President Michel Brings Parties to Table – Anti-HPP Protests in Spotlight… and Ex-President Wants to Free-ride – Abkhaz Opposition Needs Answer – Tbilisi Called to Respond to Sokhumi’s Ouverture – Concerns over Journalists’ Safety – Vaccine Controversy (and still no jabs)
Greetings from troubled but beloved Tbilisi! The past two days were busy and produced major shifts that may significantly alter Georgia’s future political culture. All strong winds of change are blowing from the West – be it inside or outside the Georgian borders. Set your timers now! The next two weeks are what our statesmen (and way too few women) have to shepherd the country in the right direction. And they better not fail it…
THE WEST WE NEED… European Council President Charles Michel arrived in Georgia as part of his trip to associated Eastern Partners, but he may be going back with a better-decorated CV as a crisis manager. Significantly expanding the EU’s role in Georgia’s post-election crisis, Mr. Michel transitioned from facilitation to mediation. Both the ruling party and the opposition are – finally – in the room and at the table. Even more so, that room is at the Georgian President’s office – a charming (and cunning) gesture there from the former Belgian PM, who must know first hand how to go past the “irreconcilable”. A compromise looks suddenly back in the realm of the possible. Giga Bokeria mentioned a “plebiscite” for the citizens to decide if on snap elections. Still, no actual concessions were made, EU Council President expects the parties to show up in Brussels in two weeks’ time – bearing results. That’s when the next Association Council will be meeting, and the message the Georgians will be bringing would undoubtedly impact our country’s European future. Don’t mess it up this time!
…AND THE WEST WE HAVE It was also two weeks’ time that the “Save Rioni Gorge” movement gave Georgian authorities to make a move, vowing otherwise to make their life harder. President Michel’s plane had not yet touched Tbilisi soil yesterday when the images from Kutaisi, Western Georgian city, sowed hope in many Georgians who no longer expected the country to break out of its spiraling political nonsense. Thousands of people from all parts of the country crowded the central square of Kutaisi to raise their voices against the controversial Namakhvani HPP project, set to be built on the Rioni River in Western Georgia, stole the spotlight from Tbilisi turmoils. Some were surprised, others might have seen this coming: in our February 22 Dispatch we also warned – “as Tbilisi is busy chasing nonsense, the growing protest wave is swelling from the grassroots.” It did and it overcame the boundaries.
ONTO THE BANDWAGON The activists at the forefront of the cause are against the political parties grabbing the limelight. But Lelo for Georgia was the first to make move the night before the rally, expressing solidarity for the protests and saying people must be informed and consulted (Oh, the novelty!). In today’s parlance, Lelo did it “before it got cool“. Others were late to that party, but some were not deterred – you can say whatever you like about Mikheil Saakashvili, but his talent for smelling political opportunity is impeccable. Logically, President Saakashvili chose to free-ride, publicly backing the cause. The problem is that Saakashvili was the one who advocated for large-scale HPPs in Georgia, including Namakhvani, and there is footage to prove it. Obviously, things that were safe on his watch, became a threat in the bumbling hands of the Georgian Dream… Like the politicized prosecution and kangaroo courts… Oh, wait…
DAMS DON’T KILL PEOPLE It is tough when you worship the Mamon but still want those votes. The right-libertarian opposition politician Zurab Japaridze cautiously backed the discontent but predictably said it was all about land being local property and investors making sure things they built are safe. He also warned against blanket anti-HPP attitudes and pointed to anti-Turkish sentiments behind the protests. Namakhvani is built by a company registered in Istanbul, so some of the ultra-right groups try to taint the protest. On the other hand, more sensible organizers seem to be quite well aware of the risk and made appropriate noises in their public addresses. One thing is clear: the protests have marked a high point in healthy political resistance and made it clear that there are some politics to be made outside the capital city.
STUCK ON “READ” To head further westwards, political elites in occupied Abkhazia have been facing some communication problems too. This time, some of Sokhumi’s opposition forces appealed against leader Aslan Bzhania at the Prosecutor’s Office, claiming he failed to respond to their questions sent 2 months ago on crucial issues. The appellants allege Bzhania thus violated “the law on consideration of citizens’ appeals.” Bzhania’s press office was left with nothing but to promise to answer “all 33 questions” in the nearest future.
TEAR DOWN THAT WALL Bzhania should be well aware of how it feels to be ‘left on read’: civil society representatives have just released a letter calling on Tbilisi to respond to recent calls for dialogue from Sokhumi leaders and take to steps “to begin direct dialogue with the Abkhaz society and political leaders.” The signatories offer their support “with experience and capabilities,” should the authorities be interested.
BAD PRACTICES So far, however, some words by those in government seem to only incite further violence, rather than quell it. The physical assault against prominent journalist Vakho Sanaia follows malign government practices against media workers – this was the main idea behind the manifest signed by media and civil society representatives on February 27. The authorities have been responding to critical questions asked by media with hate speech, aggression, and boycotts, signatories allege, adding that media workers have been subjected to politically motivated prosecutions and the attempts to impose censorship through regulatory bodies. To prevent more violence, authorities will have to end these practices, the petition says.
FUN IN TIMES OF COVID While ruling party leaders were busy partying during the curfew, others were getting upset about having less privilege and asked: where are the promised vaccines? So far, health authorities have blamed the delays on manufacturers, but the media-cited response from COVAX, an international platform that was supposed to supply the shots, delivered an unexpected blow to the government. The letter reportedly said the delay was due to failure on part of Georgian authorities to meet some formal criteria. The Health Ministry fiercely denied the allegations, with the Minister even pondering suing the COVAX over reputation risks. No worries: health officials still promise vaccines to arrive in about two weeks’ time (Those magical two weeks again – it gets us queasy).
GREEDY NEW WORLD Amiran Gamkrelidze, Head of Center of Disease Control, seems also disappointed about unkept promises, particularly about the equal global distribution of vaccines, berating the “unfair world” we live in. However, today’s rumors had it that NCDC Head, whose reputation has been on a rollercoaster ride since the onset of the pandemic, might be getting the sack. The Health Ministry debunked the rumors, but an open criticism of the Minister by Gamkrelidze’s son – health professional himself – might have precipitated the fall.
That’s the full lid for today. Celebrate the bizarre and the curious in Georgia’s politics with us every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday!