Alleged terror plots, thwarted by Georgian police, have became a fresh stick with which to bash political rivals in divided Georgia. But any link between the supposed plots and a recent YouTube video threatening retribution against Georgia for its participation in NATO's Afghanistan campaign remains unclear.
Police on June 13 recovered a significant stash of explosives and firearms from a Tbilisi apartment and arrested two men for allegedly plotting an act of terror, the interior ministry said. The two men, Mikail Kadiev and Rizvan Omarov, have Russian passports, and are presumed to hail from Russia's North Caucasus.
It's not often that a prime minister of one country announces his citizenship in another country to justify addressing an international body in a language other than his own.
But when the prime minister is Georgia's Bidzina Ivanishvili and the venue is in Europe, what matters is showing you can fit in.
And so, at his April 23 début before the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Ivanishvili, "as a citizen of France . . . ," spoke to the European parliamentarians in French before switching into his native Georgian.
If the PACE deputies, who politely applauded his French intro, found his citizenship odd, it did not register.
After a long and bitter fight to regain his Georgian citizenship, Ivanishvili announced in February that he still is not a Georgian citizen. For that reason, he says, he has not, as previously expected, renounced his French citizenship, which, he claims, under Georgian law, allows him to remain prime minister.
Now it could, conceivably, also provide him with a useful PR tool.
Throwing in a little French, heavily accented as it was, may well have been meant to help make a good first impression at the gathering, and add, along with his profession of French citizenship, a slight punch to the pledges that he will keep Georgia on the track to European and trans-Atlantic integration.
In the Caucasus, Georgia is often seen as spoiled for choices. But, for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and his United National Movement, the big choice boils down to just one: with the West or against it.
Or, in other words, with the United National Movement (UNM) or against it. At an April 19 rally in downtown Tbilisi meant to prove to Georgia that the former ruling party is still a political force with which to be reckoned, President Saakashvili whipped up hundreds of supporters with memories of the Russian army's invasion of the country in 2008, and the world’s support for Georgia.
Leveraging lingering fears that Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili is driving Georgia away from the West, Saakashvili called on Georgians to “make a choice” against occupation.
“I want to say that the Georgian people will choose, not between traitors and half-traitors, but between patriots and even bigger patriots,” he said, speaking to a crowd that stretched down Rustaveli Avenue for more than a block.
“If we choose dishonorably, we will receive complete occupation,” he asserted. (Tbilisi argues that the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, housing thousands of Russian troops since the 2008 war, are under occupation.) “If we stand with honor, we will free the entire country.”
Anticipating the punch, a session of leaders from Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition had taken to the airwaves before the rally to remind voters that they firmly support membership in the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
It's not many politicians who can manage to be a doting family man, a gallant cavalier and a busy head of state all at the same time. But, according to declassified government expense records released on April 17, Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili, long touted as an anti-corruption crusader, has spared no public expense for parental, party and pretty-lady needs.
Frequently expatiating on the importance of education, the Georgian president stands accused of putting taxpayers' money where his mouth is by allegedly taking cash from state coffers to pay for his two sons' studies at prestigious private schools in Tbilisi.
While forking out for family needs, Saakashvili also supposedly catered to the interests of young women, too. The released records suggest that he gave an iPhone 4 and a gold bracelet to two young female members of his United National Movement party, and also gifted an expensive necklace to a visiting Russian media diva, all courtesy of the Georgian taxpayer.
Speaking of the latter, he did not forget voters, and allegedly used the presidential security budget to purchase 40 sheep for farmers.
Busy as the president may have been dispensing gifts from the state budget, he did purportedly find time for himself and a close circle of friends. The records state that he spent about $140,000 on a New Year's party in Dubai and some $70,000 on weight-loss procedures for himself and the loyally plump mayor of Tbilisi, Gigi Ugulava.
Most of these expenses supposedly came from the president’s security budget.
Georgia's political culture may have just hit puberty. After ferocious debating over constitutional amendment meant to cut presidential powers, the measure passed on March 21 in a unanimous first-run vote.
The final vote is scheduled for Monday, but the drama-filled initial hearing promises to be the true grand finale of the constitutional epic. The second-stage vote occurred on Friday without incident.
The amendment will divest President Mikheil Saakashvili of the right to dismiss Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s cabinet and appoint a new government without parliamentary approval.
Saakashvili has maintained repeatedly that he has no interest in using the amendment, but the fact that the power will not vanish at the whim of a single political party or person, but by the will of two opposing political forces, is almost as momentous to many Georgians as the planned constitutional change itself.
Still a novel concept in Georgia's polarized politics, the compromise came after hours of debate in parliament and many calls to the president’s and the prime minister’s houses. The voting was preceded by a long and trying ping-pong of petty exchanges between the president and prime minister.
President Saakashvili insisted that he had no intention to sabotage the prime minister, to whom he conceded the choice of cabinet members after last year’s parliamentary vote, but Ivanishvili needed more than just the president's word for peace of mind. The variety of requests Saakashvili put forth in exchange for his United National Movement Party’s consent to the amendment included immunity from prosecution for former mid-level government officials.
