Georgia’s chain of public-service halls – a fast-food-style dispenser of everything from ID cards to property registrations – broke a mold in the post-Soviet world, where taking care of such tasks usually means taking a long journey though the labyrinths of government bureaucracy. The bold undertaking had been an achievement of ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili that has weathered the country's ongoing storm of revisionism. But it couldn't handle an actual storm.
The company that constructed the Tbilisi House of Justice was not chosen through an open tender, but via direct contracting; a practice that "is likely to result in wasteful spending, as there is no opportunity for another qualified bid for the same contract to bring down the price,”, the Georgia chapter of anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International argued at a December 6 presentation.
In 2012, under former President Saakashvili, the government dished out 1.17 billion lari (about $700 million) to companies under such contracts; an amount equivalent to "4.7 percent of the Georgian economy," according to TI. The deals "accounted for 18 percent of all government spending . . ."
Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili on November 2 named 31-year-old Interior Minister Irakli Gharibashvili as the ruling Georgian-Dream coalition's choice for prime minister once Ivanishvili resigns later this month.
Speaking to journalists at the Georgian Dream's central office in Tbilisi, Ivanishvili described Gharibashvili as "very worthy," "very practical" and "a good manager."
"He knows the price of work," the prime minister, a self-made billionaire, said with a smile.
Gharibashvili, who, under Georgia's amended constitution, will take on broad powers formerly reserved for the president, is a newcomer to government. His post as interior minister, held for barely a year, is his first public office. A replacement has not yet been named.
While hailed by Ivanishvili for running "the most complicated structure" in the Georgian government, he has faced public criticism for an alleged uptick in crime since the amnesty of hundreds of people imprisoned under outgoing President Mikheil Saakashvili. The government denies the accusations; Ivanishvili claimed that Gharibashvili has restored public trust in the police.
Most of Gharibashvili's past career, however, has been tied to Ivanishvili himself. Before becoming a founder of the Georgian-Dream coalition in 2012, he managed the recording label for the prime minister's teenaged rapster son, Bera, and served on the supervisory board of Cartu Bank, a venture formerly owned by Ivanishvili. He also acted as general director of the Ivanishvili-financed International Cartu Charity Foundation.
Georgians long have claimed that their calls were monitored for political-control assurance, but turns out they have Swedish telecommunications-technology giant Ericsson partly to thank.
Following an October 30 report by Swedish public radio, Ericsson told Agence France Presse (AFP) that it had sold phone-surveillance technology to Georgia’s Geocell, a privately owned cellular operator, back in 2005. The company maintained, however, that the equipment was meant as an anti-crime tool, though acknowledged that the Georgian government "allegedly use it" for illegal wiretapping.
Publicizing tapped private conversations has been a tried political weapon in Georgia. In the heyday of outgoing President Mikheil Saakashvili's era, everytime the political temperature went up, secretly recorded conversation were dumped online or aired on TV. In 2007, when police clashed with protesters in Tbilisi, tapped phone calls became a soundtrack to the authorities’ claims about a Kremlin-orchestrated conspiracy to bring down Georgia's pro-Western government.
Ending a political career is apparently the latest thing in Georgia. Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanshvili wants to quit; President Mikheil Saakashvili has to quit; lead presidential candidate Giorgi Margvelashvili says he may quit.
Under election law, a runoff occurs if the top candidate does not secure more than 50 percent of the vote. But to Ivanishvili,not known for his love of criticism, less-than-60-percent of the vote for his presidential protegé would be a sign that Georgian society did not appreciate the so-called tireless work he and his Georgian Dream team have been doing for the last year in office.
If the public doubts him, which Ivanishvili does not think is possible after everything he has done, then he will pack up and leave, and Margvelashvili should do the same, he concluded.
What he perceives as the price for such a move is one which might raise questions about the extent to which Ivanishvili understands Georgia’s current system of government.
