Dispatch | 6-12 July: And then they wrote…

Apparently summer is the time, when Georgian politicians sharpen their quills and go on to write long, winding letters full of intrigue and surreptitious adulation. Much like the protagonists of the legendary novel of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, “Dangerous Liaisons”, the weave the tangled web of deceit trying to woo the one, the only, the most adulated oligarch of the nation, with an ardor of the feeling that dare not speak its name…

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OFF-SIDE The first to sharpen his plume was Mikheil Kavelashvili, Georgia’s former international footballer who was assumed to be sharper with his foot. Having found his room at the backbench of the ruling Georgian Dream, MP Kavelashvili continues to play offense. Recently spun-off from the GD as a part of so called “frank-and-honest trio” he wrote a lengthy letter to the U.S. Ambassador, essentially accusing her of covering up – and financing – those who try to drag Georgia into war with Russia. Ambassador Degnan did not stay quiet, firing back at “unhinged” letter, full of “lies and conspiracy theories” – but pressing the most vital message: the government needs to get to work, rather than engage in the war of words. But these words fell on the deaf years. The government seems to try its best NOT to get to work on EC recommendation, and the very public, angry showdown with the US Ambo is apparently what they crave to mask their inaction. One after another, the “frank-and-honest trio” came to their colleagues defense, and the ruling party flamethrower boy, Irakli Kobakhidze got their back. Ambassador Kelly’s criticism towards MP Kavelashvili was “disrespectful” to Georgia’s democracy and “offensive”, GD Chair argued. Other GD MPs chimed in: why does not Ambassador respond to the substance (read: conspiracy theories) rather than denigrate the author?! This damaging ping-pong is likely to continue, and to spread further afield. Five local councilors split off from the GD in an apparently coordinated campaign (their resignation letters were nearly identical) – again, “to speak the truth” about Georgia’s western partners, in other words, to whip the wave of anti-western hysteria with plausible deniability of not belonging to the ruling party. They have compared U.S. Ambassador’s attitude to that of the Communist Party politburo. Making uncle Vladimir proud, they are!

UNTO THE BREACH With the diversion battle well on its way (“defending-the-realm-against-perfidious-westerners”) , it was time for Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili to lead the charge on the main front (“protecting-the-oligarch-from-the-deadly-curse-of-sanctions”). His five-page letter is written to defend Bidzina Ivanishvili, GD founder and patron, from the charge of being an oligarch and argues, that those speaking of “de-oligarchization” (i.e. the European Union, as well as local CSOs and opposition) are trying to “discredit Georgia’s governance system.” Of course, Ivanishvili appointed his trusted men to the government positions, argues PM, because you can’t just appoint people “from outside” to the civil service. I, myself, entered his service through an open competition, he continues.

For a letter aiming to protect Ivanishvili from the charges of pulling strings from behind the scenes, it is full of references to this seemingly unimportant personality. “Bidzina Ivanishvili” are the words mentioned most frequently, namely 34 times (close to 10% of the whole text), found the statisticians from Megastat, a FB page…

NO MAN IS AN ISLAND This was just an opening salvo. Other GD front-benchers joined in. Parliament Speaker Shalva Papuashvili (who is charged with depolarization, these days) used “no man is an island” line – should Mr. Ivanishvili, a famous benefactor and protector of arts, stop communicating with people altogether?! Yes, I do ask my elder mentor for advice, said Mr. Garibashvili, an added in a brilliant feat of whataboutism – even my wife asked Mr. Ivanishvili’s wife (who is a medical doctor) for some tips the other day, is that a crime, is she an oligarch too now?! (We say, too many details, Mr. Garibashvili, way too many details…). Smaller GD fish also rushed to Mr. Ivanishvili’s side: MP Mdinaradze (“yes, Mr. Ivanishvili is special for us, how should it be otherwise?!”, MP Tsilosani (“this is the revenge of the saboteurs for all the good that Mr. Ivanishvili has done!”).

WHAT IS THIS ALL ABOUT? The development is bizarre on many counts. Not least, since all of these epistolary “masterpieces” have similar phraseology and all the hallmarks of being written by the same hand (Mr. Kobakhidze, whose eloquence, however twisted, is beyond doubt, had to even defend Mr. Kavelashvili against detractors, who said the former footballers verbal statements do not suggest him being capable of writing the conspiracy tractate that he published), same goes for the two other members of the “trio”.

Let us first recall, that lengthy open letters are Ivanishvili’s signature style, despite the fact that his Georgian speech can be characterized most charitably as “hesitant and convoluted”. Mr. Ivanishvili announced his challenge to the UNM with one in 2011, and wrote another one to justify his formal departure from the leadership role as Prime Minister in 2013. This time, the open joust with the U.S. Ambassador serves one purpose, argues Iago Kachkachishvili, a sociologist – that GD is mount an openly anti-western spin-off to keep the conservative voters in its camp while arguing to be moving towards the European integration. Yet, he says, all that one reads in PM Garibashvili’s letter is how strongly entwined the ruling party is with the Georgian Dream. The party backbenchers even recently linked Georgian rugby teams sensational win over Italy to Ivanishvili’s contribution to the sport.

Civil.ge wrote in its editorial in May: “Georgia is not that much Ivanishvili’s political project, but his collateral in the international game – both an insurance and a trade-in chip for protecting his property. Touch my assets, and I will shift Georgia into the opposite camp on a whim, Ivanishvili signals.” This is precisely what is playing out now: perceiving the real possibility of Mr. Ivanishvili being sanctioned (his lawyers argue, he is already sanctioned de facto), the Georgian Dream is trying to simultaneously blackmail the U.S. and prepare the country for a “flip” in foreign policy despite massive rallies in support of the EU.

It is a dangerous game, and countering it requires both straight-talking and finesse. Ambassador Degnan seems determined to push the really important buttons and to keep the conversation about real issues, not figments of unhinged imagination. But additional investment is required so that her anticipated, planned departure is not spun as a victory by GD to uninformed voters… In the meantime, the ruling party seems to be in denial about the most elementary truths: like the criminals getting their say in running the prisons.

This promises to be a hot political summer. The Dispatch will, however, spin to the summer schedule and will appear in a single weekly edition, in your mailboxes on Wednesday morning.