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The Dispatch

Dispatch | November 2-8: Period Drama

Yes, we are guilty of using the phrase “political circus” way too often when it comes to Georgian politics. But then again – we now have a high-profile follower: Tea Tsulukiani once the servant to Themis, now in service of the Muses, has announced the national program to support the development of the circus, and before the detractors could even crack a joke, pounced on the obvious — the opposition, she said, is “playing circus with the fate of the nation”. Ah, that accusatory finger again, pointed menacingly at the opponents… Yet, yet, the Georgian Dream was not the last to contribute to performing arts. But we jump ahead of ourselves.

KING’S LANDING On 7 November the Georgian Dream held celebratory events commemorating King Irakli II of Kartli and Kakheti (1720-1798) in his native town of Telavi. To properly grasp why this sartorially bizarre (see photo), but seemingly insignificant performance got so much social media and political buzz, one must dive behind the looking glass… As someone said, the Soviet Union was a country with an unpredictable past. Soviet historians have wrought, deformed, and shaped national stories and myths to fit their narratives – if you haven’t yet, read Claire Kaiser’s enlightening interview about Stalin.

Irakli II the last warrior king of the two Georgian provinces, was seeking to break out of the fragmentation of the united Georgian kingdom but was hamstrung by the regional geopolitical dilemmas. Pursuing a particularly wily brand of oriental politics, he sought with the West, but ade and broke agreements with dominant Persia. Bled and drawn by constant combat (legends say he fought over 500 battles), he ended up submitting to the protection of the Russian Empire with the 1783 agreement. After Irakli II’s death, this agreement, plus the unwise decision to split his heritage, would spell the end of the Georgian kingdoms. Just as his mix-and-match attire on his royal portrait- Russian cavalry uniform, Russian star of Vladimir, Persian turban – Irakli II was the embodiment of the confusion bred by the geopolitical dilemmas his country faced.

Respected for bravery, he was condemned for short-sightedness as the Russian Empire gobbed up Georgian provinces one after another in the early 19th century. By 1893, one of the greats of Georgian romantic poetry, Nikoloz Baratashvili would address Irakli II thus: “Who’s given you O, King, the right to pass to others, the lives of men beholden to your throne, to thus subdue their freedom on your whim?”

Yet, for the Soviet Georgian historiography, Irakli II was the crucial link, the heroic King linking Georgia’s fate to Russia, legitimizing this bond. Forever. It is no wonder then, that the Georgian Dream’s sudden, pop-culture resurrection of Irakli’s shadow has ruffled some liberal feathers. There are layers of identity at play: Irakli II hailed from Kakheti, the fief of the current prime minister, Irakli (yes, there is that name, also) Garibashvili. He has sought an alliance with Russia in troubled times, just like the Georgian Dream seeks normalization with Moscow. There is no depth there (even though one academic conference was seemingly a part of the government-sponsored show). In the combat of simulacra the Dream’s “traditional” Irakli II, the realist Russophile, is aligned against the liberal opposition. The feast of Irakli, once again, has proven a way for the government to portray its jeering opponents as alien and counter-traditional.

The glowing haze of staged history. Actors impersonate King Irakli II and his wife, Queen Darejan during the government-sponsored commemoration of “Erekleoba” in Telavi

REALITY CHECK In the meantime, the IRI Poll dropped, showing 62% of Georgians thinking their country is moving in the wrong direction, while over 40% say no parties represent them. As the economy tops concerns, the government using the millennium-old tradition of distracting the grumbling populace with gladiator games on TV – the market which its mouthpiece – Imedi TV – dominates, according to the same poll. Parliament Speaker Shalva Papuashvili quipped that US-funded pollsters “should get it that they can not make polls and quit”, claiming – based on nothing, really – that “Georgian society does not trust these polls, while they are persisting inputting them out, encouraging disarray and destructive behavior as a result.” Smash the mirror, kill the messenger, and live happily ever after? Works for some, but not for long.

OUT-FOXING Discontent has been bubbling up in the United National Movement (UNM) as several members called for the defenestration of the party’s formal leader, Nika Melia. The trouble around Melia’s stated attempt to rejuvenate the party and distance it from its founder and guru, Mikheil Saakashvili, has been brewing for quite some time now, despite several public pledges of friendship between the two. The hardline base of “Mishists” have balked at what they see as Melia’s insufficiently radical effort to set Saakashvili free from prison. With both its founder, Saakashvili, and its public relations mastermind, Nika Gvaramia behind the bars, UNM is in trouble. There are some suggestions, that UNMs financial backer, David Kezerashvili is behind the plot to oust Melia. Indeed, despite the troubles, UNM remains the strongest single opposition force with 12-15% of support, while IRI polls suggest that none of the splinter opposition groups have a pulse. The Georgian Dream has openly announced its determination to weaponize EU recommendations to frame Kezerashvili as an oligarch and squeeze him out of the media scene (he is a shareholder at Formula TV) and politics. With the electoral clock ticking for 2024, can UNM’s “great reunion” be in the works (note the announced reunion of Japaridze, Khoshtaria, and Vashadze Jr.) and could it work electorally? And if Melia’s attempt at moderate re-branding is deemed a failure, what future for UNM? Divisions within the party and personal animosities run deep, while Georgians seem to want new faces and parties, rather than the old.

That is all for today, the Dispatch will be back next Wednesday, with further tribulations of the Georgian political scene.


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