Georgia: With University Fight, Another Failing Grade in Cohabitation?
Exploring the strange, new world of bipartisanship has been a school of hard knocks for Georgia and, so, perhaps it is only fitting that the country's power-share struggles have now entered the classroom.
An agriculture university, of all places, has suddenly become the main battlefield in the tug-of-war between Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili and President Mikheil Saakashvili. The government on March 12 stripped the university of its accreditation, sparking a maelstrom of protest and near-national debate.
Ivanishvili’s education officials explained the decision by citing allegedly deficient quality standards at the school, the brainchild and money pit of President Saakashvili’s former economy minister, the rich, rotund libertarian Kakha Bendukidze.
Bendukidze, chair of the university's supervisory board, scoffed at the government’s claims of glitches and described the school's loss of accreditation as the Ivanishvili government's personal vendetta.
“This university has one big, 187-kilo defect, and that’s me,” the economics guru declared. He sent the nitpicking education officials to hell, and called on the students to fight for their right to education.
The students, who have found their studies hanging up in the air just before midterms, did not have to be asked twice. Agriculture University students and sympathizers from other schools took to Tbilisi's streets, while debates rage on TV and online.
In vain did Education Minister Giorgi Margvelashvili try to assure the students and the faculty that the move was not about a key ally of the president. “Let them correct the glitches and they will get the accreditation back,” said Margvelashvili.
But the Georgian chapter of Transparency International*, a corruption watchdog, said that the university's loss of accreditation raised many questions, given that Bendukidze’s reforms and money had helped the university become one of Georgia's most prestigious educational institutions.
So far, the Ivanishvili government’s campaign against alleged past wrongdoing by Saakashvili-loyal officials has been accompanied by hoots of encouragement from many Georgians. But the school trouble seems to have given pause even to some ardent supporters of the Ivanishvili government.
If the university fight proves to be a side effect of the ongoing conflicts in domestic politics, Georgia may get an F in its crash course in cohabitation.
*Transparency International receives funding from the Open Society Foundations. EurasiaNet.org is run under the auspices of the Open Society Institute-New York, part of the network of Open Society Foundations.