Last week was exciting for followers of Georgian politics. The war-of-words between the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) coalition and the opposition United National Movement (UNM) -- which for three years has far exceeded the standard insult-hurling found in democratic politics -- reached a fever pitch. The country's next parliamentary elections aren't for another year, but the campaigning is already heating up.
The ruckus started after a controversial video was leaked to the public on October 17. The video allegedly contains footage of policemen torturing and raping a detainee while attempting to extract a confession. The footage is reportedly dated from 2011, when UNM was still in office. Release of the video sparked outrage, with protests against UNM sprouting up in the cities of Batumi, Poti, Zugdidi, Tbilisi, Lanchkhuti, Gori, Kutaisi, Ozurgeti and Rustavi. Demonstrators broke into the party headquarters in Kutaisi before being dispersed by police.
Then, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili turned up the heat by implying that members of UNM should be tortured and raped themselves, saying the following during a government session:
"They should be grateful for the fact that over the past three years people have not done to them the same what is depicted in these videos – my remarks might be rude, but they deserve it."
He also referred to UNM as a "criminal organization" and questioned their legitimacy as a political party:
"In general, as a citizen, I think that such people have no right to remain in politics. For me Saakashvili and his government represent the face of the masked person, who is raping other persons as shown on that video – this is a symbol of this organization."
A second "rape video" was posted on Thursday evening on a Ukrainian website. The nine-minute video appears to show a man being raped before confessing to a crime.
It still isn't known how the videos were leaked -- they were apparently discovered by GD officials in the region of Samegrelo in 2013 -- but the Interior Ministry is launching an investigation. However, some speculate that the government leaked them to deflect attention from the Rustavi 2 court case (to be discussed shortly) as well as a recent NDI/CRRC poll which found that GD is losing popularity among the citizenry.
(Only 14 percent of respondents said they would vote for GD if elections were held tomorrow, down from 24 percent in April 2015, and even less than the 15 percent who said they would vote for UNM.)
It should be noted that a similar video surfaced in September 2012, just days before the parliamentary elections that swept GD into power. Public outrage at the abuses -- the video showed prisoners being raped and beaten -- led to the resignations of Interior Minister Bacho Akhalaia and Correctional System Minister Khatuna Kalmakhelidze, and doubtlessly had an effect on the outcome of the elections themselves.
UNM's nine-year grip on power was broken, and then-President Mikheil Saakashvili left the country a year later after losing the presidential election to GD's Giorgi Margvelashvili. Saakashvili -- who is now regional governor in the Ukrainian city of Odessa -- is wanted in Georgia on criminal charges.
The brutal video isn't the only prop in the intensifying GD-UNM tussle. There's also the court case surrounding Rustavi 2, a pro-UNM television station currently owned by Nika Gvaramia. The Tbilisi City Court is deliberating whether to return Gvaramia's shares to Kibar Khalvashi, who co-owned the broadcaster from 2004-2006. The shares were seized by the court earlier this month.
Khalvashi claimed that in 2006 the UNM government forced him to sell his shares in the company. He is the plaintiff in the case, claiming to be the rightful owner of 100% of the company's shares.
Khalvashi is rumored to be close with GD patron Bidzina Ivanishvili, feeding speculation that the case is politically motivated. And with Rustavi 2 being the country's most popular television station and a beacon of opposition, talk of shutting it down has received a lot of angry responses.
Gvaramia claims that he is being blackmailed by the government in an effort to get him to relinquish his shares willingly. He went on the air on 21 October and told viewers he been approached by Alexi Akhvlediani, head of the European Youth Olympic Festival, who passed on a message from the government threatening to release a video from his private life if he did not "step aside."
Akhvlediani admitted to meeting with Gvaramia on 21 October but denied passing on any message from the government.
President Margvelashvili (apparently unwittingly) managed to stoke the controversy further while attempting to be the voice of reason. The President started by justifiably criticizing the Prime Minster:
"Unfortunately, instead of defusing situation, the statement made today by the head of the government [PM Irakli Garibashvili] added tension to already difficult situation."
That was all well and good, until he let loose this guffaw in relation to the Rustavi 2 case:
"I call on the judge not to make a hasty and rigid decision that may fuel already tense situation."