With all the dramatic flair of a silent movie star, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili sent his security detail home the other day, later saying he needs no bodyguard other than his Dutch-born wife, Sandra Roelofs. He then sat down in his tiny blue electric car and drove himself and the First Lady to the Tbilisi airport for an official trip to Baku.
But after coming back from Azerbaijan, the president found a convoy of security vehicles waiting for him at the airport, as if they were never dismissed. The big black SUVs, dispatched by the government, followed home the little presidential Nissan Leaf, which resolutely ignored them.
President Saakashvili and Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili have fought over speeches, arrests, constitutional changes and more. So, it should come as no surprise that they are now fighting over whether or not the president will have bodyguards.
Since last year's parliamentary elections, most components of the presidential security service -- like most of Georgia's government agencies -- have been taken over by the prime minister’s office. In turn, the president claims that the prime minister's people have been bringing pressure to bear on his personal bodyguards, so that he was compelled to relinquish the reported 350-person team altogether.
In the latest twist in Georgia's ongoing, high-stakes political drama, a Tbilisi court on February 25 rejected the central government's demand for the resignation of Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, one of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's closest allies, following criminal charges on misuse of budgetary funds.
Pending an April 10 hearing on the charges of alleged embezzlement/misappropriation of funds and money-laundering,Ugulava, Georgia's first elected mayor, was not required to post bail
and will be left free. The prosecution had requested that bail be set at one million laris
(over $600,000), Ugulava's suspension from office and a ban on travel
“I simply don’t have a million lari to pay,” declared Ugulava, to jeers from Georgian Dream members, who long have accused the 37-year-old mayor of skimming off millions from the city budget.
The judge found no grounds for any of the proposed measures against Ugulava; a ruling that a packed courtroom and supporters outside cheered as a clear victory.
Former Defense Minister Davit Kezerashvili, whom prosecutors named as the middle man in an alleged government attempt involving Ugulava to take over the private TV station Imedi, was sentenced to pre-trial detention in-absentia. His whereabouts are not known.
President Saakashvili strongly defended Ugalava and, again, slammed the ongoing prosecutions of his loyalists as an attempt by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili to destroy the opposition, represented by Saakashvili's United National Movement.
While the 37-year-old mayor, one of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s closest allies, has denied any wrongdoing, the February 23 indictment is another political blow to the president, and puts another yawning crack into efforts by the country’s divided national government to coexist peacefully.
The Georgian Ministry of Finance’s Investigative Service alleges that Ugulava was involved in a convoluted real estate transaction that cost “the budget” 10 million lari (approximately $6 million) in a bid to place a private national broadcaster, Imedi, which had been critical of Saakashvili, under de-facto government control. Though they have not detailed their reasoning, investigators have termed the alleged misuse of funds “money laundering.”
The case centers around the city’s sale and subsequent repurchase of a four-hectare plot of land in a popular Tbilisi neighborhood, Rike, that was aggressively promoted for development during Saakashvili's United National Movement's years in power.
A vicious power fight between Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and President Mikheil Saakashvili appears to be pushing Georgia fast into a vortex of political confusion with unpredictable results.
And the fight, as of today, is quite literal. On February 8, scores of pro-Ivanishvili protesters and ex-prisoners gathered outside Tbilisi's National Library with the apparent intention of preventing pro-Saakashvili parliamentarians and other supporters from entering the building to hear the president's annual speech to the country.
The president's speech, originally scheduled for 6pm, began three hours later, from the presidential residence, and was boycotted by Georgian Dream MPs. Sounding familiar themes, Saakashvili underlined that the national priorities of independence, freedom, territorial integrity and European integration do not belong to one party alone or one person alone, and noted that "cohabitation," in Georgian, means living together to build a state. The Georgian Dream's response, for now, boiled down to televised comments by Interior Minister Gharibashvili defending the police performance outside the National Library and pledging to investigate alleged violations of the law.
The brouhaha, though, is more than just a one-time flare-up in a city known for getting into fisticuffs over politics. Rather, it is raising the question of whether or not Georgia is moving further back into its chaotic political past, based on personal fiefdoms, rather than into a stable future based on rule of law.
The US military may have explored gay defense strategies, but Georgian prosecutors allege that Georgia's military police once made ample use of a disturbing strategy of its own -- gay honey traps to seduce socially prominent men and then blackmail them into "cooperation" with President Mikheil Saakashvili's government.
The Prosecutor’s Office claims that the military police, under their former chief, Megis Kardava, secretly filmed the private lives of homosexual men to coerce them into becoming secret agents. The recruited hommes fatales would then ensnare male targets into having sex with them and record it on camera, the allegation goes. The military police even supposedly took the trouble to hire apartments to make many reels of such rendez-vous, which would mean that Georgian taxpayers would have paid for the trysts.
Politicians, showbiz celebrities and other public figures were among the victims, according to General Prosecutor Archil Kbilashvili, who said that his office started looking into the matter after one victim complained to the police.
Prosecutors said that they are looking at a very large stash of, well, gay porn, and are pressing charges against top military police officials.
“To make sure these videos don’t become public, the blackmailed victims of the conspiracy were agreeing to publicly voice their support for the political regime and take part in the publicity events of the previous authorities,” the Prosecutor's Office said.