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Misha And His Team

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


of speech as an inexorable right that they had won.

Freedom of speech was restricted only in Ajara, which provoked the reemergence of a Soviet era joke: in an argument between a Tbilisi and a Batumi resident, the Tbilisi resident says that he has freedom of speech to go onto the street and should “Down with Shevardnadze!" The Batumi resident logically objects that he too was free to go out onto the street in Batumi and shout “Down with Shevardnadze!"

One way or another, freedom of speech became absolutely natural, all the more so after the most popular TV station, Rustavi 2, went into open opposition to the government. This station was founded by the businessman Erosi Kitsmarishvili with support from none other than the very same Zurab Zhvania.

As soon as the team of young reformers from the Citizens’ Union began to drift into opposition to the president, the tonality of the channel, which had earlier allowed critical programs to be aired but had avoided directly criticizing the head of state, now began to change. It started energetically delving into the textbooks on public opinion manipulation.

Expose programs flowed as if from the Horn of Plenty, the most popular being a live call-in show with the talented young journalists Giorgi Sanaya and Eka Beridze. The most delicate topics for the Georgian leadership were brought up, including the issue of militants in Pankisi Gorge. The all-powerful Interior Minister Kakha Targamadze, who had positioned himself as the most aggressive opponent of the young reformers, also came under heavy criticism.

Things were going well – the public was outraged and entertained at the same time. Until one August evening the beloved program didn’t come on. The screen showed an awkward text that nobody wanted to believe: Giorgi Sanaya had been killed. Shock was soon replaced with indignation, and hundreds of thousands of people turned out for Sanaya’s funeral. It was now clear that society had awakened from its slumber. Those who lived in Russia in the early 1990s can easily understand what the residents of Georgia experienced if they recall their emotions following the murder of the journalist Vlad Listeiv. Add to that the southern temperament and you’ll get the precise atmosphere in Georgian society in that humid August of 2001.

And then an event took place to which few paid attention at the time: the chairman of the agricultural committee of the Georgian Parliament, MP Vano Merabishvili, harshly criticized the policies of President Shevardnadze in the pages of The New York Times. It was by then already obvious that Merabishvili’s close friend Misha Saakashvili and the other young reformers in the Citizens’ Union would soon go over to the opposition. This finally happened in the fall of that year, when the tax police and interior ministry operatives tried to close down Rustavi 2.

The pretext was rather artificial: they said the station wasn’t paying its taxes, in a country where nobody paid their taxes. The tax men also framed their accusation particularly stupidly, saying that they had compared the advertisement timing with the cost per minute. The reaction came swiftly, and by evening there were many thousands of demonstrators at the walls of Parliament demanding the resignation of the Interior Minister. Parliamentary speaker Zhvania supported the protesters, and several days later he announced his agreement to resign if the Interior Minister would also resign. This was the dress rehearsal for the Rose Revolution.

Few in Georgia could imagine on that cold November night that the fate of the country was being decided for many years to come. The situation was paradoxical: the national Parliament, which until recently had seemed extremely stable due to the clear majority of the Citizens’ Union and opposition from Revival, suddenly turned into a very wobbly configuration of political forces that now had to choose a future speaker. I think that even few of the deputies really understood that the real thing up for grabs that night was not the speaker’s chair, but rather power in the country itself. It would be interesting to see how those deputies would have acted if they were told what would happen exactly two years later.

So that night, as could be expected, three camps, each now already openly hostile to one another, advanced their candidates. The government’s candidate was Vazha Lortkipanidze, an interesting figure in many regards. A professor of history, Lortkipanidze was Georgia’s ambassador to Russia and was then brought back to serve as the State Minister (practically the head of the government). He was considered by many to be a future presidential candidate, not only because of his work experience and good looks, but because of his friends, or because of one friend in particular: his close chum was none other than the man who had returned hope to Georgia – the Russian oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili (the group of companies that Patarkatsishvili founded in Georgia was called “Imedi," or “hope”).

Another candidate was Jemal Gogitidze, a meek scientist whom fate and blood relations with Abashidze had thrown nearly to the pinnacle of the political Olympus. And finally, the young reformers backed the candidacy of the virtually unknown parliamentary External Relations Committee chairperson Nino Burjanadze. It should be noted that to a certain degree Nino was a compromise figure: on one hand she was considered to be entirely a member of Zhvania’s team, and on the other her pedigree as the “Bread Princess” also went some way towards reassuring the old guard. The daughter of Anzor Burjanadze, the flour magnate and close friend of Eduard Amvrosievich, was one of their own.