That's right. The President of a self-styled liberal democracy with EU and NATO aspirations just involved himself in the independent deliberations of the Tbilisi City Court. (This kind of speech characterized previous Georgian presidencies, including that of Saakashvili.)
We can be reasonably confident that he simply spoke without thinking, and has no intention of swaying the court's decision. But if Garibashvili's incendiary comments hadn't made GD look bad enough, Margvelashvili was right there to put the nail in the coffin.
This was a great week for journalists looking for prime material. It was a bad week for Georgian politics. The discourse was dirtier than ever, and it seems the only thing GD succeeded in doing was squandering much of the political capital it received from the release of the UNM torture/rape videos. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for October of next year. With one year to go, GD looks like it needs to go to public relations school.
"What if the US acquiesces to Russia's involvement in Syria in exchange for its withdrawal from Ukraine?"
I asked this question several weeks ago to a friend working for the Defense Ministry of a NATO member country. Hoping to sponge up some of his expertise, I asked if he thought Putin would consider withdrawing from Ukraine (and possibly Georgia) in exchange for the US and NATO handing him free-reign in Syria.
I also asked if he thought the US had any leverage, considering how weak its position in Syria had become. He thought the idea of a quid pro quo had merit, and even considered the US to have more leverage than Russia in the situation.
"Russia wants the war to end as much as the US does", he said, and reminded me that the US was still the world's leading military and economic power. That counted for a lot.
Now in mid-October, it looks like that scenario is unfolding, albeit without an agreement between Putin and Obama. Russia's intervention in Syria has befuddled Western leaders, most of all the United States, which has no plan for countering Russian influence in the region.
Putin is building a belt, along with Assad, Iran and Iraq, of Middle Eastern actors bent on crushing Sunni extremism. Russian planes have bombed American-trained rebels. Iran has reportedly sent hundreds of soldiers to bolster the government and continues to finance Hezbollah, a pro-Assad, anti-Israel militant Islamist group.
While the US and its NATO allies (namely France) continue to carry out air strikes against ISIS in Syria, it hasn't taken any action to counterbalance Russia's bolstering of the regime. No dialing-up of support for rebels, and no imposition of a no-fly zone (the latter being something which could potentially provoke a stand-off with Russia).
Most embarrassing for the US, on 11 October Saudi Defense Minister Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited Moscow, apparently to discuss conditions under which it would accept Assad's retaining power.
All indications are that the Obama administration is washing its hands of the Syrian catastrophe.
In a recent interview with 60 Minutes, President Obama, rather than articulating an engagement strategy for countering the Kremlin's influence in the region, framed the issue as one of Russian imperial overreach:
"I got to tell you, if you think that running your economy into the ground and having to send troops in order to prop up your only ally is leadership, then we’ve got a different definition of leadership."
But as Russia seizes the initiative as the most assertive external power in the Middle East, it is quietly withdrawing from Ukraine.
The Minsk II agreement appears to be finally holding. Signed in February but reset on 1 September to mark the beginning of the school year, fighting has almost entirely ceased in Eastern Ukraine. Interfax-Ukraine news agency reported that separatist forces would withdraw heavy weapons from the front lines on 21 October.
Ukrainian military spokesman Andriy Lysenko expressed optimism, telling reporters that "the ceasefire is holding exemplary along the frontline." Fighting has not altogether ceased, but it is at a much lower intensity than at any time since the war began in June 2014.
The holding of Minsk II doesn't mean that Russia will stop putting pressure on Ukraine. Rather, it looks like the situation is retreating from open war and entering into a political phase. Many analysts, including Jean-Marie Guehenno of the International Crisis Group, speculate that Russia will resort to funding separatist political movements, making things difficult for Kiev without using direct military force.
Such a policy would be an easing back on the military throttle, but it could also be a mirror of Russia's policy's toward Georgia. Providing military support for separatists, then shifting to political/economic support once the war ends, then using its resources and proximity to effect de facto annexation over the years and decades.
What is clear, however, is that the war in Ukraine has not gone as well as Putin hoped. Syria may prove more successful, but Putin's power play there will inevitably sap more of the country's dwindling economic resources. Russia simply doesn't have the firepower to fight two protracted foreign wars.