The Dispatch

The Dispatch – February 19: Hello Crisis, Our Old Friend

Ivanishvili’s Birthday Wishes Fuel Crisis – Gakharia’s Troubled Transformation – Which Heads Will Follow? – Garibashvili’s First Blows – Melia Delivers New Triggers – and other troubles

BIRTHDAY PRESENTS Somehow, someone in the government decided that deepening the already festering political crisis is a good way to take people’s eyes from health emergencies and economic hardships. Moving to arrest the opposition leader Nika Melia over his refusal to post bail was asking for trouble. And nobody wanted to see Irakli Garibashvili return as a Prime Minister either, not with his track record.  Except it’s that the only person whose opinion matters (or so he and his minions think) – the first-ever Georgian Dream Prime Minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who got his birthday presents on February 18.

In a rare move that was both personally and politically self-serving, while also serving the general good, Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia quit, avoiding a bloody showdown between the police and Melia’s supporters who were holed up in the UNM headquarters. Because, as Gakharia said, many in his team were looking for trouble. The prompt accession of Mr. Garibashvili and the radiant face of party chair Irakli Kobakhidze give clear hint to who led the trouble pack.

THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY The move made Gakharia look like the only person with common sense. He was reviled, since June 20 protests were disbanded on his watch as Interior Minister and gave him a push to the Prime Ministerial chair. But leaving as he did, Gakharia left the impression that he was the only adult in the Georgian Dream backroom. Overnight, “angry reacts” turned into “sad reacts,” as even some in opposition shed a political tear – a true rarity in Georgia’s overheated politics. And since his departure left the door open, we offer below a short “career snapshot” of Gakharia.

SAUL TO PAUL? GAKHARIA’S TROUBLED PATH

Villain An outsider who started as an economy bureaucrat in the GD, Gakharia came into the spotlight as an Interior Minister: sensibly prioritizing the reform of the criminal police (Garibashvili’s old stronghold) and boosting human rights-sensitivity earned respect in narrow, but well-informed circles. But these advances were crushed by controversies, with the violent dispersal in 2019 of June 20-21 protests, costing several people an eye, being their sad pinnacle. Gakharia, who took official responsibility for police’s actions that day, was painted by protesters as an “eye-gouging” villain. And when he was the weakest and most reviled, Gakharia was propelled to PM’s position – in a characteristic oligarchic move by Georgian Dream’s patron, Bidzina Ivanishvili. For many who took to the streets on June 20-21 to protest the Georgian Dream kowtowing to the Russian communist official, Gakharia got his due comeuppance. But despite high spirits, many Georgians are forgiving.

HEALER Soon after his promotion, Georgia descended into yet another crisis when the ruling party failed to deliver proportional-system elections as promised. The COVID-19 pandemic threw GD a political lifeline, partly thanks to Gakharia’s leadership style, who, departing from the traditional rhetoric of his party – fixating on the past and on punishing UNM – managed the health crisis by pushing relatively competent figures to the forefront. His body image transformed too: from the confident, eye-winking security strongman who radiated masculine energy, he slowly turned into a slender, caring workman in a white shirt, whose permanently exhausted face with prominent cheekbones and deep shades would make the best reference for any aspiring expressionist chiaroscuro painter.

CHALLENGER Gakharia’s approval ratings soon shot up way beyond Ivanishvili’s. This was when everyone knew that his political hours were counted. However, with October 2020 parliamentary elections approaching, his ratings were indispensable for GD, and Gakharia duly headed the party list. But with autumn came the catastrophic second wave of Covid-19. The government lost control of the Covid-19 crisis, and Gakharia became vulnerable. Still, in the political environment shaped by hatred, revenge, and sock puppets, Prime Minister’s deviating, now victimized figure gave the public what it missed: somebody to love.

… AND MARTYR Who freed him from earlier sins, one might ask. Definitely not the church, knowing his troubled relationship with Georgian Orthodox clerics. Some believe he still has blood on his hands from 2019 developments, others – including opponents – claim he never was directly responsible for GD’s most violent decisions. The former Prime Minister managed to take credit for the right policies, while keeping himself relatively clean of reviled moves, including the “Cartographers’ Case.” His inevitable departure was long predicted. And when people started thinking he was smart enough to evade it, he dramatically jumped ship – at the right political moment.

His farewell selfie that gathered over 100,000 likes in only 2 hours sums it up:

… and now back to the present

MORE HEADS TO ROLL? Gakharia so far leads the race of most outstanding departures, stealing the spotlight from rolling heads in opposition. Following in his footsteps, Minister of Regional Infrastructure Maia Tskitishvili also quit today. In a process less related to Gakharia, rumors broke that Tamar Zhvania, chairwoman of the Central Election Commission, handed her much-demanded resignation. The CEC has so far denied it. In a separate development, the nativist Alliance of Patriots party, the one who has been in shadows recently refusing to do anything with the UNM-led opposition, now too saw the departure of Ada Marshania, one of its prominent leaders.

POTI OUT, GAREJI IN – Hardly done celebrating his re-ascension, Garibashvili’s burnished image as a patriot and fierce protector of national treasure got a painful blow. Civic Idea, a CSO headed by Tinatin Khidasheli, erstwhile Defense Minister in Garibashvili’s previous cabinet whom the latter allegedly described in a foul language in a leaked audiotape years before, reminded him and the public today of some unfinished businesses of PM-designate. During his pause from politics since 2015, Garibashvili reportedly was on the payroll of now bankrupted, murky Chinese state company CEFC. The company still owns 75% shares of the Free Industrial Zone of Poti, Georgia’s port city, Khidasheli alleged, asking Garibashvili why the state won’t buy it back. Strategic objects in Poti may fall prey to the Russian state bank whom the Chinese company owes much, Civic Idea says.

BRAVEHEARTS And while CSOs slam Georgia’s chest-thumping PM nominee, the “Ossetian brothers” in Tskhinvali may indeed be putting some cringy ideas in his head: the Kremlin-backed Tskhinvali authorities decided it was a good idea to give pupils “courage lessons” as part of the “military-patriotic education of the younger generation.” And yes, we too think the good practice has to be implemented in Georgia proper as well: the courage is truly something any Georgian could use now to get through all that is happening.

TRAUERFEIER Amid excessive farewells occurring lately, no farewell to arms is in sight. Temperatures rise as more renaissance-style images emerge from outside the Parliament building, where clashes among opposition supporters and police resulted in over a dozen detentions today. In the meantime, Nika Melia announced he was going to leave his seclusion to attend a funeral on Saturday, further triggering the authorities. No wonder that literally everybody in Tbilisi elites has at least once in their lifetime been among Melia’s close friends: the man looks quite devoted.

TRUE BLOOD The rising political temperatures in the city are still far from real lives. They do not warm up those in need: reports came yesterday about a man who was found frozen to death in one of Tbilisi’s parks. As of the time of writing, yet another gambling victim is reportedly threatening with jumping into his death. And this all occurs as National Statistics Office said the unemployment rate rose from 17.0% in the third quarter of 2020 to 20,4% over the next 3 months. The rate in the same period of 2019 stood at 16,6%. This shows that the political elites do have a point in keeping Georgians preoccupied with drama.

The Dispatch will be back on Monday… Have a peaceful weekend!

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