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Georgia

Azerbaijan should not fear Salome Zurabishvili

The Azeri Times

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INTERVIEWED BY RAMIZ MAMMADOV, TBILISI

Pre-election passions are raging in Georgia. In the centre of the city, on Shota Rustaveli Avenue, there is a lot of police, in front of the parliament building there are constant protests. And this is despite the fact that the country will elect its president – and this position is comparable to that of the ‘British queen.’

Of course, the president in Georgia has purely representative functions. However, this is a very serious test for all political forces in the country.

Voting will take place on Sunday, October 28th. What to expect, who will win and how relations between Azerbaijan and Georgia will develop in the future? Malkhaz Gulashvili, a well-known Georgian political scientist and public figure, head of the Georgian Times media holding, talks about this in an interview with Azeri Daily.

Malkhaz Gulashvili
– Is the situation in the country as tense as it seems at first glance?

– This is not true. But there is the desire of certain forces to show that the situation is heated, of course. It is necessary to understand that the opposition wants to create in advance the impression of election fraud. That is, it creates an appearance for foreign observers and journalists.

Various studies are now often published, which show that Grigol Vashadze, a member of the United National Movement, is leading in the presidential race. However, the reality is not so.

– And who, in your opinion, is the most realistic future president of Georgia?

– Salome Zurabishvili, of course (an independent candidate who has the support of the ruling party Georgian Dream – Ed). She will pick from 53 to 58 per cent of the votes in the election and win in the first round.

I want to note one remarkable moment. The propaganda against Salome Zurabishvili, which is run by the TV channel Rustavi 2, played into her hands. Frank calls not to vote for Salome Zurabishvili led people to become interested in her, with all the ensuing consequences. That is, it added to her supporters.

Personally, I was not going to vote for Salome Zurabishvili. But after such an ‘anti-propaganda’ I will vote for her. This disservice was provided by the Rustavi 2 television company.

– There is the ethnic question. Many say that Salome Zurabishvili, by her careless statements, has aggravated this problem…

– First of all, I’ll say that she didn’t make any careless statements. Her statements were simply distorted and appropriately presented. There was dirty campaigning too.

But let us remember what Salome Zurabishvili said about the 2008 war. It was started by Mikheil Saakashvili. Isn’t that right? Not Georgia, but a particular person. And Saakashvili is guilty of what happened next, while he presented everything as if we had won this war.

– They say that Salome Zurabishvili does not speak Georgian very well…

– Yes, this moment is present. But she is a representative of the fourth generation of Georgian emigrants, who lived in France. And in spite of this, she still has not lost her mother tongue. And this is amazing. Usually, the second generation cannot preserve the native language while living outside the historic homeland.

So Salome Zurabishvili speaks Georgian quite well. Although sometimes makes mistakes. And on this, biased journalists, PR specialists from the headquarters of Grigol Vashadze and David Bakradze (presidential candidate from European Georgia – Ed) are trying to catch her.

– At a meeting with voters in Javakheti – the Armenian-populated region of Georgia – Salome Zurabishvili stated that during the times of Saakashvili, passport were not given to Armenians, but were given to Turks…

– Here we are talking about the Turks, who were supporters of Fethullah Gulen (Turkish preacher, who was accused in Turkey of preparing a coup – Ed). Saakashvili did indeed give out Georgian passports to them, and he himself maintained close relations with Gulen.

– Isn’t it about the ethnic Georgians from Turkey who applied for Georgian citizenship?

– Perhaps they were, but mostly they were Turks. Well and, accordingly, the statement of Salome Zurabishvili did not have any relation to Azerbaijanis.

– Do you think that presidential candidate Salome Zurabishvili will be neutral to all ethnic minorities in Georgia? And one should not expect any prejudice towards Azerbaijanis?

– What are you talking abou? Of course not! She is an experienced diplomat, worked in the French Foreign Ministry, then she was the head of the Georgian Foreign Ministry. This is an absolutely tolerant person.

And besides, according to the Constitution, our president has no special powers. And this is the last election when the president is elected in a general election (From 2023, the deputies of the highest legislative body will approve the president – Ed).

