As Georgia votes in presidential elections on Wednesday, Mikheil Saakashvili, the country’s former president and the honorary leader of its United National Movement opposition party, claimed he and his party have been the target of a pro-Putin dirty tricks campaign, replete with wrongful accusations of anti-Semitism.
Speaking to The Times of Israel from the Netherlands, where he lives in exile, Saakashvili characterized Wednesday’s elections as a choice between the pro-NATO, pro-Western line espoused by his party’s presidential candidate, Grigol Vashadze, and a pro-Putin stance he claims is endorsed by the governing Georgian Dream party, bankrolled by Bidzina Ivanishvili, reportedly Georgia’s richest man.
Saakashvili’s rivals, he said, are waging a Putinesque dirty tricks campaign against his party.
“Vladimir Putin believes that I am one of his worst enemies and he would do anything to get rid of me and the people related to us,” Saakashvili said.
“Ivanishvili [the former president and founder of the Georgian Dream party] is the biggest private shareholder of Russia’s Gazprom” — the Russian government-owned natural gas company. “That tells you everything.”
Wednesday’s vote pits Salome Zurabishvili, the Georgian Dream-backed candidate, against Grigol Vashadze, who has the support of the United National Movement founded by Saakashvili.
After an inconclusive first round on October 28, Salome Zurabishvili reportedly hired Israeli strategic adviser Moshe Klughaft to help her with her campaign for the runoff election.
Billboards then went up all over Tbilisi, showing images of Saakashvili and his associates accompanied by the words, “No to evil, no to Natsebi.” Natsebi is a pejorative term used for officials of the United National Movement likening them to Nazis.
In response, Saakashvili said in a November 18 interview on the pro-opposition Rustavi 2 TV that “they have paid more than 1.2 million to some Jewish swindler Moshe to come up with campaign billboards with dreadful faces that they have put up in Tbilisi.”
An organization called “No to Phobia” soon afterward issued a statement condemning the remark, suggesting that making stereotypical references to a Jewish person as a swindler is anti-Semitic. Several right-leaning Israeli and Jewish news outlets, including Israel Hayom, Arutz Sheva and Channel 20, published reports on November 27, claiming that Saakashvili had called Klughaft a “dirty Jew” among other canards. An adviser to Saakashvili contacted The Times of Israel on November 27, the day before the Georgian presidential election, to give his side of the story.
“Moshe Klughaft said I called him a dirty Jew,” Saakashvili said in the phone interview Tuesday. “It already shows what a liar he is. What I said is that an Israeli crook came [to Georgia] in support of a Georgian crook, and I do believe this guy is a crook. And, you know, you can have an American crook, Manafort, an Israeli crook, Moshe, and a Georgian crook, Ivanishvili.”
In Georgian, The Times of Israel was told, there is no distinction between the words for “Israeli” and “Jewish.”
Klughaft is a prominent Israeli political strategist known for advising the Orthodox-nationalist Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett, as well as the right-wing Im Tirtzu movement, most notably in a hardball 2010 campaign in which the then-leader of the Meretz opposition party Naomi Chazan was depicted with a horn on her forehead.
“Klughaft is known for dirty tricks, for black PR and for all kind of scandalous campaigns,” Saakashvili charged.
“That is exactly what he is doing. But unfortunately he has been using the Jewish theme. This guy parachutes into a country of which he knows nothing. He’s exploiting this Jewish theme on behalf of a local corrupt oligarch and that’s all this is.”
Saakashvili also dismissed a report on the Israeli news site Ynet — since removed from the site — that an Israeli business intelligence company called CGI had uncovered a plot to assassinate Ivanishvili, presumably by his political opponents.
“It was part of Moshe’s organized campaign against us, and it included this baloney about whatever. No one takes it seriously,” said Saakashvili.
In response to Saakashvili’s remarks, The Times of Israel received a statement from Klughaft’s office.
“Mr. Klughaft has no grievance with anti-Semites or liars and certainly not with anti-Semites who are liars,” the statement read.
“Mr. Klughaft manages successful, positive and effective campaigns and is in high demand all over the world by heads of state, Nobel Prize laureates, and political parties. He works with Jews, Muslims and Christians and organisations that fight racism and hatred all over the world and his successes speak for themselves.”
“When Mr. Saakashvili decides to apologize, Mr. Klughaft will consider helping him manage the crisis he has put himself in.”
“No history of anti-Semitism’
Saakashvili told The Times of Israel that Georgia does not have a history of anti-Semitism and that he believes making such accusations will not influence Georgian voters. In fact, he said, his party has a longstanding warm relationship with Jews and Israel, whereas, he predicted, the Georgian Dream Party, his party’s opponents, would take steps that benefit Iran.
