Dispatch – February 3/4: Big Solutions

Inflation That Won’t Go Away – Saakashvili Plans to “Divorce Big Money from Politics” – Georgia’s Bitcoin Problem and Idea of Green Crypto-mining – Elections Turmoil Back in 2 Months

Despite the row about Georgian authorities not being supportive enough to Ukraine (or critical enough to Russia), past weeks turned out relatively calm. The country worried about ever-surging inflation and focused on solutions. But the two key components of national crises – elections and Mr. Saakashvili – are now making a comeback. Here is Nini with usual updates from Georgia.

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LIVING ON A PRAYER National Statistics Office published January’s inflation data only to add numbers to what everyone felt in their pockets. The past month saw a 13,9% rise in consumer prices compared to the same period in 2021. The prices of food, transportation, and utilities rose the most. The utility prices have almost doubled over the twelve months (44,8%), and Georgians have trouble adjusting to the new prices, barely trusting their own eyes when looking at the bills. To address public concerns, Prime Minister Garibashvili promised in January to subsidize the price difference for up to a million persons belonging to welfare groups for another year. But it is unclear how long – or indeed how much – it would help.

REVIVAL Now we know the reasons behind the recent absence of jailed ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili from the spotlight: he was apparently putting final touches on his promised economic development program. On February 3, he put the key thesis of his plan online. It includes some usual ideas repeatedly offered by Georgian opposition parties which like to pose as innovative and competent (and sometimes parroted by the ruling party too), such as freedom from corruption, promoting digitalization, offering more economic freedom, and limiting bureaucracy.

Other goals include large-scale infrastructure projects such as a major airport hub in Kutaisi, western Georgia, which, Saakashvili promises, could compete with Istanbul for its transit flights; setting up new economic centers, such as reviving his dream project of the port city of Lazika (which saw a comeback as “Anaklia port” project in Georgian Dream times only to scandalously fail); judicial reforms such as introducing English common law for commercial dealings; or building a Silicon Valley-like settlement, preferably in Rustavi near the capital city, and to proclaim it as a tax-free zone.

OVERTHROW SUPER-RICH But the most eye-catching idea in Saakashvili’s program was “forcing divorce of big money from politics.” Mimicking similar practice of anti-oligarchic laws in Ukraine, the former president suggested banning anyone with a net worth above 5% of Georgia’s GDP from forming, financing, or participating in any other ways in political parties. Nice to hear that someone finally wants to make politics more democratic by reducing the malign effect of drastic inequalities! But it would be also interesting what’s with those with the fortune of, say, 4% of GDP, or other wealthy people under the 5% threshold but still calling the shots in all mainstream political parties. And also, the one wealthy man he probably had in mind when drafting the plan has quit politics “for good” a year ago. Well… at least this is what his former party colleagues have claimed ever since.

TOWARDS RESPONSIBLE MINING Cryptocurrencies also found their way among Saakashvili’s economic concerns. The ex-President claimed that Bitcoins made Georgia’s rich even wealthier, while the poor citizens pay for the electricity that is used for mining. Saakashvili says exorbitant amounts of electricity are passed to breakaway Abkhazia “which benefits Bitcoin mining by Abkhaz and Georgian clans.” As a solution, Saakashvili suggests the state bans mass-mining for everybody except for those who will invest in wind energy and solar power.

Whatever the prospects of the offered solution, Tbilisi and Sokhumi have been facing the crypto-headache for a while: mining allegedly has contributed to continuous energy deficits in Abkhazia, and it came to power shortages in the remote mountainous Svaneti region for the widespread operation of mines by locals – Svanetians even had to take an oath in a traditional ritual to refrain from wasting energy (the oath didn’t help). Also, in the past days, government-critical Formula TV channel claimed that the State Security Service of Georgia was currently investigating a case when a deputy manager of the culture agency (public body) in a town of Gori, Shida Kartli, has been using his office electricity for crypto-mining for two years, with bills of about GEL 6,000 ($ 2,000) paid monthly from the state budget. And there may be much more we haven’t yet heard about.

HERE WE RUN AGAIN After the 2021 municipal elections, Georgian Dream leaders were promising no more voting till 2024. They were apparently wrong, as by-elections in two self-governing cities – Batumi and Rustavi – were slated for April 2. Rustavi’s voters will be electing a majoritarian MP after Georgian Dream’s Nino Latsabidze quit following a victory in the mayoral race of the same city. The outcome won’t affect GD’s majority in the parliament but bears an opportunity for protest votes. It will also allow the opposition to test the ground in a constituency where it recently secured a majority in the municipal council (Sakrebulo) but had to surrender the Mayor’s office (plus, isn’t every election here an all-decider anyways?).

Things are going to be far tenser in Batumi. The voters here will be electing a majoritarian councilor in hung Sakrebulo, who will break the deadlock created after the controversial death of one opposition councilor and a shady decision of another one to switch to being “independent” after having won on the ticket of Gakharia’s For Georgia party list. Georgian Dream already named the candidates for both races, while the opposition is pondering their options. So have enough rest till the political temperature will climb again as spring approaches.

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