Dispatch – April 26/27: Apprentice

Ivanishvili’s Phone Tape Sparks Calls for Int’l Sanctions – GD Chair Crosses Swords with Ukraine Negotiator – Rumors: Another Ex-President to Chair UNM?

Georgians went into the Orthodox Easter holidays to take a time off from war-induced anxiety and political craze – only to come back to fresh dramas. Here is Nini with the usual updates from Georgia.

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THE CALL The public (or media) attention on Tuesday was directed to yet another tape(s) that went viral, featuring an alleged phone conversation between Georgian billionaire and ruling party patron Bidzina Ivanishvili and sanctioned Russian Oligarch Vladimir Yevtushenkov. Apparently initiated by the latter, the friendly banter is replete with insinuations of a possible business deal, the Russian oligarch reports dispatching his right-hand man to meet Ivanishvili to discuss a possible lucrative contract related to “grain”. Ivanishvili footballs the guests to Prime Minister (and his former assistant) Irakli Garibashvili. In the next call, guests arrive, but Yevtushenkov insists Ivanishvili meets his emissary personally, apparently not everything is intended for the ears of Garibashvili. Dated on March 10 and 12, the recordings are allegedly made after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, making them particularly controversial (read the details here). About a month ago, another recording of a between the two was released, with a presumed date of February 18, Ivanishvili’s birthday. But the recording did not include much beyond a short warm conversation between erstwhile friends.

CONFUSION The ruling Georgian Dream party leaders jumped to Ivanishvili’s defense, albeit in conflicting ways, simultaneously calling it “montage” and saying there is nothing wrong with the conversation. Yevtushenkov and David Khidasheli, presumably one of the Russian oligarch’s envoys who first rose to notoriety through his involvement in the Cartographers’ case, also commented in a similarly conflicting fashion, leaving the public confused about whether PM Garibashvili actually met the visitors from Russia and if yes, what was discussed (details here). At the same time, the tapes led the United National Movement, the largest opposition party, as well as some local activist groups to call for international sanctions against Ivanishvili – for kowtowing with sanctioned Yevtushenkov.

PUNISHER But the story did not stay limited to Georgia, it sparked yet another wave of anger in Kyiv. David Arakhamia, Ukrainian negotiator with Russia of Georgian descent, embraced the idea of sanctioning Ivanishivili. Commenting on the recording Arakhamia called Ivanishvili a pro-Russian politician who gets instructions from the Kremlin. Obviously, official Tbilisi went livid.

WHO’S HE Having fled Abkhazia during the armed conflict in the early 90s, Arakhamia grew up in Ukraine to become a successful tech guy prior to slowly moving into politics. But even if he never pursued a political career in Georgia, he still landed at the top of the GD’s black list of UNM-linked influential personas in Kyiv: in 2021, Arakhamia appeared in a T-shirt bearing the slogan #FreeMisha to call for the release of the jailed ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili. Saakashvili, who left his warm office in Kyiv to be smuggled into his homeland, once also boasted he had his share in Arakhamia’s successful political career (but, truth be told, the ex-President has claimed his role in anything that looks good at that particular time). As the Russian invasion of Ukraine progressed, Arakhamia became one of Kyiv’s officials to trade barbs with Tbilisi, and neither GD leaders hesitated to brand him as a UNM’s “external speaker.”

MORE DIRT TO COME To GD Chairman Irakli Kobakhidze, went blow-to-blow with Arakhamia, promising that the Georgian public will “learn more” about Arakhamia once the war is over. “More” includes, according to Kobakhidze, “bad things, but today is not a right time for this, Ukraine is in the state of war,” he said. The party chairman has long made his name as someone who makes claims based on information he refuses to disclose, promising that people will learn the truth at some point. Think of his allegations about former PM Giorgi Gakharia’s drug abuse, involving an unidentified femme fatale who, the story goes, introduced the overworked government head to the illicit substances. We never got the details then, either owing to Kobakhidze’s utter respect for Gakharia’s (and cherchelafemme‘s) privacy or… perhaps no facts existed.

PROMOTION Rustavi 2 TV broke the bombshell this morning (sharp tongues say to divert the attention from the tapes) claiming ex-President Giorgi Margvelashvili being set to replace Nika Melia as the Chairman of the United National Movement, the country’s largest opposition party. That would have been quite a plot-twist, seeing that Margvelashvili who was elected as a president on the Georgian Dream ticket back in 2013. But his eventual estrangement from his party while still in office, followed by his vocal government criticism and lately also friendly relations with the UNM and personally with Mikheil Saakashvili gave fodder to the rumor.

Margvelashvili did accompany the UNM leaders on the controversial Ukraine trip, arriving and posing in Kyiv before the official parliamentary delegation arrived. UNM’s Melia was slammed by opposition media for keeping the trip secret (and his waning influence in the party has been long-rumored).

But did Margvelashvili get the new job out of it? Both Melia and Margvelashvili denied Rustavi 2 reports. They come as reports about Saakashvili’s deteriorating health in jail reemerge. Has he grown dissatisfied with the efforts by his own party to save him from the ordeal?

If you lived in Georgia long enough, you know it is never wise to fully ignore a rumor.

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