The Dispatch

The Dispatch – March 17-18: Total Distrust

Unbearable Lightness of Crisis Talks – EU HR/VP Upsets Gov’t Opponents – Court Ruling Seen with Distrust – Another Controversy over Violence on Women – (Another) New Political Force Announced – Georgia Faces Blackout – Namakhvani Activists Disown Xenophobic Rally, Suspect Gov’t Meddling

Greetings from Georgia! As Brussels Envoy still did not go anywhere, parties in crisis talks are struggling (and so far failing) to find a solution. Other developments show how urgently Georgia needs to end the crisis and get on with vital reforms.

The Dispatch and me, your operator – Nini – are having our ear to the ground – seeking context in isolated events – and trying to glean the meaning in the absurd. Subscribe here! 

Mediation: Lots of News, Nothing New

  • Christian Danielsson, President Charles Michel’s envoy, did not manage to create the consensus on the sixth day, and rest the seventh. He is only human after all. The envoy will reconvene his unruly gang, doing his best, and many here wonder how is that he still has all the patience: many of us have long lost patience and are also losing interest in the party squabbles. Today, on March 17, the opposition and the ruling party faced each other on the negotiating table – there are talks about progress, but none of the parties dares to confess to any concessions. During a press conference after the EU Association Council PM Garibashvili – in the presence of EU leaders – announced that the next parliamentary elections will be held as planned, in 2024. Will he have to eat his hat?

Latest updates: EU Mediation, Day 6: Georgian Dream, Opposition Hold Meeting

  • WRONG ORDER The highlight was Labor leader Shalva Natelashvili rushing off the meeting and the whole mediation framework – the veteran politician apparently did not like the order in which discussion topics were listed on the agenda. He said the issues of “political prisoners” and snap elections should top the list. Instead, judicial and electoral reforms were talked about first. We understand that the longer you stay in Georgian politics, the less you believe in institutions, but still, sad to see the most ardent supporter and ideologist of opposition unity give up first… Will he come back?
  • HR/VP’S REFERENCE NOT WELCOME PM Garibashvili’s confidence in announcing 2024 as elections date was preceded and partly boosted by remarks of EU High Representative Josep Borrell. On the journalist’s question about the need for snap polls in Georgia, HR/VP said it’s not up to him to decide. “The only thing I can tell you is that OSCE has considered these elections free and fair,” he added, to upset many in faraway Georgia a little bit. Some in the opposition rightly noticed that it’s not the first such message filtering from Brussels (and they do keep ignoring it). Others among the government-critical public went ahead to downplay HR Borrell’s power and relevance, recalling his recent Moscow fiasco. The harshest one, again, was Labor’s Natelashvili, who compared HR/VP’s remarks to those by Russian Foreign Intelligence Chief Sergey Naryshkin – who also found 2020 Georgia elections free and fair. The slight problem we have with all of this: OSCE/ODIHR has stopped using the “free and fair” badge almost two decades ago now… But the politicians like to skip the fine grain.

Trust Reforms Needed

  • TRUST ISSUES A lack of trust has been in focus lately – partly due to the strong anti-vaxxer attitudes since the AstraZeneca vaccine rollout in Georgia, and largely due to the flawed justice system in the country which spreads like a contagion. For example, the son of late ex-PM Zurab Zhvania was sentenced today to 1,5 years in prison and another 1,5 years on probation for wounding the grandchild of famous businessmen and politician Gogi Topadze. Some say the sentence is too lenient compared with other, less famous people, who have to serve far longer terms for lesser crimes. However, a civilized dialogue between the families that reportedly accompanied court proceedings and investigation might have affected the court outcome.
  • VIOLENCE, AGAIN Moving to the topic of violence against women, the fame and publicity factors are even bigger enemies. We talked about the divided views over the win of Georgian tennis star Nikoloz Basilashvili, against whom domestic violence allegations are pending in Court. Now another case added to the controversy: former MP Gogi Tsulaia, still active in Georgian politics, was detained over violence allegations against a woman he reportedly knew. Tsulaia so far denies violence, but reportedly admits there was a conflict.
  • MOB JUSTICE Weeks earlier, amid the secret recordings controversy which centered around Bera Ivanishvili going after offenders, Tsulaia had resorted to some highly offensive words against Bera – son of the former PM Bidzina Ivanishvili. This is why netizens, distrustful of law enforcement and justice systems, started presuming personal revenge might be behind the arrest. Doubting those in power is the essence of democracy, but if mistrust towards authorities goes too far, people start compensating the flawed justice system with mob justice. This is a slippery slope.
  • NEW HOPE? Anna Dolidze, who ran as independent in Tbilisi’s Didube constituency, announced forming a “new political force” in the nearest future – another woman to make a move after Elene Khoshtaria’s “Droa!” platform. Dolidze received 17,95% in October and ended third in her district, with both ruling party and joint opposition candidates ahead of her. Still impressive, considering the limited resources and high polarization. A lawyer and fierce advocate of judicial reforms herself, her becoming more active in politics may indeed contribute to discussions over reforms.
  • DANGEROUS MISPLACEMENT Again, speaking of trust, confidence, and understanding: prominent Georgian CSOs issued today a joint letter condemning forming of a “Scientific-Consulting Council of Ethnic Minorities” on the basis of the Parliamentary Committee of Diaspora and Caucasus Affairs. Ethnic minorities getting noticed is a good thing, the letter implies, but establishing the council at Diaspora/Caucasus Committee? This only strengthens the narrative of linking ethnic minorities with other countries, substantially harming the process to build an “inclusive, equal and democratic society,” CSOs argue.

On Power and Power Cuts

  • DARK HUMOR Thankfully, after a long time of facing merely crises and discords, Georgians had yesterday a moment to leave TV screens and stand together like in those sweet old times, when almost the entire country fell into a massive hour-long blackout. Georgian State Electrosystem later said it was caused by damage to the connector line with Turkey. Part of Georgians was left with a strange aftertaste: they have heard too much these days of Turkey, energetic security, and import-dependence over the viability of the construction of the controversial Namakhvani Hydropower Project. People here tend not to believe in coincidences.
  • UNHAPPY COINCIDENCE? The latest developments over the HPP resistance fueled further distrust towards those “in power.” The Rioni Gorge activists raised alarm about representatives of “Georgian March” – a far-right nativist force – reportedly calling for an anti-HPP rally on March 31 with clear anti-Turkish sentiments. Rioni activists distanced themselves from the announcement, saying that their movement does not peddle any xenophobic attitudes. Varlam Goletiani, one of the activist leaders, said there was a suspicious coincidence between the recent “radicalization of protests” accusation thrown by the Economy Minister Natia Turnava against HPP project opponents and the raise in radical calls on social media, and the clicking of the “Georgian March” machinery into action.
  • THINKING BACK… This is not the first time coincidence happens – back in May 2018, the government managed to dissipate protests that followed the police anti-drug raid of the famous Basiani nightclub partly due to threats coming from far-right and even self-identified “fascist” reactionaries. Piloting radicals to marginalize legitimate protests?! There is no proof, but that has been a stock-of-trade by many a government in Eastern Europe before…We hope our investigative colleagues will dig deeper to unravel the truth.

That’s the full lid for today. Celebrate the bizarre and the curious in Georgia’s politics with us every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday!


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