“We [the United National Movement] are the people who have long-standing ties with Israel. I was also the governor of Odessa [in Ukraine] and I had extremely close ties to the Israeli community and the Jewish community locally. I was the guy who gave the best building in Odessa for the Jewish Museum. Two out of three my deputies were Jewish. In the Georgian government we had two ministers who were Jewish — the vice prime minister Iakobashvili and minister of defense Kezerashvili. Who else has such a record?”
Saakashvili added that the current government is not doing enough to check Iranian influence within Georgia.
“I think we have unlimited intrusion of all kinds of people from Iran into Georgia. It’s unchecked. I don’t exactly always know who these people are. What are the security repercussions connected to it?”
Saakashvili added that when he was president, he blocked initiatives that gave Russia strategic access to Iran and vice-versa.
“Ivanishvili wants to open railways from Russia through Georgia and through Armenia. But Russia wants that railway for strategic access to Iran. We blocked this railway because I thought it goes against Georgian interests. It was only in the Russian interest. Ivanishvili has made public statements that he will open this railway. He’s prepared to do it.”
A struggling democracy
Saakaashvili was president of Georgia from 2004 till 2013 after leading the bloodless 2003 pro-democracy and pro-Western Rose Revolution against the weak government of Eduard Shevardnaze, at a time when mafia groups wielded great power. Saakashvili’s government cracked down on organized crime, reduced red tape, and spurred economic growth.
But his government sometimes used methods that were less than democratic, his critics claim.
“In general, the Saakashvili administration concentrated on state-building rather than democratizing,” wrote King’s College professor Alexander Kupatadze in his 2012 book “Organized Crime, Political Transitions and State Formation in Post-Soviet Eurasia.”
“Some dangerous practices in the name of anti-crime and anti-corruption were apparent from the beginning, as police initially frequently made arrests while wearing military fatigues with their faces covered by masks. Saakashvili repeatedly encouraged the police to meet any resistance with force.”
Saakashvili’s government was also criticized for seizing the property of Georgian businesses in an extrajudicial manner and enriching government cronies at the expense of the previous elites.
In 2012, Saakashvili’s party lost control of the parliament. Bidzina Ivanishvili became the new prime minister. In 2013, Saakashvili lost the presidential elections to the Georgian Dream party’s Giorgi Margvelashvili.
Saakashvili lives in exile in the Netherlands to avoid what he describes as politically motivated trumped-up charges against him for allegedly trying to cover up a 2006 murder of a Georgian banker.
Grigol Vashadze, the United National Movement candidate, has said he will pardon Saakashvili if elected, and Saakashvili has reportedly said he would like to clear his name and return to Georgia.
An adviser to Saakashvili, Daniel Doneson, told The Times of Israel that Wednesday’s election is a fateful one and will determine whether the country throws in its lot with Russia or with the West.
“The presidential election of 2018 will determine whether Georgia remains a democracy on the path to taking its full and rightful place among the family of European Nations in a difficult region or backslides and finally succumbs to Russian influence, political style and domination. Georgia’s once-promising democracy has come to resemble, more and more, Russia’s power vertical under Vladimir Putin,” Doneson wrote in a press release.
Saakashvili described himself to The Times of Israel as “one of Putin’s worst enemies.”
“In a recent interview with an Austrian journalist, Putin spoke at length about me,” he said. “In his news press conference last year, he mentioned my name at least 10 times. The guy cannot stop talking about me. So obviously there is this geopolitical context to the election.”
Saakashvili also says Putin’s campaign against him found its way into the digital realm.
“There was a hacking campaign — the page of our main opposition channel was hacked and brought down. My e-mail was destroyed, That was done in a very Russian style. And I don’t think a local government has the resources to do this. Usually these kinds of organized attacks are state-sponsored.”
‘Georgia has become a very safe country’
Saakashvili described how during the early years of his presidency, when he cracked down on organized crime, many Georgian mafia bosses fled abroad.
“Georgian criminals moved all over the place, to the Ukraine, to Russia and to Spain. Every fourth organized criminal in Russia is Georgian. Yes, we pushed them out of Georgia. Georgia has become quite a safe country. It’s the safest country in Europe actually, statistically,” he claimed.
He indicated that some may have moved to Israel. “But many Georgian criminals — where do they go? They find local communities. And of course in Israel there is a big Georgian community. And for them it’s easy to operate there as well.”
Asked why a Georgian politician on the eve of elections would be interested in speaking to an Israeli news outlet, Saakashvili replied, “There is a longstanding relationship of amazing kinship between Georgians and Israelis. When I go to meet Georgian communities usually I meet with Georgian Jews. Why? Because for them being Georgian is part of their identity; other Georgians integrate much faster into America or Europe,” he said.
“Georgian Jews usually keep their language, traditions and cuisine, and they marry each other. So I when I go to see Georgian communities, in most of the cases this is Georgian Jewish community.”