With Margvelashvili and Ivanishvili gone, he reasoned, the opposition United National Movement candidate Davit Bakradze will become president, and Saakashvili will reinvent himself as prime minister.
Meant as a warning to voters, that scenario, though, is completely impossible. Georgia’s prime minister is chosen based on which party holds the majority in parliament. For the next three years, that’s Ivanishvili’s own Georgian Dream coalition.
Billionaire Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili laid aside the cares of office the other day and invited a select group of TV journalists to his Star-Wars-style residence to tell them that, well, they're no good at what they do.
Ivanishvili, whose speaking style combines the no-nonsense talk of Russian oligarchs from the 1990s with the call-‘em-as-you-see-‘em lexicon of a small-town Georgian man, recently decided to provide free lessons for professionals in various fields. Last week, he spent four hours wagging his finger at a group of policy and economy wonks for getting it all wrong. On October 2, it was the turn of news anchors and producers to get a journalism 101 lesson from him.
Getting in touch with his inner newsman, Ivanishvili pontificated on what journalism is all about and what his irritated guests should really be doing out there. These days “journalists forget about their mission, about their own responsibilities,” the prime minister said regretfully, informing his guests that they are covering the wrong topics, interviewing the wrong people and citing the wrong data.
Referring to a printout (as with the experts), he demanded explanations for the journalists' on-the-air quotes. The constant criticism of the government distracts his team from doing the great job that they do, though it may not always visible, he asserted.
He faulted the group for failing to see all the “wonderful” achievements of his government in the economy field, which in all honesty, with a mere 1.6-percent growth rate so far for 2013 and an official 15-percent unemployment rate, could indeed escape the naked eye.
Just in time for the elections, and after months of speculation, Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili on September 30 unveiled a multi-billion-dollar private equity fund.
The Georgian Co-Investment Fund, a $6-billion vehicle that pools funds from over ten investment groups to finance projects in agriculture, energy, infrastructure, manufacturing, tourism, and “other” business opportunities, has been lauded as the key to bolster Georgia’s rates of foreign direct investment (FDI) and economic growth.
Over the next five years, the fund plans to spend $6 billion -- potentially more money per year than the Georgian economy has received in FDI since before the 2008 war with Russia. Aside from attracting large-scale international investment, its stated intentions include increasing Georgia’s exports and local businesses’ access to financing; all among the government’s economic priorities.
There’s just one catch – Ivanishvili himself, estimated by Forbes to be worth a cool $5.3 billion, is one of the investors.
Critics worry that, with one hand managing the government and the other hand on the fund’s till, the prime minister could end up sinking into a deep conflict of interests.
Anyone out there interested in buying a troubled television station for a third of its market value? Well, the family of Georgia’s Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili has one to sell. The channel comes with state-of-the-art equipment and has a successful record as a political campaign tool. The prime minister may be willing to throw in a news agency, too, as a lagniappe.
The signal for Tbilisi-based TV9 went static on August 19 after barely a year and a half on the air. Ivanishvili went through fire and water last year to create the national channel, owned by his wife, Ekaterine Kvedelidze, and Kakha Kobiashvili, a relative of Ivanishvili.
The station was intended to insert a dose of criticism into the airwaves then dominated by broadcasts friendly toward President Mikheil Saakashvili. The news channel may have helped bring Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream coalition to power, but has since become a money pit and source of awkwardness for the prime minister.
“I have always believed and I still believe today that national leaders should not own television stations,” Ivanishvili said, Netgazeti.ge reported. “As I said many times before, it puts me personally and my family in an awkward situation."
After the 2012 parliamentary elections brought the Georgian Dream to power, the prime minister's family "wanted to sell TV9 and Info9 news agency, but out of responsibility and respect for journalists and other employees we extended its operations for 10 more months.”
But enough is enough. Ivanishvili, who has pledged to leave his post by the end of the year, said he can’t continue spending a million dollars a month to keep the station alive.
