In a departure from its usual fascination with President Mikheil Saakashvili's administration, Georgia plans to take a fresh look at the 1993 killing of CIA station chief Freddie Woodruff during the murky, riotous epoch of President Eduard Shevardnadze.
"We have some serious doubts about what really happened, " Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani told The New York Times in reference to the shooting.
Investigators at the time said that Woodruff was killed by a pot shot fired by a drunken ex-soldier, a frequent occurrence in Georgia those days. But the circumstances and the timing led to many theories -- some straight from a film noir plot -- that linked the death to Washington-Moscow turf wars over the newly independent South Caucasus.
The man blamed for Woodruff's murder, Anzor Sharmaidze, spent 12 years in prison before being released in 2008 after witnesses claimed police had tortured them into implicating Sharmaidze. Tsulukiani commented to the Times that she suspects that Sharmaidze was jailed just because Tbilisi was under pressure to present Washington with a killer.
Aside from its profession of "serious doubts," it is unclear what has motivated the Georgian government to take a second look into the Woodruff case just now. Prosecutors already are facing a series of high-profile investigations into senior officials under the nearly nine-year rule of President Saakashvili’s United National Movement -- including a potential questioning of Saakashvili himself about the 2008 war with Russia -- that alone could prove a hefty burden.
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.
Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvii and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev have been named as owners of companies registered in the offshore tax haven of the British Virgin Islands, according to a 15-month investigation by the Washington, DC-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
The list of such owners, published in an April 3 report called "Secrecy for Sale: Inside the Global Offshore Money Maze," names Ivanishvili as the director of the Bosherton Overseas Corporation, registered in the British Virgin Islands in 2006 and "still in existence," according to the report. Aliyev and his wife, Mehriban, were listed as directors of Rosamund International as of 2003, the year Aliyev first came to power.
Their daughters, Arzu and Leyla, are registered as the director and a shareholder in Arbor Investments, and in LaBelleza Holdings Ltd and Harvard Management Ltd, respectively.
A spokesperson told Georgian media on April 5 that the prime minister had disposed of the shares before his campaign for public office began in 2011, though noted that "in the past" he had had "a business link" with the company." Georgian law forbids public officials to have a controlling stake in companies.
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.
A $2-billion investment fund, the limits to bipartisanship, and the hazards of adultery, both political and personal, were, on February 5, among the many talking points of Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who spent hours filling in Georgia about his cabinet's first months in office.
The televised parley between Ivanishvili and a roomful of journalists offered a peek into his plans, but, more significantly, into possible tensions within his ruling Georgian-Dream coalition.
Looking ahead to Georgia's presidential vote in October, Ivanishvili tossed out the observation that the respected, circumspect constitutional lawyer Vakhtang Khmaladze, a Georgian Dream parliamentarian, is a better fit for the head of state, than, say, the handsome and ambitious defense minister, Irakli Alasania.
And here is where the discussion took a bizarre turn. Ivanishvili alleged that President Mikheil Saakashvili's team is trying to seduce Defense Minister Alasania into switching sides. Quite literally, too.
In response to a reporter's question, Ivanishvili acknowledged that he had requested an explanation from Alasania about an alleged trip he made to Dubai, and then to France with the wife of a key Saakashvili loyalist, Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava, and another companion.
There had been, he told reporters, "a little misunderstanding in Dubai" and "we should forget this."
“Everyone can make a mistake, and Alasania is still a young man," he elaborated. "As for the France trip and the wife, all of that is very personal and I don’t pry into personal matters."
Rather, he discusses them in a televised press conference.