempts “to attack and intimidate an independent constitutional body and its experts,” who are fulfilling their legally warranted duties. Many were to point out that Mr. Kobakhidze holds no executive position and the party chair threatening legal responsibilities and making judgments about what Ombudsperson’s duties are smacks of the politburo.

Kobakidze was at it again speaking about MP Helen Khoshtaria, who celebrated her birthday on November 18, on her 16th day of a hunger strike demanding Saakashvili’s transfer to a civilian hospital. GD Chair, assuming paternal indignation, said if Saakashvili was a real man, he’d stop his hunger strike for Khoshtaria’s sake. The talking point apparently made it to the Georgian Dreams’ top chart, with many party members echoing their supposed boss. Clearly, while Saakashvili could still be vilified – even in want – it is better for the GD to go along with the apparent public sympathy for Khoshtaria’s civic act.

Lost track? You can catch up here: Timeline: Saakashvili Imprisonment & Hunger Strike

WHERE WERE YOU?! That was another talking point on the Georgian Dream’s list today. To be sure, this is not the new one: it pops up every time one decides to give one’s opinion about political and particularly human rights issues that displease the government in Georgia. Under the GD rule, the implication is that a critic in question did not show sufficient indignation about UNM-era human rights abuses, thus losing the moral right to speak about those of the Georgian Dream. This pointed question was directed by GD MPs at the Ombudsperson – who is the party’s villain-du-jour. Where were you when thousands (the GD MPs got a bit fuzzy on the count – a thousand, or two) went on hunger strike in prisons in the past three years?! Did you push for THEIR transfer to civilian facilities? Or is it that you are politically partial about the ex-president?! Nobody from the ruling party has bothered to ask what the government was doing if thousands were on a hunger strike, and from where, in fact, these figures do come from? The remarks were engineered to also argue that Gldani hospital has the richest possible record of managing hungers-striking patients. (Ombudsperson-appointed doctors said yesterday the team was not suited for this purpose). Certainly, this is just damage control from the Georgian Dream, but boy, this does not look good.

NOT LIKE OTHER BOYS But, anyways, Saakashvili is not your ordinary inmate, President Salome Zurabishvili warned on November 17, saying his dignity must be respected, and surreptitiously pointing at the release of ex-President’s footage by the Penitentiary Service. “He is a special prisoner, because everyone, both our society and international community demand following highest standards [in this regard],” she argued. Watching Madam President’s briefings has lately become much like watching the Georgian national football team play: despite disastrous records of meeting earlier expectations, the anticipation is still high; and even the chances of a good outcome are slim, some still cherish vain hopes. But the whistle blows, the game is over, and people go home with that empty feeling, saying “boys gave all, but it was not enough.” The President said all the right words, only to finish along the lines that since Saakashvili is a special prisoner, his transfer to a civilian clinic would be too high a risk. She gave it all, come back next time!

EQUALITY WITH LOW QUALITY Advocating for equal medical access for inmates on par with the larger public may be at times problematic, because there may not be much to wish there: while things moved forward over the past decade concerning accessibility of hospital treatment, the affordability of necessary medications due to their skyrocketing prices remains one of the key struggles for low-income Georgians. The issue has featured large in the runoff campaign of large political parties, and the government has been discussing the problem for some time now as if it is someone else’s business to finally solve it. But raising certain social issues may sometimes have its effects: after the problem of hungry children in schools landed on the political agenda due to its sudden campaign takeover by the UNM, Ghassan Khalil, UNICEF representative in Georgia said recently that school nutrition program “is now on track in terms of planning” following meetings with Georgian Prime Minister and Education Minister. Rarely has Hunger been political in quite so many ways. We count on the Pestilence to be on the list next.

WARS TO WATCH Reports came that Nugzar Putkaradze, an elected majoritarian Batumi Sakrebulo member from UNM, passed away. This means revote in the respective constituency. And this revote is to decide the already fragile opposition/ruling party balance in the local council of a coastal self-governing city: after the councilor’s death, the UNM is left with 14 mandates, Giorgi Gakharia’s For Georgia party has two more seats, and one seat belongs to Lelo. There is one former Gakharia party member who “turned” independent and is expected to join forces, if need be, with the ruling Georgian Dream party, which itself holds 16 mandates. The temperatures in the seaside city, where GD’s narrow victory in the mayoral runoff has already been contested, are to go further up.

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