Dispatch – December 2/3: Russia’s Fault

Another Misha Trial: What Changed, What Didn’t – November 7 Recollections Provide New Old Insights – Tangled Web and Russian Traces – GD Chair’s “I am the Expert” moment

Can numbers spark empathy? Not like stories do. So, while some remind you that Russia has occupied 20% of Georgian territories, it may tell you still little about the human rights situation in those territories, or the miserable conditions of people who live near the dividing lines. Neither does ‘20%’ say much about the everyday struggles of those who had to flee the territories or those who stayed there. And this number won’t tell you much about how Russia has been poisoning political discussions in the remaining 80%, but the latest developments will. Here is Nini with usual updates from Georgia.

Dispatch is our regular newsletter. Subscribe and find us on Twitter: @DispatchCivil and hear Civil.ge news first on Telegram: https://t.me/CivilGe_Live

DEADLY SINS Prosecution seems to have used the list of deadly sins to bring up the charges against ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili. On December 2, the court addressed the sin of Gluttony as the erstwhile President faced trial for charges of misappropriating public funds in the amount of up to GEL 9 mln (USD 3 mln) from the Special State Protection Service (SSPS) budget, for personal expenses such as expenditures on staying in luxury hotels and spa resorts, visits to aesthetic clinics, and the purchase of clothing (details here).

HYMNS OF REPENTANCE Surprisingly, Saakashvili turned out to be the man who reads and reacts to criticism. After he’s been mocked for “me-attitude” (including by us) after his first court appearance, this time he self-corrected “I” to “we” several times when talking about the accomplishments during his rule. He also responded to those who found Saakashvili too unapologetic during the previous hearings: the ex-president said he is ready to admit and discuss his flaws person-to-person with those who suffered, but reminded the audience that the court hearing was not the place to admit his guilt. Fair enough. But… he then went on to compare his situation with the Hymns of Repentance, an atonement of sorts written by King David IV the Builder (Agmashenebeli), Georgia’s medieval ruler of reference. Misha did aspire to become The Builder 2.0 in his time, with symbolism to match (he swore Presidential oath on King David’s tomb, after all). And while those hymns were indeed about regret and self-reflection, the great King did not write those words before the court run by Seljuk Turks [David’s arch-enemy], Saakashvili argued, warning not to expect too many tears of regret while being in “Putin’s custody” either.

APPEARANCES MATTER Addressing the embezzlement charges, the former President claimed the alleged spending for botox injection contained in charges… wasn’t. He said he underwent medical intervention against nerve-related skin disease. The rest was intended for the country’s positive portrayal in eyes of foreign partners, Saakashvili said, citing the diplomatic powers of Georgian hospitality. But, he continued, the current authorities won’t get this, because “a Russian does not understand hospitality” and “these are Russians.”

While discussions about the details of the charges have not stopped since the hearing, the authorities seem unimpressed, arguing the defendant only confirmed the accusations. Mocking ex-President’s arguments, Georgian Dream’s Shalva Papuashvili said: “would the President of Burkina Faso, confronted by Mikheil Saakashvili without botox injection, recognize [the independence of] Abkhazia?” A prosecutor in the case further argued the publicly circulating receipts from the case files fail to show the purchases were made for hospitality purposes, daring the journalists to show that Red Bull, one of the receipt entries, “was given to Hillary Clinton, and this is indicated [by Saakashvili].” Read more here.

STARTED OUT WITH A KISS Speaking of the criticism of previous address during the hearing on the case of November 7, 2007, violent crackdown on anti-government protests: Saakashvili’s claim that he averted Russian plot led by oligarch and media tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili only alienated those leading protests back then, who later, as Georgian political life often dictates, made friends with Saakashvili’s United National Movement again. The discussions that erupted offered some pretty interesting recollections, such as Georgian Dream founder Bidzina Ivanishvili – now unequivocally seen by UNM as Russia’s friend – being on the same page as Misha in 2007.

