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Misha And His Team

By Gela Vasadze
Georgia Online, 08 August '12
Translated by Tim Blauvelt

Today Georgia has once again drawn the attention of Russian readers, which is natural. Life is overflowing with events in that country which not so long ago was part of the united Soviet Union. Some look at Georgia with hope, others with hatred. I often find myself confronting simple ignorance about Georgia on the part of those who idealize my country. This is entirely natural, since most of the available information about Georgia is pure propaganda from one side or another. I won’t try to convince you, dear readers, that I am objective. Of course I am subjective, as a citizen and a patriot of my country, and as a direct participant in some of the events I will describe.

I will say only that in describing these events from recent Georgian history I will try to be as objective as possible. Exactly six years ago the ratings of one political party, which in that period had been in the 10-15% range, began to increase exponentially. The reason for this rise was the savage beating in Batumi of a small group of demonstrators from the “United National Movement” by Aslan Abashidze’s special forces troops and by “aggrieved citizens." At the time this did not seem to be anything out of the ordinary.

Aslan Ibraimovich was very careful with regard to the issue of his private space: a whole part of the former Lenin Street (from Stalin to Rustaveli) where the personal residence of the head of Ajara was located was considered something of a sacred cow. Normally citizens would pass by this area under the intense scrutiny of several armed persons, to say nothing about the snipers on the roof. It was strictly forbidden to take pictures, move in groups of larger than three, or even to cross over to the residence side of the street.

At night this was usually the only lighted area in the city. For the uninitiated, I would mention that we’re talking about the very center of the city, practically at the entrance to the seafront boardwalk. Residents and guests in Batumi were long accustomed to these limitations on their movements in Babu’s (“Grandpa’s”) vicinity and no longer complained particularly. Or at least the security measures of Aslan Abashidze’s guard more usually caused smiles than other feelings.

And so imagine that a group of several hundred people with white flags with red crosses tries to disturb this established order and to march past Aslan’s own residence. The “Nationals” were beaten and beaten severely, by five or six to one, chased into courtyards and entranceways, trampled and hunted down throughout the city, their hated flag with its five crosses stomped into the dirt.

The core of National Movement activists were hunted down with particular enthusiasm and beaten most severely, among them Koba Davitashvili, Givi Targamadze, Vano Merabishvili, and Gia Arveladze. The National Movement coordinator in Ajara, Koba Khabazi, was taken to the emergency room with severe trauma. All of this was filmed in good conscience by journalists from all the Georgian television companies, except for Ajara Television, of course, and it was already clear by the next day that there had appeared in Georgia a new and powerful political force able to surpass in elections the “Citizens’ Union” [Shevardnadze’s party] and “Revival” [Abashidze’s party], who had started to compete more and more with one another.

It is unlikely that the National Movement had planned for this result, since unlike the team of former Parliamentary speaker Zurab Zhvania that was made up of intellectuals nurtured on Western grants, the people around Misha Saakashvili were primarily revolutionaries – enthusiasts supported by the Open Society Foundation and the Liberty Institute.

The National Movement was created ahead of the Tbilisi municipal elections in 2002, and it immediately won a stunning victory in those elections. The party chairman, Mikheil Saakashvili, a young lawyer who had returned from the United States several years before and who had already successfully served in the national Parliament and as Justice Minister, became the chairman of the Tbilisi Sakrebulo (the representative institution of the capital city municipality).

True, in order to accomplish this there had to be an agreement with the Laborites, for which their eternal leader Shalva Natelashvili has never been able to forgive himself, but one way or another, the Tbilisi Sakrebulo was a good springboard for attaining power. Incidentally, it might have happened the other way around, since no other party tried as hard to discredit the authorities as the National Movement.

I won’t say that all the attempts to associate Mikheil Saakashvili with Vladimir Volfovich [Zhirinovsky] as the local madman straining for the presidency were entirely without results. Outside the capital many perceived Misha as a sick little boy who was trying to change the world but would never be able to beat the system.

Saakashvili started work as chairman of the Sakrebulo with a simple and understandable program of fixing the roofs and elevators in tall apartment buildings at the expense of the city budget. The National Movement could not be considered an ideologically consolidated party at this time, but their mood was for a Georgia without corruption. The people sympathized with the “Nationals," but at the same time they didn’t believe that they could win. I won’t say that the rank and file Nationals believed particularly either, but as they say “the eyes hurt and the hands act."

And act they did: the Fall electoral campaign for the Parliamentary elections was unusually tense, and by some animal instinct the authorities sensed that the fundamental threat came not from the Revival party of Aslan Abashidze or even from the United Democrats of the then current and former speakers of Parliament, but rather precisely from this small group of radical supporters of Saakashvili.