The president is actually the minister of foreign affairs who negotiates, builds relations.

– That is, the neighbours of Georgia – Azerbaijan, for example – should not be afraid of changes in the foreign policy of the country?

– If Salome Zurabishvili is elected, there will be a balanced policy that Tbilisi has always led.

I think that Georgia will start direct negotiations with Russia. Zurabishvili has good contacts with the leadership of the Russian Federation. Georgia will be a pro-European country that has not lost contact with Russia.

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Georgia

Who is Georgian presidential candidate Salome Zourabichvili?

The Azeri Times

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Georgia will hold its fifth presidential election on 28 October. These elections are unlike former elections for several reasons:

1. These are the last elections in which the president will be directly elected by the public. Starting in 2024, the president will be elected by an electoral college of 300 people.

2. This is the first case of a ruling party not putting forward its own candidate, instead opting to support an independent candidate.

3. Should independent candidate Salome Zourabichvili, who is supported by the authorities, win the election, she will be Georgia’s first female president.

However, there is yet another particularity to the current election campaign period: this is the first time that not only the opposition is coming out against the government’s candidate, but even supporters of the ruling party are too.

There is an enormous Facebook campaign being waged against Salome Zourabichvili, in which not only her political opponents are participating, but many supporters of the Georgian Dream party as well.

Who is Salome Zourabichvili, and why have so many people come out against her?

___________________

From the international scene to the barricades of the opposition

Her career in Georgian politics began in 2004 when she was invited by Mikheil Saakashvili to head up the Foreign Ministry of Georgia.

At the time, almost nobody in Georgia knew her name.

Zourabichvili was born, grew up and spent most of her life in Paris. The granddaughter of political refugees who fled Georgia in 1921, she worked for many years in the French diplomatic corps.

In 2003 she was appointed Georgia’s ambassador to France, and several months later, after the Rose Revolution in Georgia, Saakashvili appointed the 52-year-old Zourabichvili as minister of foreign affairs.

She received Georgian citizenship at that point, and retained her French passport as well.

When appointing her, Saakashvili said: “Georgia has never had a diplomat of this quality.”

Zourabichvili considers one of her main achievements during her tenure as minister her contribution to the negotiation process pertaining to the closure of Russian military bases on Georgia’s territory. It is her signature on the document on the basis of which Russian military bases closed down in Georgia.

Salome Zourabichvili and Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov during a meeting in Tbilisi. 18 February 2005. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili

However, the political friendship of Saakashvili and Zourabichvili did not last long.

In October 2005, Zourabichvili, who had already been dismissed from the position, stood with a megaphone in front of a crowd of many thousands speaking about the ‘clan dictatorship’ of Saakashvili.

Her career as an opposition cannot be called successful. From 2005 to 2010, she actively opposed the Saakashvili government, though she did not become a leader of the opposition.

Leaders of the opposition at a demonstration in Tbilisi in May 2008, one week before parliamentary elections. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili

In 2010 Zourabichvili left not only her position as the chair of her own party ‘The Way of Georgia’, but also politics in general and Georgia itself.

In 2012, Zourabichvili supported Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition against Saakashvili, though she did not join the party’s ranks.

This is not the first attempt of Zourabichvili to become president of Georgia. In 2013 she wanted to participate in the presidential elections. However, she was not allowed to register in the race because of her double citizenship.

Zourabichvili is an MP in the Georgian parliament. She made it into parliament thanks to the substantial help of the Georgian Dream party.

In the parliamentary elections of 2016, she positioned herself as an independent candidate in a majoritarian district of Tbilisi. The ruling party purposefully did not put forward its own candidate in the district, and used its resources to help Zourabichvili.

Who started the August War of 2008

Over the last month, one can often see statuses written on the Georgian-language segment of Facebook calling on people not to vote for Zourabichvili, in addition to avatars in which photos of Zourabichvili have been crossed out with red lines and the accompanying text: “Russia started the war”.

The massive campaign against Zourabichvili began because of her statements concerning the August War of 2008.

