Dispatch – February 14/15: So-Called Life

Gov’t, Opposition Trade Cyber-Fraud Accusations – Georgian Dream to Launch “Women’s Organization” – Authorities Attempt to Address Pension Loan Misery – Garibashvili Specifies Employment Welfare Initiative

The diverse, often dangerous and miserable methods of financial survival were at the center of Georgian political discussions these days, with politicians on all sides either trying to offer some kind of relief or shift the blame onto their opponents. Here is Nini with usual updates from Georgia.

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EASY MONEY Government representatives and the opposition have been pointing fingers at each other to apportion blame for the operation of “so-called call centers.” The term refers to scam call centers across Georgia that continue to attract international attention for allegedly organized cyber-crime schemes defrauding hundreds of people, often retirees, internationally by promising lucrative investments. In raids coordinated with German authorities, Georgian law enforcement bodies have detained multiple suspects, with the last of such operations taking place early this month.

Links. Government-critical media and the United National Movement have accused Grigol Liluashvili, head of State Security Service of Georgia, of sponsoring the fraudsters and profiting from the illegal income alongside Bidzina Ivanishvili, the ruling party founder. Liluashvili denies the accusations and is suing for defamation. Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili went further to accuse the former UNM officials of running this scam, saying now they try to “shift the blame onto others to seek revenge because the state has established their criminal schemes.” Garibashvili may be referring to an earlier journalistic investigation published in 2020 by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), an international investigative journalism network, which alleged possible links between Milton Group, a company suspected of transnational fraud activities, and former UNM officials such as ex-Defense Minister Davit Kezerashvili.

Bullshit jobs. The scam call centers are known to be luring educated youngsters who can speak foreign languages after they apply what for what looks like marketing call-center positions. Some of them apparently decided to stay and do the job, tempted by higher-than-average pay. Such reports landed in political discussions. For example, ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili loves to cite the trend as an illustration of a desperate state of young educated Georgians find themselves in, left with nothing else to do but to partake in illegal scams.

MAKING AMENDS How do you solve an underrepresentation problem? Step 1: create the problem. Step 2: compartmentalize it. After replacing two women ministers with male candidates over the past two months, the ruling Georgian Dream party suddenly noticed that it was not giving female colleagues the chances they deserve. On February 13, GD Chair Irakli Kobakhidze announced the launching of the party’s “women’s organization” to boost women’s participation in the party’s political processes. Kobakhidze was self-critical enough to recall the missing female mayoral candidates during the last municipal elections while higher numbers of women among local councilors were only made possible thanks to binding gender quotas introduced by recent reforms.

This, Kobakhidze says, does not fit into the “objective picture in our society, and women deserve to be more broadly represented in higher positions.”  The organization and its activities should help make things better and also aid the protection of women’s rights in the country, the party believes. The chairman, who says the decision follows an established European practice, already started touring regions to prepare the ground to make things official. We do not know how was it that the ruling party suddenly saw the light, or how serious it is about it, or whose idea it was: it may follow some internal advocacy, or it can be MP Kobakhidze himself, who loves posing as someone pioneering European party politics here.

RELIEF ATTEMPT In many dire realities Georgia finds itself in, few are darker than what poverty looks like in old age. For years, Georgian retirees faced enormously high-interest rates on the loans they take against their pensions. Stories would emerge about seniors in bank debts having to pay more than double of what they had loaned to buy necessary medications. Head of National Bank of Georgia cited last year that about half of Georgian pensioners are using pension loans or pension advances to afford emergency purchases, with the recent effective rate surpassing 35%, the most expensive compared to other age groups reportedly due to the high age-related repayment risk.

According to authorities, the rates are still far lower compared to the situation years earlier with 100-200% interest rates for seniors. But such comparison hardly made those struggling to repay the loans feel better, and after the problem has featured in political discussions for a while, the authorities decided to address it. The inter-agency commission working on the matter announced on February 11 that it agreed the conditions and criteria for the government to select a partner private bank within a month, which will pay out pensions and give pension advance loans to seniors, now with the 26% upper limit on interest rates. According to the commission, the limit may go further down along with improved inflation rates. But it may be still too high for retirees with a monthly income of about USD 100.  

WE CAN WORK IT OUT On February 14, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili was more specific about the employment program he announced later last year. Reiterating that “The currents social policy pushes socially vulnerable labor force towards inaction,” the government head said that starting next month, authorities will be mobilizing public work opportunities – initially up to 50,000 jobs – for the welfare-reliant workforce. Under “public work,” PM says he means the works that can be performed by individuals regardless of their qualifications. According to the Prime Minister, about 1/3 of 600,000 social assistance-reliant persons make a labor force but are currently unemployed, so they will be offered GEL 300/month (USD 100) job opportunities on top of the social benefits they are already receiving.

More specifically, the individuals will be able to choose between employment in “public work,” a vacancy more fitting their skills and qualifications, a professional training program, or formalization of informal employment they are actually engaged in. Should a person agree to any of this, the person and the family will be able to maintain the social assistance for another 4 years. If not, the respective family will also keep the assistance but will undergo eligibility revision for state social assistance in a year. It is not clear if the government offers monthly 300 Laris for any of the four offered alternatives, including training and informal work, or how this formalization is to take place. But the Prime Minister, who (again) cites the best foreign labor activation policy practices, hopes the initiative will help raise individual income while also creating public good.

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