After Batumi the Nationals started getting beaten up all over the place, with the exception of Tbilisi, and the more they were beaten the higher their ratings rose. Few people remember today how the convoy of National Movement cars was pelted with stones in Kvemo Kartli, and how they were shot at in Zugdidi.

During one of the multitude of talk shows at that time the acting speaker of Parliament, Nino Burjanadze, was about to try to justify the actions of the attackers when she was shamed into silence both by the audience and by members of her own party. Both Burjanadze and Zhvania understood that the Nationals’ ratings were increasing, and primarily at the expense of their party (formally Nino Burjanadze was not a member of a party, but of the electoral bloc “Burjanadze-Democrats”), but there was nothing they could do about it.

In order to understand what was happening in Georgia at that time, one must return to the beginning of the 1990s, when upon returning to power Eduard Shevardnadze turned his attention to the young biologist Zurab Zhvania, the head of the Greens Party.

It was precisely around Zhvania and his team of young and energetic politicians that the Union of Georgian Citizens party was formed. Shevardnadze recommended to Zhvania the daughter of his friend Anzor Burjanadze, Nino, as a good lawyer. Zhvania’s attention was also drawn to a talented young person named Vano Merabishvili who had created an association of Georgia landowners. He also invited the young lawyer Saakashvili, who had worked in the United States, to take part in the elections to the new Georgian parliament.

One would be entirely justified in considering Zurab Zhvania to be the father of civil society institutions in Georgia. It was on his initiative that a whole network of non-governmental organizations of all different stripes was created with financing from Western donors. A bit later he would repeat this in Ajara on the regional level. These non-governmental organizations were an ideal foundry for molding future personnel.

But for a number of reasons, both objective and subjective, Zhvania himself could not aspire to the post of president. In the Fall of 2003 he did not conceal that he desired to see Nino Burjanadze in that post, the very same Nino whom he had managed with enormous effort to place as speaker of Parliament after his own resignation from that position as a result of the governmental crisis of Fall 2001. But we shall focus on that crisis a bit later on.

At the start of the 21st century Georgia was a country fully submersed in absolute corruption, with no hope for positive changes. The President, Eduard Shevardnadze, had practically exhausted h imself. Taking over a country wrecked by civil war, Shevardnadze succeeded in introducing order and dragging the country out of international political isolation.

Under Shevardnadze a class of landlords appeared, primarily from the former party-state elite. The key spot in the system of control over the most profitable branches of the economy was held by “the family." Small and medium business was not overly burdened with taxes, which in reality nobody paid anyway. The classical scheme suggested that at the end of the year the tax inspectors, literally straining at the bit, would gather from the industrialists as much as they could cough up, and the rest of the time they would put what money they could collect into their pockets, sharing with their bosses.

The same system existed in the Interior Ministry, on which Eduard Amvrosievich traditionally relied, in the army, which was half-starved and made up of those who couldn’t buy their way out of conscription, and in other spheres. It was entirely usual for state salaries and pensions (which comprised $7 a month) to be delayed for many months.
Electrical outages in the winter were explained by the fact that energy purchased cheaply from Russia was resold for three times the price to Turkey, and the Georgian officials and their Russian colleagues divvied up the proceeds amicably. The regions were the “feeding troughs” of the governors, and Ajara only formally answered to the central government.

Thus profits from the Batumi port and customs did not even go to the regional budget, but rather directly into Aslan Abashidze’s pocket. As concerns the separatist regime in the Tskhinvali region, it subsisted on producing and exporting contraband alcohol to Russia and importing smuggled goods back from there, which were then sold on the Ergneti market (on territory controlled by the Georgian authorities). A no less lively trade in contraband was carried out on the borders of the other separatist region of Abkhazia, although there was no single bazaar and there the traffic in smuggled cigarettes was handled by figures more weighty than small traders. One way or another, the government swelled and the people went hungry.

In general it was just an extreme variant of the typical post-Soviet state, except that the former USSR foreign minister, thanks to his contacts abroad, was able to attract interest to Georgia from Western countries as a possible alternate energy delivery route to Europe, bypassing the existing ones.

What was more, Western leaders supported their former colleague through the multitude of international organizations working in Georgia, which Zurab Zhvania used to create non-governmental organizations. Thus the food deficit problem in the early 1990s was solved with help from the World Food Organization that worked in for a long time in Georgia, even continuing for several years after the real hunger problem had been overcome. In general, such organizations found it easy and pleasant to work in Georgia, since the divvying up of resources was carried out according to all the rules of the art of corruption. But the activities of Western organizations had its positive side as well: institutions of civil society began to emerge, and particularly strong among them were those in the sphere of freedom of speech and the media. Despite the chaos in the country, citizens saw the freedom

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