For example, Republican Party’s David Berdzenishvili claimed in a Facebook discussion that Ivanishvili funded Saakashvili in 2007 and for four more years that followed, and cited Gigi Ugulava (ex-Tbilisi mayor under UNM) as saying that Ivanishvili was calling for more cruelty during November events. Labor party’s Shalva Natelashvili said “Putin’s personal oligarch Ivanishvili” was by Saakashvili’s side back then, not only funding his “regime,” but even awarding bonuses to riot police responsible for the violent dispersal. These reports are not new in Georgia’s political discussions, but it remains a mystery to us what exactly they try to prove.

HOW DID IT END UP LIKE THIS Mutual accusations about being Kremlin puppets or at least playing into Moscow’s agenda have been an integral part of Georgian political rivalry since the 1990s. Georgian Dream was first forced into defensive on this matter, but later mastered the game of whataboutism only too well, opening up a whole new frontline against UNM with the controversial so-called Cartographers’ Case. Some compared this case to UNM-era no less controversial Photographers’ Case, when several photographers (including President’s own cameraman) were detained on charges of spying for Russia. European Georgia’s Giga Bokeria, former UNM leader, later admitted the case was “very bad,” but warned against comparing the Photographers’ case which he attributed to “paranoia” to the Cartographer’s case, which he considers fully politically motivated.

Whatever such accusations come from – paranoia, political tactics, or even truth – they invade and damage any social and political discussions that emerge in Georgia. For example, simply subscribing to conservative religious values and having support from Russia-friendly right-wing groups can turn any local grassroots protest illegitimate in public eyes. This happened with Namakhvani anti-HPP protests, partly owing to leaders’ controversial decision to join July 5 anti-Pride rally. Currently, troll pages on Facebook have channeled their efforts to brand the leaders of new local protests in Shkmeri, upper Racha, as Russia-funded, and such pages are often suspected to be the government’s friends.

I’M SOMETHING OF A SCIENTIST MYSELF As our colleagues from the discourse research department might have noticed, while Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili is a man of ideas and homeland (at least this is what he’s trying to project), the ruling party Chair Irakli Kobakhidze has long taken up the role of a cold-minded playmaker who never shies away from claims that politics are about winning, whatever the cost. In his latest movie, Mr. Kobakhidze made it clear that pending constitutional amendments about the next two parliamentary elections becoming fully-proportional with a 2% threshold, if adopted at all, will not apply to early elections that may (but he says definitely won’t) be held before 2024. Lowering the threshold to 2% from 5%, seen vital for small party participation, also hangs in balance. Kobakhidze said, smaller parties must understand that GD conceding this point would be “like a Christmas gift” and should act accordingly to deserve it.

Small parties in the Parliament did raise alarm, but their cries are merely echoes in the distance since the United National Movement, the largest opposition force, gives only half-hearted support to small outfits on the opposition side. After all, UNM will be happy to act as the catch-all party for all opposition votes (the fact that the opposition voter simply does not vote for UNM alone, does not seem to register with some of the party leadership). This situation only makes MP Kobakhidze happier, allowing him to drive the rhetorical wedge between opposition forces with ill-hidden gloating.

But today Chairman Irakli (does this sound right?!) tried to fit into the new role. Responding to US Ambassador Kelly Degnan, who criticized the ruling party for backtracking on the promise to amend the constitution and lower the election threshold, Kobakhidze said “I am the expert of this matter, of the constitutional law,” while “she is not” (actually, Amb. Degnan has a law degree and also practiced).

Perhaps, Mr. Kobakhidze was piqued by Amb. Degnan’s remarks that some people (that’s looking at you, Irakli!) “don’t seem to understand that a democracy requires a plurality of views.” Ambassador added “one person, one-party ruling…risks the tyranny of the majority.” Kobakhidze retorted that “many European countries” have higher thresholds without necessarily descending into tyranny. His henchmea, MP Nikoloz Samkharadze went (much) further saying that “the US also has a one-party rule and no tyranny.” This one is certainly an expert, too – why else he’d be chairing the Foreign Relations Committee?

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