Dispatch – January 13/14: Old New Year

President Abstains from Veto, Again – Saakashvili’s Courtroom Blues – Khazaradze-Japaridze Ruling: What Happened?

On January 14, Georgia celebrates the Old New Year, an unofficial holiday based on the persistent reliance of some predominantly Orthodox Christian societies on the Julian calendar. Even though the holiday becomes less popular with every passing year, a couple of fireworks still light up the sky at midnight, and we, too, have a couple of Old New stories to tell. Here is Nini with usual updates from Georgia.

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OOPS SHE DIDN’T DO IT AGAIN President Salome Zurabishvili greenlighted two controversial laws adopted by the parliamentary majority on New Year’s eve – the bill to dismantle the State Inspector’s Office and amendments to the law of common courts – despite her own criticisms. The decision comes despite hopes that she would use her veto against the rushed decision of the ruling party to abolish the Inspector’s Office, an independent agency authorized to probe official abuses. The President had no earlier record of vetoing, and she didn’t break the habit this time either, citing the absence of sufficient legal grounds.

Even though the parliamentary majority would have had no trouble in overcoming the veto, and had declared an intention of doing so, the decision still broke some hearts: expressing regrets in a statement, the State Inspector’s Service said the move would have been crucial for Georgia’s democratic development and strengthening independent agencies and could have given the GD another chance to rethink it.

JUSTICE RAVER After the weeks-long break, jailed ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili reappeared before the Tbilisi court on January 13 to give another hour-long statement as part of the hearing on the case of his illegal border crossing upon the return to the homeland. Like earlier, he devoted most of his address to his personal achievements during his presidential tenure, continuously drawing contrasts to the current situation in the country and stressing the shame of jailing a man of his outstanding merits. Parts of his statement again sounded like he was marking his territory, like repeatedly reminding the judge that he personally built the courtroom that hosted the hearing with all its interior (he even suggested opening a nightclub in the courtroom, which is not his first such idea: the headquarters of the State Security Service was the first designated venue for such undertaking).

But the former President had a better chance to appeal to a broader public as he talked economy somewhere in the middle, particularly drawing on common concerns about high prices and struggles to afford basic needs with average salaries. Still, even if he had a couple of quite emotional moments, appearing at times like he almost lost the composure, the trial was nothing as sensational as it was during his initial appearances. And from an earlier one-man show that would be inspiring for some and tragicomical for others, his court addresses now run the risk of slowly turning into merely a sad routine.

HAPPY END WITH LIMITATIONS On January 12, the judge delivered the much-awaited verdict in the troublesome money-laundering case involving Mamuka Khazaradze and Badri Japaridze, two former bankers and current leaders of the opposition Lelo party, as well as businessman Avtandil Tsereteli, father of opposition TV Pirveli channel director Vato Tsereteli. After three years of prosecuting the defendants on money-laundering charges, the judge reclassified the case and found the three guilty of fraud, sentencing them to seven years in prison, but sparing them jail time citing the passing of the statute of limitations by the time of the ruling. While the legal logic of the ruling continues to puzzle the lawyers, the decision also confused the rest of the public who want to know what led (whoever made the decision) to opt for the mild outcome.

How did this happen? Since Georgian common courts and rulings in similar high-profile cases are believed to be influenced by the ruling Georgian Dream party, there were fears that the GD would continue its uncompromising path, particularly for those who remember the crisis around the detention of opposition leader Nika Melia last year. So, according to one of the hypotheses, the GD and its patron Bidzina Ivanishvili took the anticipated foreign pressure into the account. But potential attempts of the ruling party to benefit from the outcome are also apparent: in social media, traditional troll-pages again emerged with poor-taste photoshopped images to mark the two politicians as fraudsters, while Georgian Dream MPs mull to use the “guilty” ruling to strip MP Japaridze of his parliamentary mandate (Khazaradze has willingly surrendered his seat earlier).

Oh, wait… Also: those who believe that the decision was dictated by certain fears in the ruling party, should bear in mind that it is the first instance court decision, and upper courts have a recent record of overturning the acquittal rulings in high-profile cases, something that happened to former Defense Minister David Kezerashvili last year. Both the prosecutors and the defendants said they will be appealing the ruling, so the thrill has not gone anywhere.

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