The Dispatch

The Dispatch – August 19/20: Heroes & Their Limits

Olympic Star Arrested after Deadly Shooting – Revolving Door from Sports to Politics – War on Mosquitos Turns Toxic in Kakheti – UNM’s Poti Mayor Candidacy Comes as Surprise

Greetings from Georgia. With the country hardly done celebrating a record number of Olympic medals from Tokyo, several Gold winners find themselves in a crime controversy that makes Georgians not only revisit their expectations from hero athletes but also question more deep-seated, dangerous customs. Here is Nini with usual and unusual updates from Georgia.

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GOLD GONE WRONG Georgian judoka Zurab Zviadauri, who won Gold in the 2004 Olympics and also served as Georgian Dream MP in 2012-2016, was sent to pretrial detention on premeditated murder charges following a shooting that left three dead. According to the police report, on August 16 a shot was fired in a confrontation among several persons near the village of Tsinandali, in the eastern Kakheti region. Nika Kenchoshvili, 27, allegedly shot in response, wounding two and killing two, including Zviadauri’s brother. “During the same confrontation,” Kenchoshvili was shot dead by Zviadauri. The lawyer claims the star athlete did shoot in self-defense, the prosecution, however, argues that Zviadauri was seeking revenge.

GOLDEN BAIL The incident has divided the public. Four persons – including Lasha Bekauri and Lasha Talakhadze, both Tokyo Olympic gold medalists, as well as former GD MP Zakaria Kutsnashvili and judoka Avto Chrikishvili vouched for the suspect, but the court refused to bail him out. Kutsnashvili even offered his own house for Zviadauri’s confinement as an alternative for prison. Some disapproved of the move from beloved athletes to back the suspect, fearing Zviadauri’s position and contacts may help him evade justice. Others, however, see the champion as somebody who acted fairly in killing his brother’s murderer, offering “I would do the same” justifications.

SYMPATHY PREVAILS In contrast to now-familiar polarities in Georgian discourse, the parents of the deceased Kenchoshvili, though assuming their son was defending himself, showed understanding for the families of others killed in the shooting, including for Zviadauri, expressing their condolences. “I used to be proud of Zviadauri,” Kenchoshvili’s father said, “I do not know, he probably acted the way he found right, but he could have done [better] in the beginning.” Precise details about the origins of conflict remain unknown – Kenchoshvili’s family says their son was one of the craftsmen who went to work in the area, thus denying earlier reports of confrontation being about business shares.

BAD HABITS The controversy again brings up another not-so-lovely Georgian habit: the revolving door between sports and politics, where star athletes are recruited to serve as flag-bearers for the political parties (usually it is the ruling party of the moment, which tries to burnish its tarnished image this way). Not everybody was happy in 2018 when weightlifter Lasha Talakhadze, already a one-time Olympic champion, appeared in a campaign video of a GD-backed presidential candidate Salome Zurabishvili. Another Olympic Gold (and silver) winner, wrestler Vladimer Khinchegashvili, 30, who had to miss the Tokyo games for an unfortunate COVID-19 infection during qualification contests, is currently running as a mayoral candidate in the Gori municipality of Shida Kartli region. Other, lesser-known athletes who cannot back the ruling party with their fame, have been alleged in rather helping out with their muscles during campaign violence. For these reasons, some in Georgia have grown cautious in celebrating the international glory of national sports heroes.

TOXICITY Locals from Telavi, the main town of Kakheti, reported a horror slightly resembling chemical warfare: emergency services are said to have received multiple calls near midnight between August 17-18 after Telavi residents spotted smoke and smelled gasoline. “It took a while as police patrol crews tried to figure out” what was sprayed in the air while fire brigades searched for the origins of the smoke, a local social media user wrote in distress. Turns out, the National Food Agency had ordered to administer anti-Mosquito spray at midnight, without properly warning the residents. “Those who went close to the smoke were intoxicated. I had a sore throat and burning eyes throughout the night,” a netizen from Telavi complained.

HEAVYWEIGHT The United National Movement is considering Gigi Ugulava, former leader of the European Georgia party, as a mayoral candidate in the coastal Poti, Samegrelo region, with some other parties expected to back his candidacy. The news, however, came as surprise, since top UNM member, MP Tina Bokuchava had been rumored earlier to join the Poti race. Bokuchava was quoted in media as saying that she was the one to turn down the offer as she did not have “proper links” with the port city. Other party members cite the rich political experience of a “heavyweight” figure as Ugulava, who served as Tbilisi mayor in the UNM era.

Questions, however, remain, partly considering his waning popularity (running as European Georgia’s majoritarian candidate in Zugdidi, he came third in the first round of 2020 parliamentary elections, gaining 7,22% of votes). Another noteworthy fact is that in the same elections, MP Bokuchava, one of the most active party members at the time, was put only 24th on the proportional party list of the UNM-led bloc, preceded by names few have ever heard.

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

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