At the beginning of her election campaign, she told journalists that Russia began the war against Georgia more than a hundred years ago, but that it was Georgia in the August 2008 War that bought into Russian provocation which gave rise to a new round of conflict.

“Georgia began this phase of the military conflict. This is known to all and this is the official version for everyone. It is even confirmed by the European Union,” she stated.

This statement by a presidential candidate supported by the ruling party gave rise to a public scandal.

See also: Op-ed: Bidzina’s choice, or Georgia on the eve of the presidential elections

It was not just the opposition that did not like Salome Zourabichvili’s statement. Many members of the ruling party, in addition to members of the liberal segment of society, were also not happy.

Later, she tried to explain that in 2008, Russia was the aggressor, but Saakashvili gave into provocation, and Russia used this moment as an excuse to begin the war against Georgia.

“We bombed our own population, which not a single president has the right to do. How are we supposed to say later that we desire the territorial integrity of this country? I want the territorial integrity of this country and I don’t want the president to bomb his country’s territory and his citizens”, she stated, further stoking the fire against her.

Facebook users wrote:

“We are going to have a president who accuses [her] own country of beginning the war and who repeats the Kremlin’s messages.”

“She repeats word for word what Putin and Medvedev say.”

“How did Georgia start the war? What did we do – approach Voronezh with our tanks?”

“Even if this were the case, should a presidential candidate really say that? And how will she communicate on the international arena and protect the interests of the country?”

There were other, harsher comments made as well. Thirty-one-year-old Georgian director Vakho Janjanidze hosted his new film Exodus on Vimeo and, while posting a link to the film on his Facebook page, said that he ‘forbids anyone who intends to vote at the upcoming presidential elections for Salome Zourabichvili to watch the film’.

The church has also gotten involved in the campaign against Zourabichvili.

Several clerical figures during church services have called on the public not to vote for Zourabichvili. However, the church’s anger against her was brought about not so much by her statements about the war, but by her support for the idea of cultivating marijuana in Georgia for export purposes.

Read also: Georgian Orthodox Church halts gov’t bill on marijuana production

 

“If Zourabichvili’s statements about the war were deliberate, then we can say that she is an enemy of Georgia. And if it was not deliberate, then why do we need a president that doesn’t think before saying something?” asks Lado Papava, professor of political science at Tbilisi State University.

A member of the justice council, lawyer Ana Dolidze, says that should Zourabichvili be elected, her statements about the war will have negative consequences for Georgia on the international arena:

“For more than 10 years we have worked in the international courts of The Hague and Strasbourg in order to defend the interests of the Georgian population which was the victim of Russian aggression. Zourabichvili’s statements are an enormous strike against our national interests. If she will repeat [these statements] as president, then that will be seppuku [ed. Japanese ritual suicide]. She cannot be allowed to become president.”

Why was Zourabichvili chosen as Georgian Dream’s presidential candidate?

Salome Zourabichvili is registered as an independent candidate, though both the opposition and political observers say that her ‘independence’ is only symbolic.

First off, her distaste for former president of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili is obvious.

This is important for Bidzina Ivanishvili, who has been deciding for the past six years who in Georgia will be the prime minister and who the president.

Salome Zourabichvili meeting with voters in Imereti (Western Georgia). Photo: Official Facebook page of Salome Zourabichvili

At first there wasn’t complete agreement within the Georgian Dream party as to supporting Zourabichvili’s candidacy. However, in the end, Ivanishvili decided that the party would do just so.

Zourabichvili is his personal choice.

“Presenting Zourabichvili as an independent candidate is a tragi-comedic move on the part of the Georgian Dream party. For years, we have been observing Zourabichvili. Despite the fact that she is not a member of the ruling party, she is one of the most fervent and aggressive of its activists. The people also see this,” says analyst Gia Khukhashvili.

Khukhashvili says that the main thing for the ruling party is to prevent the United National Movement, Saakashvili’s party, from being victorious.

“Within the core of the Georgian Dream party, there wasn’t a candidate that could have easily won against a candidate from the United National Movement. For that reason, Georgian Dream decided to support Zourabichvili,” Khukashvili says.

