Georgia: Expenses Scandal Hits President Saakashvili
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.
Saakashvili, responding to the charges on April 17, pointed to Georgia's need for foreign investment, asking a regional audience if there is "one country in the world where a president doesn't go on visits and doesn't take parliament members, government members and, even, his family members . . . doesn't invite guests and doesn't bring in journalists from abroad for the purpose of popularizing his country."
"If we hadn't done this, what, would those investments just have fallen down out of the sky?" he inquired, Netgazeti.ge reported.
But the UNM claims that there is more here than meets the eye.
The release of the documents by Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition came just two days before a Tbilisi rally for Saakashvili's United National Movement, an event the party claims will "drastically change" Georgia's "political situation."
Given the ever-building animosity between Georgia's political camps, that claim has prompted some speculation, and a degree of jitters.
The UNM says that it is the Georgian Dream which is particularly jittery.
The saga of the president's expenses is the second scandal to whack the United National Movement in the build-up to the rally -- further proof, the argument goes, of an intimidation campaign by the government.
In a status update on Facebook -- the venue of choice for Georgia’s political battles these days -- Data Akhalaia, a fugitive former senior interior ministry and defense ministry official wanted on violence and abuse of power charges, claimed this week that intrigues by UNM Secretary General Vano Merabishvili against his family had led to the party's defeat in the 2012 parliamentary election.
Specifically, by supposedly creating the prison-abuse videos that helped scuttle the vote for the UNM, and implementing a controversial operation against militants along the Georgian-Russian border last summer.
Both events have been laid at the feet of Akhalaia's brother, Bacho, who served as interior minister during the Chechen operation until he resigned following the release of the prison-abuse videos. He is now in jail facing various criminal charges. A former prison-system boss, he is widely viewed in Georgia as responsible for the physical and sexual abuse documented in the videos that helped scuttle support for the UNM.
The two men's father, Roland Akhalaia, is a UNM member of parliament for a key district.
Merabishvili, a former prime minister and highly powerful interior minister, argues, however, that the claims boil down to a political tactic of divide and rule. With trials pending against the junior Akhalaias, he implied, it was not hard for the Georgian Dream to use the duo against the UNM.
How far that reasoning will go with voters remains to be seen.
Support for Saakashvili's party has dropped dramatically since the 2012 parliamentary election. The Georgian Dream will not have a hard time convincing many Georgians that the charges against the president stand. Rumors have circulated in the past of public money being used for an expensive foreign masseuse, strip clubs and casinos.
Nonetheless, a recent survey showed that most of the key problems that troubled Georgians under the UNM have not gone anywhere; meanwhile, public concerns about perceived increased criminal activity linger on.
Georgian Dream members publicly jeer that the UNM will be lucky if it gets 20 people to show up at its April 19 rally, but, as so often in Georgian politics, he who laughs last may, indeed, laugh longest.