In what is being touted as proof positive of the independence of Georgia's judicial system, a court in Tbilisi on August 1 cleared Georgia’s most controversial man, former Defense Minister Bacho Akhalaia, of charges of physical abuse and torture. The verdict comes as a blow to Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream Coalition and government prosecutors, who have campaigned rigorously against the 32-year-old onetime minister.
Akhalaia had been rumored among many Georgians to be an allegedly abusive prison warden when he served as chief of the penitentiary system under President Mikheil Saakashvili. Such accusations followed him to the posts of defense and interior ministers; he resigned the latter post when revelations of the heinous abuse of prisoners sparked mass demonstrations last fall. The scandal is believed to have significantly contributed to the loss of President Saakashvili’s United National Movement to Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream Coalition in last October’s parliamentary vote.
In a widely expected move upon coming to power, the Ivanishvili government arrested Akhalaia in the first of what UNM members denounced as high-profile, politically motivated arrests. After five months of hearing evidence, the court today dropped several charges involving the abuse and illegal incarceration of military officers, but Akhalaia remains in prison pending trial on other charges of abuse and torture stemming from his time as prison-system chief and interior minister.
Yep, says Georgia’s Bidzina Ivanishvili, who apparently views the prime minister’s position as a temp job. Before and since coming to power late last year, Ivanishvili has kept saying that his time will be short. Now, in a recent interview with the EUobserver, he has put a specific timeframe to it -- he is going to fix everything he promised to fix and quit before New Year's.
The early exit strategy appears to be Ivanishvili’s way of showing that power does not mean much for him and that he does not intend to hold on to it like certain someones before him. This might set a welcome example for Georgian politicians, but the bigger question is if he can get the job done.
Items on his daunting to-do list include eliminating elite corruption, fixing the economy, patching up things with Russia, and joining NATO, among others.
During last year's parliamentary election campaign, Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream Coalition invited citizens to write down and submit their dreams for the billionaire to review. Perhaps an effective campaign tactic then, now it could be part of the reason the Georgian Dream is losing some of its luster among voters.
Polling data suggests that jobs were and remain the biggest concern for Georgians. And the economy is one area where, according to government data, the Ivanishvili cabinet has not yet delivered on any dreams.
The economy shrank by 0.8 percent in the first six months of 2013, compared with the same period last year, according to GeoStat, while the number of registered businesses declined by 17 percent. Unemployment, meanwhile, remains at 15 percent, officially, but upwards of half of the working-age population, unofficially. Those employed earn the lari-equivalent of just $433.76 per month, on average.
Georgia’s euphoria over its new prime minister, Bidzina Ivanishvili, appears to be losing steam a bit, but Ivanishvili's team remains heads and shoulders above all other political alternatives ahead of October's presidential election, an opinion poll commissioned by the National Democratic Institute suggests.
Georgia’s fervor for Ivanishvili has been slowly scaling back from over 80 percent of respondents in November, just after he entered office, to 75 percent in March, and, finally, to 69 percent in June, according to National Democratic Institute (NDI) surveys.
Approval of the job he is doing, separate from evaluations of the billionaire prime-minister as a personality, is slightly lower, at 55 percent of the 2,388 respondents surveyed.
Juxtaposing Ivanishvili’s approval ratings with Georgians’ current concerns could provide hints about the dynamic.
Providing jobs and overcoming poverty are the biggest concerns, the areas where respondents think the government did the least impressive job of living up to its promise, whether perceived or real. Earlier, many Georgians (sometimes it seemed like almost every Tbilisi cab driver) had an expectation that Ivanishvili’s vast fortune would somehow trickle into their pockets or that the prime minister's past entrepreneurial flair would translate into more jobs. But with the economic miracle still waiting to happen, Georgians with the shortest tempers and highest expectations could be losing their patience.
Growing prices and criminality levels come next on the list of Georgian concerns and perceived government inability to tackle these issues could also have corroded Ivanishvili’s political standing. His performance was rated as the poorest on these four counts, while it got the highest numbers for dealing with the Russian problem and healthcare.