A group of local civil society organizations united in the “No to Phobia!” platform issued a statement condemning ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili for his “discriminatory remarks containing [the elements of] hate speech” that were “referring to various ethnic groups and women in an offensive and demeaning context.”
The statement was released on June 14, and signed by ten civil society organizations, who claimed that ex-President Saakashvili’s remarks made in the interview with Rustavi 2 TV could have spurred “racism, xenophobia, various forms of discrimination and hatred.”
NGOs said although the political expression enjoys a particularly high threshold of protection, political leaders also have a “particular responsibility for avoiding negative stereotypes and prejudice, inciting intolerance to particular groups.”
Facts of the case
Speaking to Rustavi 2 TV talk show Kviris Aktsentebi on May 27, Saakashvili referred to a Georgian Dream MP Shota Shalelashvili saying “say hello to this swindler Russian jew brought [to Georgia] by him [GD founder Bidzina Ivanishvili] simply because he…has a Georgian ending to his last name, but had no relation with Georgia. I have had contacts with all patriots and friends, including in Israel where there are many great people, patriots of Georgia. With these people I have very warm relations. [But] this man is simply a Russian, an he is working for Russia…”
Later. on June 12, he told the same television’s program Archevani that “Georgia is not Russia. I deeply believe that Georgia is not like Russia. Georgia and Georgians can not be Russified, and especially [they can not be] turned into Chechens. What the Georgian Dream did in Marneuli, it was a Chechen-like behavior, and we should ward ourselves against [acting like] Chechens and Kadyrovtsi [referring to Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of the Chechen Republic]. Everything has its limit.”
NGOs said whether or not the insult to ethnic groups was intentional, assigning certain negative qualities to a whole ethnic group “was putting Chechens in one case, and Jews in another in a demeaning context, thus his statements were xenophobic.”
Mikheil Saakashvili has responded to the criticism on his Facebook page, saying the NGO statement “has been built on a lie” and that “the word ‘Kadyrov’ has been deliberately omitted” from the text, which distorts the context of his statement. “Let me emphasize that Kadyrov’s Chechnya is as dangerous as Putin’s misanthropic rule,” he writes.
Saakashvili insisted that “swindler Shalelashvili, who was brought from Russia” and whose son, according to him, has been charged for “stealing two billions [dollars?]” in the United States, “should not seat in the Georgian Parliament and should not be robbing our country.”
MP Shalelashvili responded to Saakashvili’s remarks: “I consider it as an anti-Semitic and racist statement, which insults not only me, but the entire Jewish community living in Georgia.” He added that his lawyers have already launched legal proceedings against Saakashvili.
Further ethnics trouble for UNM
Also on June 14, in a separate development, Kote Ioseliani, member of Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) political council, referred to PM-designate Mamuka Bakhtadze in a TV talk-show saying “according to some rumors, Bakhtadze is a sweetheart of Uta Ivanishvili [Bidzina Ivanishvili’s son]”.
On the same day, his party colleagues, including MP Salome Samadashvili and Mariam Gersamia demanded Ioseliani make a public apology for unethically invoking Bakhtadze’s private life and, possibly, his sexual orientation in a negative context.
Ioseliani responded on Facebook saying “it was not my intention to judge somebody’s private life, especially as any individual has the right to choose any type of relationship. I simply tried to demonstrate that Bakhtadze’s appointment is an example of nepotism. I am sorry if I behaved unethically and touched someone’s feelings.”
Subsequently, UNM told the media that Ioseliani had apologized and the party did not intend to pursue this matter further.