Dispatch – March 14/15: Judgement Day

President’s Address: Politicians Angry, People Happy – Alt-Info Leaders Heading to Russia – Joining the Battle: MP Elisashvili’s Path to Reinvention

Delivering her annual address, President again steals the attention by scolding political elites for doing things wrong amid the context of Russian aggression on Ukraine. And this is not all: some serious accusations were made towards the ruling party. But Georgian Dream – instead of coming up with excuses – has so far only added insult to the injury. Here is Nini with usual updates from Georgia.

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UNWANTED President Salome Zurabishvili wanted to do her annual address in the Parliament on March 5, sooner than initially scheduled. But the ruling Georgian Dream party majority stopped her. Speculations blossomed that GD feared the President – who was freshly back from the Europe – would speak her mind. On March 14, she finally delivered her address, making good on those speculations.

  • Read key takeaways from President’s address here.

AWKWARDNESS The conflict was in the air from the beginning: GD MP Mamuka Mdinaradze got jittery as the President entered the room with the Ukrainian diplomatic representative Andrii Kasianov. MP Mdinaradze vaguely grumbled about disrespecting institutions, defying established and prescribed procedural rules and suchlike. Both the opposition and the GD MPs sat with the identical facemasks with Georgian and Ukrainian flags, which made the situation look promising… albeit slightly eerie (until it later turned out that it was President’s administration that provided those masks).

YOU’RE GROUNDED So the President started her address: for someone once ridiculed for her not-so-flawless Georgian, she’s eventually become quite good at making speeches.  As expected, the main focus was the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But aside from reaffirming support and solidarity towards the country under attack, she scolded both the ruling party and the opposition on the way for acting irresponsibly in times of crisis. With the righteous vehemence of a stern Victorian aunt, she scolded the ruling party not reacting to the war in a way that fits the country’s dignity, and opposition for denigrating the country’s reputation internationally (well… honesty demands to say that the opposition was “denigrating” the government pretty much along the same lines as the President did today).

DIRTY LAUNDRY She also asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to return Ukrainian Ambassador to Tbilisi after the diplomat was recalled for consultations over the Georgian government’s stance on sanctions against Russia and blocking the charter flight to bring volunteer fighters to Ukraine. In her calls for unity and national consolidation, the President offered to create a position of the EU Integration State Minister which “can be selected from the opposition” – echoing some of the similar ideas circulating in opposition and civil society for some time now. But the darkest moment in her address was when she revealed that the government was playing interference with her working visits abroad after the Russian invasion, even refusing her the right to go to Europe in written form, so that Zurabishvili had to use personal connections to arrange informal high-level meetings both in Paris and Brussels.

HAPPY OR NOT GD leaders were obviously not happy. In his usual loose cannon mode, party leader Irakli Kobakhidze mused whether the President’s private visits were Constitutional. Even his flamethrower-twin MP Mdinaradze had to say the impeachment was unlikely (indeed GD does not have the required 100 MP votes). One part of the opposition was more clement, even welcoming some of Zurabishvili’s ideas. Others were less indulging, remembering her remarks about Georgia’s responsibility for 2008 war with Russia, wish she still has not taken back. But while remaining unloved and poorly trusted, President is gaining traction among civil society and many Georgians who grow increasingly anxious about the political leaders’ squabbles amid momentous global shifts. Does Zurabishvili have it in her to become a Georgian “Mutti”, a stern but fair hand like Mrs. Merkel? The time will show.

MOSCOW CALLING The leaders of Alt-info, an illiberal and kremlin-friendly media group that (co)organized July 5 anti-Pride violence and later formed its own party “Conservative Movement,” is down the dumps. The activists from more municipalities are rallying against their newly-opened local offices, as the backlash against Russia’s invasion in Ukraine grows. In a March 13 video, Zura Makharadze, the most prominent leader of the gang, spoke about having to “change the pace” to protect Georgia amid “ongoing geopolitical shifts”. For this, Makharadze warned his fans that for a month or so, he will have to work “in a different framework” on the ground, keeping him away from the capital city and limiting his time on air.

This made Georgians wonder whether Makharadze was fleeing, or planning mischief. Meanwhile, his party buddy Konstantine Morgoshia said Makharadze won’t be leaving for Moscow, but he with a party delegation will to present themselves as capable of “settling Georgia-Russian relations.” The bets are open whether the Kremlin called in its minions to report on (meager) returns on investment, or to instruct them about some new diabolical schemes.

WE COULD BE HEROES… MP Aleko Elisashvili, leader of the opposition Citizens’ party, has not been popular lately: elected in the Parliament in the contested 2020 elections, he was the first to call for a boycott – and the first to ditch it. This alienated him from the rest of the opposition, who considered him GD patron Ivanishvili’s stooge. The fall from grace should not have been easy for him: once a popular journalist and fierce preservationist, he rose to political fame in 2017 by surprisingly challenging GD’s Kakha Kaladze in the mayoral race.

But now he has a chance to atone himself the old-fashioned way: Elisashvili said on March 13 that he took up arms and joined the foreign fighters in Ukraine. “I couldn’t just observe this fight from afar,” he said. Not surprising, since in his cringe-inducing candid camera moment, he once recounted day-dreaming about mowing down Georgia’s enemies standing side-by-side Erekle II, 18th-century Georgian monarch. It is another question how the Georgian Dream, vocally against sending the volunteers to Ukraine will digest one of the MPs taking the way of the gun. Elisashvili is not the sole political persona to – quite literally – join the fray: Irakli Okruashvili, former Defense Minister of Georgia, has been showing off his military ID and actively updating the country about the battlefield developments from Ukraine for a couple of days already. Gun-toting Okruashvili’s macho cred is well burnished, so it is up to Elisashvili to show his bad-boy moves.

If only this was the toy-soldier battle, if only it was a joke, if only it was a game… We would laugh and forgive.

That’s the full lid for today. With our eyes riveted on news updates from Ukraine and our hearts heavy with their every loss, we hope and prey that this madness would end, and that we could laugh effortlessly again. Join us every Tuesday and Friday for the incisive coverage of Georgia’s political life. And hopefully, for some encouraging news.