Dispatch – January 10-11: Replay

Christmas Holidays and Recurring Controversies – Georgians Reflect on Kazakhstan Developments – UNM Advocates for Parliamentary Commissions, But Not Everyone Is In – Labor Leader Ponders Ending Boycott

Greetings from post-(double)-Christmas Tbilisi! The end of the year is when political observers usually sit down to reflect on what happened over the outgoing year and what is yet to come. But this was quite unnecessary in Georgia, where the last days of 2021 saw the actual repetition of the most memorable controversies that unfolded throughout the past twelve months. Here is Nini, back from the holiday break with usual updates from Georgia.

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HOLIDAY FUN Georgia ended 2021 with a couple of quite loud controversies, some of which are to continue throughout the new year. Here are some of the events that unfolded after we went on holiday break:

  • Parliamentary Speaker Kakha Kuchava mysteriously quit on December 24 and was replaced by more hardline Shalva Papuashvili. This added to suspicions about some kind of clan fight going on inside the ruling party, with a more hardline and conservative group led by Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili getting the upper hand. …Or it could simply be Mr. Kuchava getting bored being the part of the decoration.
  • On December 29-30, the ruling party voted to dismantle the State Inspector’s Office, an independent agency authorized to probe abuse of power and oversee personal data protection, despite widespread criticism, including from President Salome Zurabishvili. Now it is up to Zurabishvili to sign the bill or to return it to the Parliament with her first-ever veto. So far, President Zurabishvili criticized the move but made no noise on a possible veto. Read more.
  • During the same sessions, Georgian Dream adopted another controversial bill envisaging disciplinary sanctions for judges. While the bill underwent revisions after criticism, the party still retained some questionable provisions. 
  • On January 7, on Orthodox Christmas, news broke about UNESCO putting Lekso Lashkarava, a camera operator who died days after he was severely beaten during July 5 anti-Pride pogroms, on the list of killed journalists. It was (coincidentally) later on the same day that authorities released parts of the long-awaited autopsy report saying Lashkarava died on heroin overdose. The critics distrust the report – even though the doctor acting on behalf of Lashkarava’s family did sign it – pointing at the questionable timing of its release.
  • Discussions and controversies around ex-President Saakashvili continued, with new topics and complaints emerging (more below).
  • The final hearing in the controversial money-laundering case involving opposition leaders Mamuka Khazaradze and Badri Japaridze is to take place on January 11, and the verdict is expected to go public later in January.
  • The boycott question from the 2020 parliamentary elections is still here, and Labor Leader Shalva Natelashvili, the fiercest boycott advocate, now ponders joining the legislative body.

2021 in Georgia: Year in Review

KAZAKHSTAN REFLECTIONS Georgian social media bubble met the early phase of civil protests in Kazakhstan with some excitement and even envy: main public concerns such as high energy prices felt pretty relatable, and many wondered why their compatriots would stay at home and act like slaves instead of similarly holding the authorities accountable (the number of users asking these questions felt somewhat bigger than of those usually hitting the streets to actually protest). And, of course, there was a large body of instant Twitter/Facebook expertise on offer about Kazakhstan developments.

But the analytical focus shifted after Russia-led CSTO forces intervened to manage the unrests in the Central Asian country and multiple narratives emerged about what’s really going on there. This reminded Georgians, too, about all the complexities of the region they inhabit as well as the risks of things going wrong in many, many ways. Some went to express skepticism about revolution ever being the right solution even if things look quite grim. With things like these unfolding in the region, U.S. and Russia sitting down on January 10 in Geneva to discuss whether countries like Georgia have the right to choose their own security only adds to the big dark picture, sparking questions whether Georgia’s political elites take the troubling context seriously enough.

BACK-UP PLAN Following his return to a prison cell on the New Year’s eve former President Mikheil Saakashvili has repeatedly reported feeling unwell. But this did not stop him from supplying the opposition with fresh ideas.  For example, his party colleagues have been speaking for a while that Misha is currently devoting his time to writing an “economic program.” And while the work is still in progress, the key political discussions over the holidays concentrated on forming a parliamentary commission to probe Saakashvili’s ill-treatment, which the United National Movement, his party, believes is crucial amid the planned dissolution of the State Inspector’s Office currently probing the matter. The commission will need the consent of at least 50 MPs, and the UNM with its 30 MPs will have to win 20 more – not an easy job with currently 63 lawmakers in the parliamentary opposition, with a part of them quite alienated from the former ruling party: it has gained quite a bad reputation for not bothering with the legislature if it does not serve narrow party (or personal) interests.

For example, the six MPs from For Georgia party, led by former PM Giorgi Gakharia, firmly refused to back the commission, saying Inspector’s Service is still there till March to do the job and slamming UNM for suddenly willing to become active lawmakers after failing to be present and at least try to do something when GD was passing contested bills. In the meantime, Kazakhstan developments started unfolding, and Saakashvili was quick to respond, offering For Georgia MPs to form a second commission to probe raised energy prices. No thanks, For Georgia-ns responded, arguing that, while sympathetic to the concern, they buy little into the purpose and origins of the initiative. Discussions continue.

RICHMAN’S WORLD In the meantime, the UNM unveiled a reshuffle, with Chairman Nika Melia surrendering the position of political council head to MP Koba Nakopia while continuing to lead the party. Melia himself called the changes a part of “an active process of renewal,” but there were perceptions about the balance of power shifting inside the party: Mr. Nakopia may have many good qualities to deserve the promotion, but him being one of the richest men in the room is what came to everyone’s mind first. Read more here.

LET ME IN But did you know that internal party democracy was invented and developed by Georgian political leaders to externalize blame for unpopular decisions? At least this is how it looks for Labor leader Shalva Natelashvili, whose party gained one parliamentary mandate after contested 2020 elections but would stay loyal to the idea of boycott till now. So seeing his comrades from other opposition parties, including the UNM, eventually ditching the boycott made him upset. For example, he said Saakashvili’s commission idea came out of the need for UNM MP’s to justify attending Parliament sessions to avoid salary cuts. Finding no more sense in the one-man rebellion, Natelashvili now says deliberations are underway in his party for him to also join the parliament “to disturb the comfort” in the legislative body (he later even asked his social media followers if they’d approve such a move). Not a bad idea: now he can channel his acclaimed, but at times also awkward and insensitive sense of humor to reanimate the legislative life that has been becoming more absurd with every passing day.

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