Read also: Georgia’s presidential elections: Who the main candidates are and what you need to know

Other experts believe that one can say with complete confidence that, even if Zourabichvili became president, she would not give amnesty to Saakashvili. Amnesty would allow him to return home, which is also a point of concern for Ivanishvili.

Political scientist Khatuna Lagazidze says that Zourabichvili was chosen because she is not very well-liked by the opposition:

“Despite the fact that the presidency is only a symbolic post, the president could potentially have the opportunity to become a national leader who could consolidate the opposition for the parliamentary elections of 2020.

“Does Georgian Dream want this to happen? Of course not. It is for that reason that Ivanishvili chose such a confrontational figure for the presidency, who will never become a national leader and moreover, will not be able to unite the opposition,” Lagazidze says.

“From the heights of Paris”

Despite the serious campaign against her, Zourabichvili is still the favourite in the upcoming elections against the numerous other candidates in the race, the majority of whom are almost entirely unknown to the public.

Photo: Official Facebook page of Salome Zourabichvili

Zourabichvili likes to speak about her emigrant roots and her well-known ancestors. She has made her origin one of the main messages of her election campaign.

She does not speak Georgian very well and sometimes it can be hard to understand her.

At a recent meeting she said to emigrants:

“Come back. Don’t be afraid of your Georgian. Look at me, for example – even me with my Georgian [language skills] I will soon become president.”

Many Georgian experts and journalists say that she is not a national leader but rather ‘a politician who looks at people condescendingly’.

In an interview with a journalist who asked her “Why do you speak with us so condescendingly, as if from the heights of Paris?” she responded:

“Probably because, yes, the president must be with the people, but at the same time must be above the people.”

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Georgia

Iran accuses Georgia of violating the ‘decency of Muslim women in hijabs’ in Tbilisi airport

The Azeri Times

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The Embassy of Iran to Georgia has sent a letter of protest to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia (MFA) regarding an incident which took place at Tbilisi’s international airport.

According to the Iranian news agency IRNA, security service personnel at Tbilisi International Airport demanded several female passengers arriving from the Iranian city of Isfahan to remove their hijabs.

Spokesman of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Bahram Qassemi said that the Iranian ambassador spoke with several travellers who had been to Georgia to confirm the information, after which he sent a letter of protest to the MFA and to the airport’s security service.

Moreover, the consular department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran also sent a letter of protest to the Georgian Embassy in Iran and demanded an explanation from the ambassador.

“Iran also calls upon the Georgian authorities to prevent a repetition of such incidents, and for the airport security service to observe and respect the dignity of Muslim women in hijabs,” reports IRNA.

The MFA has already responded to the accusations. After receiving the information regarding the alleged violations, the MFA looked into the matter and concluded that the Georgian security staff at the airport were not in violation of any procedures.

“There were no illegal actions on the side of the Georgian security personnel, including actions which might ‘offend religious feelings’,” reads the ministry’s statement.

The MFA has informed the Iranian side regarding the investigation results. The issue will be discussed at the next meeting with the Iranian ambassador and the MFA.

  • According to Georgia’s Tourism Administration, one million people visited Georgia in July, of which 179 thousand were Iranians. Iran is in fifth place after Azerbaijan, Russia, Turkey and Armenia.

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Caucasus

SAAKASHVILI on EVENTS IN TBILISI

The Azeri Times

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The two-day protest of young people in Tbilisi, who advocated the liberalisation of drugs policy, is caused by the much deeper destructive processes that have resulted from the informal rule of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said on Rustavi 2 TV.

‘Today in Georgia, there is catastrophic unemployment, especially among young people, a lot of other social problems that are not solved in the context of the informal rule of oligarch Ivanishvili,’ said Saakashvili.

Answering the question whether he sees his responsibility for the actual destruction of the real opposition, which contributed to the coming to power of billionaire Ivanishvili and his team, the ex-president said that the change of power occurred, including because of his personal mistakes.

He also said that the events in Armenia, where the youth was in the forefront of the struggle against the oligarchs, created a great mood of protest in Georgia, which will be continued.

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