Nevertheless, the fact that many of the deputies immediately expressed a lack of confidence in the parliamentary apparatus was telling about the situation in the parliament, since of course the apparatus was full of Zhvania’s people. The head of the apparatus was Khatuna Gogirishvili, whom the opposition had been accusing for many years of falsifying elections in favor of the Citizens’ Union. This time the Citizens’ Union deputies themselves feared becoming victims of falsification. According to the results of the first round of voting, which concluded at midnight, none of the candidates were able to gain the necessary 118 out of 235 votes.

As might be expected, a scandal broke out during the voting: the ballots, which had been produced by the parliamentary apparatus, turned out to be numbered with invisible ink. Lortkipanidze demanded that new ballots be prepared immediately in the hall and that the voting place there in the open without voting cubicles. The rules commission agreed to this suggestion.

Another candidate, Jemal Gogitidze, raised the question of immediately removing all of the heads of the apparatus from their positions. Khatuna Gogirishvili, the head of the apparatus, agreed to address the deputies at their demand, and stated that five officials of the apparatus had been involved in printing the ballots. She categorically denied involvement in preparing the numbered ballots and said she would resign only if her guilt was proven in court.

Immediately afterwards, acting speaker Gigi Tsereteli (also a member of Zhvania’s team) made the decision to cut the live transmission of the parliamentary session. It is interesting to think what the result would have been if the voting procedure had been direct and open. So Nino Burjanadze was elected speaker of parliament in the second round of voting. For the uninitiated reader I would explain that according to the Georgian Constitution, in the case of the resignation of the president it is precisely the speaker of parliament who becomes the acting head of state.

Incidentally, to fully understand what was happening in Georgia at that time it is essential to know about not only the court intrigues, but also the mood on the street. The mentality of the Georgian population during the course of the 20th century experienced several serious fractures.

The first was the arrival of the Bolsheviks, when the whole Georgian population, like other peoples of the Russian empire, was put through the meat grinder of the Great Turning Point. The new generation that grew up in the “country of heroes, the country of dreamers, the country of scientists” were the romantics of Soviet power. Belief in the Great Leader and in the Party was strengthened by the ethnic identity of that Great Leader. The pride of the people who gave the world the Velikii [Great] Stalin became entangled in genuine proletarian internationalism. To be a Georgian in the USSR in those years was to be honored by definition, although this honor did not result in particular material preferences, and it brought a certain responsibility.

Soviet romanticism was shot dead in March 1956 and the belief shattered, and although truck windshields displayed Stalin pictures up through the 1980s, and old men whispered amongst themselves and expected that Stalin would one day be returned to the pantheon of Soviet heroes, nobody believed in Communism any more.

Other values arose, among which was first of all concern for one’s own family, along with a corresponding increase in material well-being. A “burgherization” of society rapidly began to take place, and the Soviet system of that period gave a wide berth for entrepreneurialism.

So called “tsekhi," or underground shops – in essence small private industries that received huge profits by using state owned raw materials practically free of charge – began to appear in Georgia like mushrooms after a rain. A new type of economy arose that one could confidently call Socialist in form, Capitalist in content.

Theft from the state was total, and brings to mind the Soviet era joke about the man who came home with two buckets of water everyday because he worked on a canal and there was nothing else to steal. Of course, not everybody in Georgia was rich, but there appeared a whole class of owners who knew how to make money, and this money was inevitably redistributed among the population. The absence of material difficulties inexorably led to changes in mentality in society, but it wasn’t hypocritical: socialist slogans had about the same significance in Georgia at that time as they did in China under Deng Xiaoping. That is to say, no one took them at all seriously.

The campaign begun by Georgian Communist Party First Secretary Eduard Shevardnadze to clean up the “capitalist cesspool” that Georgia had turned into did not meet with success. In essence, the mass arrests and executions of the early 1970s were the first redistribution of property and a struggle for consolidating personal power. A similar thing happened again in the mid-1980s, only in a somewhat milder form, when Jumber Patiashvili took over the leadership after Shevardnadze was promoted to Moscow. If during the Stalin period it was “honorable” to be a Georgian, in the 1960–80s it was simply comfortable.

Now let us think about how a country with a blooming economy could in market conditions turn into ruins over the course of literally a few months. Of course, it would be easy to attribute everything to the civil war and economic blockade, but don’t waste your time. Even having survived the dark time of Zviad and the first civil war (in the Tskhinvali region and in Tbilisi), the economy, built on the principles of freedom in the vacuum of the collapse of the Soviet union, worked and worked well, all the more so since the opening of the borders with Turkey gave the economy a new impulse. Georgia was the natural gateway to the Turkish market for the entire post-Soviet space. But what happened, happened.

Few remember the death blow to the Georgian economy that was dealt by Shevardnadze in the summer of 1992: the government had the initiative to invest resources in Sberbank and thereby to double the sum. The old fairytale about the Field

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